Challenging the Empire: Theology of Justice in Palestine

Challenging the Empire:
Theology of Justice in Palestine
(My talk at the last Kairos Palestine conference, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Kairos Palestine document)

The theme for our session is theology and justice. How can theology contribute to justice in Palestine – and any part of the world. Before I begin, just a small remark. Though we are talking about theology, we must remember that is a political conflict. It is not a religious one. Sure it has religious dimensions, and sadly it is increasing. We must however keep reiterating that at its core, this is a political conflict.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that we Christians have contributed to this conflict from its beginnings, often negatively. More than often, we have made things worst.
Theology matters!

My talk today is mainly drawn from my experience as a Palestinian Christian in speaking about the theology of the land and peacemaking in Palestine, especially in my role as the director of the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences and movement.[1]

As I was thinking about this theme, theology and justice, I thought that a good way to tackle this issue is ask: how did our theology contribute to injustice? In other words, Before we talk about theology and justice; we must identify and deconstruct the theology of injustice.

Gustavo Gutiérrez  wrote: “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”[2]

“Christianity legitimizing the established order”. This I will call the “theology of the empire!” The language of “empires” is very common these days,[3] and I will try next to outline the theology of the empire as I witnessed and experienced it firsthand. Of course, the “empire” here is not a particular country. It is institutional and structural injustice; the mentality of power and dominance.

(1) The theology of the Empire is Prejudice
Theology and attitudes are related. Theology shapes attitudes and worldview, and the opposite is true as well. A theology that privileges a people group produces prejudice and even bigotry. And feelings of superiority produce a theology that reflects this. 

In theology of the empire, Palestinians are viewed as an irrelevant after-thought. In most Western theologies, our place – if there is even a place for us – is secondary to the interest of the empire.
And this has a long history. Let me explain. 

Let us consider the the infamous Zionist slogan: “A land without a people for a people without a land!”
I often wondered: did they know that the land had people? 

Years before the birth of Zionism, Lord Shaftesbury (who was president of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (now known as CMJ)) said: “A country without a nation for a nation without a country”. Again, did he know that the country had a nation? I am sure he did, but you see, we were irrelevant. There was something more important. Quoting him again: the Jews must be encouraged to return in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee ... [They are]  … not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianity’s hope of salvation”. These are of course the roots of Christian Zionism.[4]

Lord Belfour, the one who made the infamous declaration, echoes the same mentality: “For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism…is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires or prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land” (emphasis added). 

In this mentality, the Palestinian Arabs were a “complete irrelevance”. “For the Zionist, Palestine was ‘empty’; not literally, but in terms of people of equal worth to the incoming settlers” (Ben White).[5]

This, I believe reflects a typical colonial – dare I say even Christian – mentality. The land had people, but we are irrelevant to the desires and plans of the empire. And as we read history, we realize that the Christians of the empire carried this mentality and supported the coming of the Jewish people to Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. The land? It is “empty”. People can be moved. 

You might wonder: why am I bringing history? Didn’t things change. Well you hope. Many Christians around the world continue to talk the land as if it is empty. The Palestinians are missing in many if not most theology books that talk about the presence of the Jewish people in the land today, God’s covenant with the Jewish people, or Christians’ relationship to Jews or prophecy.

The same continues today! One example is sufficient at this stage. A Christianity Today article in 2012 debated: “Do Jews have a Divine right to Israel’s Land?” The debate was between two respected and influential evangelical leaders.[6]

This is 2012. 

Divine right. Israel’s Land. 

Can you imagine how I as Palestinian felt when seeing the title of this article. What about the people of the land? This is a typical case of two American theologians, sitting in the comfort of their offices, discussing our land – as if it was empty. 

(We pleaded in vain with the magazine to allow a Palestinian response!) [7]

(2) The theology of the Empire employs fear
The danger is when this attitude of marginalizing becomes dehumanizing even demonizing. Theology of the empire creates enemies and instills fear! 

Eric Hoffer, in his book, The True Believer said, “A movement can exist without a god, but never without a devil. For a movement to exist, there always has to be a devil that must be destroyed.”[8]

The Empire understands this concept and capitalizes on it. Today, it is so easy to portray the Arabs and Islam as the enemy that we all need to fight and unite against. The world is divided into “good” vs. “evil”. This is why it suits many people in the West to characterize the conflict in Palestine as a religious one; where the good becomes the Judeo-Christian tradition (us), and the evil is Islam (them; the Palestinians). This in return justifies actions by Israel as war on terror, even fighting the war of God! 

It is really ironic and sad: we say that we are saved by grace, but we carry ourselves in a way that says otherwise: we act as if we earned it! As if we are better than people of other faiths.

(3) The theology of the Empire expects, even demands, allegiance
I will talk here mainly about what has been called “Post-Holocaust Theology”. After the holocaust, Christians, and rightly so, reevaluated their relationship and even theology regarding the Jewish people. Dual-covenant theology developed as a response to centuries of persecution to the Jewish people in the West which tragically culminated in the Holocaust. 

