Sunday, August 7, 2011

Naim Ateek: Who commands our allegiance, God or Caesar?

Recycling last winter's piles of magazines I came across Sabeel's Cornerstone newsletter and realized that I had not shared with you Naim Ateek's editorial, "Who Commands our Allegiance, God or Caesar?" Here it is for you now. Find the entire publication at this Friends of Sabeel - North America link: Cornerstone

Who commands our allegiance, God or Caesar?
The Rev. Naim Ateek  

The Middle East has seen the presence of many empires. Once the art of war began to be refined, the movement towards empire was inevitable. Empires are built on military power. They are created and maintained by the power of arms until the empire grows weak and decadent and is replaced by another empire, more superior in military power.  

There is no benevolent empire. When it is threatened or opposed, empire crushes its opponents with vicious force. Some of its citizens might be economically prosperous, but its victims suffer terribly. In essence such is the nature of ancient as well as modern empires.  

Israel is a small country that was created by the victorious western powers of WWII after the disastrous tragedy that befell their European Jewish compatriots under the Nazis. Its greatest champion and sponsor at the time was the British Empire that forty years before gave a promise to the Jewish Zionist leadership to help them set up a home for Jews in Palestine. This promise was fulfilled in 1948 at a catastrophic loss for the Palestinians.  

As the British Empire waned, the Zionist state cleverly and shrewdly connected itself with the rising American Empire and gradually was able to occupy strategic positions within all of its governing branches – the Congress, Pentagon, State Department, and the White House. Furthermore, the state was able to create links with church groups, such as evangelicals and more particularly Christian Zionists, that, due to their interpretation of the Bible, have become staunch supporters of the state of Israel.  

Over the years, the state of Israel has become an integral part of American Empire. In fact, there seems to be an unbreakable bond on the economic, military, and political levels. “As of 2005, direct United States’ economic and military assistance to Israel amounted to nearly $154 billion (in 2005 dollars), the bulk of it comprising direct grants rather than loans.”1 Politically, the United States has consistently protected Israel in the UN Security Council. 

Between 1972 and 2006 the United States vetoed forty-two resolutions that were critical of Israel.2  Due to American military help, Israel has become one of the strongest military countries in the world today, and definitely the strongest in the Middle East. Moreover, Israel has itself been manufacturing and exporting arms to various countries of the world; consistently it is rated one of the top five countries in the world in regards to arms exports.  

Due to this special relationship between the United States and Israel, it has become impossible for the United States to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process. At a time when it is in the interest of the United States to find a just solution to the conflict over Palestine, this favoritism of Israel has been one of the great hindrances to that peace. Israel has become indistinguishable and inseparable from American Empire regardless of whether the President is Republican or Democrat.   

It is interesting to point out that when I was researching speakers for Sabeel’s 8th International Conference, ChallengingEmpire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance, I discovered that most of the scholars who have published on empire are American. For over twenty years, one biblical scholar after another has written on various biblical themes relating to empire. It is an amazing group of first rate scholars who recognize the hegemony of an American Empire today and are seeking to address it.  

As Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation, we have come to realize that Israel in its laws, policies, actions, and treatment of Palestinians, conducts itself like an empire because of its link with American Empire. In fact, its special relationship with the United States allows it to do what it deems necessary for its own interest with little regard to international law because it knows it can get away with it. To a large extent, Israel guides and dictates American foreign policy in the Middle East. It is important to point out that although President Obama has tried repeatedly to make the Government of Israel stop settlement building, he has not been successful. At the same time, the United States’ Administration is unwilling to support a UN Security Council resolution that censures the Israeli Government for repeated violations of international law. On the one hand, the United States admits that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and violate international law; on the other hand, the United States is unwilling to condemn them in the UN Security Council. What contradiction and what hypocrisy! Is the United States so weak that it cannot take a stand for what it knows is just and right?  


Jesus lived all his life under the occupation of the Roman Empire and was killed by the occupation forces. From the beginning of his ministry, he preached about a different empire -- the kingdom of God. Jesus recognized that the empires of the world are built on the ideology of military and economic power. Such an ideology fills leaders with hubris, arrogance, and brutality. Empire might preach peace and prosperity but in reality it suppresses and enslaves its enemies. Empire’s power is shown through domination and exploitation while God’s power is shown through love and mercy, justice and peace.  

Like in the time of Jesus, we stand before the presence of two empires – God’s and Caesar’s. The first is built on the power of justice while the second is built on the justice of power. The first preaches peace through justice while the second imposes “peace” through the power of the gun. We know that we live under an empire that dominates, exploits, and oppresses. Can we, though living under this empire, remain faithful to God and continue to challenge and resist the lure and snares of empire – not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters in the world that are crying out for justice, peace, and freedom? May we all keep high before us the vision of God’s Kingdom and continue to work and pray for its realization.

The Rev. Naim Ateek is the Director of Sabeel

1 Mearsheimer, John J. and Walt,
Stephen (2007). The Israel Lobby and
U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux. p. 24.
2 Ibid. p. 40.

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