Yet here is the thing: we now as Palestinian Christians must conform to this theology or else we are heretics. We must speak about the Jewish people in the same way European theologians speak, or else we are accused of being anti-Semites! This, again, reflects a mentality of superiority; a colonial mentality.
Let me give you an example: almost every time I speak on the land – a shared land theology; talking about the urgency of the matter for us Palestinian – I am almost always asked: do you believe in replacement theology?
Replacement theology? 

Why am I asked this? You see I am expected to arrange my thinking in a way to fit the paradigm of Western theology; a theology that came to solve a Western problem (anti-Semitism), with the purpose of dealing with the inner guilt – all on my expense. 

I almost do not answer this question anymore. Stop defining me. Stop labeling me. Just listen to what I say.
The reference point of many theologies today is the relationship to the Jewish people. Do we believe that Israel of today a fulfillment of prophecy? The eternal covenant with God? The land? Do we endorse two covenant theology? Do we reject replacement theology? 

We are somehow expected to fit within their paradigm and answer their questions in order to have the right to protest our 66 years of tragedy!

Palestinian theologian Fr. Paul Tarazi writes: 
“What puzzles us Middle Eastern Christians is that Western Christians, who say at least that they consider Western Christendom largely responsible for the Nazi holocaust and go on backing -- very often unconditionally -- the actual state of Israel, still want to convince us that they are not imposing any theology on us and that we are free to have our standpoint concerning biblical interpretation. How can they say so when they are repenting on our ground over a deed which happened on theirs -- all this based on a premise we reject? This is a rare combination of both theological and political imperialism”.[9]

(4) The theology of the Empire silences the prophetic
Today, there are strong attempts to silence Palestinian Christians. The most famous example is when in 2012, then Israeli ambassador to USA Michael Oren tried to cancel the airing of a 15 minutes segment that aired on CBS as part of the weekly show “60 minutes”. Yet this not an isolated case. It is the norm that when we are invited to talk or lecture abroad as Palestinians that there are objections to those who invited us. I once faced this, and when the organizers of the event tried to explain to me that I should expect strong objections to my present, I asked: “why? Do they even know me?!” The response was: “it is because you are a Palestinian”.

In addition, when we speak about our story, whether in conferences or in writing, we are attacked, bullied, even dehumanized.


Why are we being silenced?! 

I would like here to touch on a sensitive issue: Christian-Jewish dialogue. Those doing it are no doubt sincere and want to build bridges (I’ve done it). But more and more we are seeing that it is used to silence Christians who simply want to call for the rights of Palestinians, let alone criticize the occupation of Palestinian land.[10]
Can there be a credible Christian Jewish dialogue if the Palestinian issue is not addressed? This question has taken an extra dimension in the last few years with Israel insisting that the world recognizes it as a Jewish state. 

In addition, I fear that interreligious dialogue is used to divide. Jews and Christians against Islam. This is not the kind of interreligious dialogue we want. 

Interreligious dialogue must continue. But is must bold. It must a be a space where people of faith are willing and ready to be challenged. The old paradigms are simply no longer adequate.

(5) The theology of the Empire is Religious, yet paradoxically indifferent to suffering
I believe that, in theory, an apathetic Christian is a contradiction in term. Yet in reality, we Christians have become too religious, yet paradoxically indifferent to the suffering of many people worldwide.
Apathetic Christians are concerned mainly with individualistic piety. They come to Bethlehem to do a religious thing. And as they pass the checkpoint and refugee camps to go to the nativity church, I often wonder: Do they care about the occupation? The wall? Or are they mainly concerned with performing the religious duty?  

For me, this is a deficient understanding of spirituality. It is of course based on theology that can be described as a “vertical-only” theology. Private piety is elevated above social concern! Me and God (period). We watch them every day in Bethlehem. Again, we are an after-thought in their thinking. 

This why it is important to reiterate Kairos Palestine’s call to “Come and See”:
In order to understand our reality, we say to the Churches: Come and see. We will fulfill our role to make known to you the truth of our reality, receiving you as pilgrims coming to us to pray, carrying a message of peace, love and reconciliation. You will know the facts and the people of this land, Palestinians and Israelis alike. (KP 6.2)

Theology and Justice:
A new religiosity is needed. We need a paradigm shift in our theological thinking. We need new terminologies, new starting points, new reference points. We need a theology that is free from the categories of the empire. I have nothing to prove. My main concern is the suffering of my people, and how to make sense of it – not to fit within the paradigms of Western theologies.

We need today a theology that challenges the empire. 

(1) Land-rooted theology . This theology must be rooted in the experience and heritage of the Palestinian people. All theology is contextual, after all. No one writes theology in a vacuum. 

For us as Palestinian Christians, we carry and continue a long heritage as people of the land. This land, as Mitri Raheb reminded us, has witnessed one empire after another, and it was the meek – the people of the land – who inherited the land in the end! It in this tradition of challenging empires, a tradition that goes back to biblical days, that we continue today. 

This is the land of our fathers. The land of the oldest Christian presence and witness. Witness is a very important, foundational, for our theology. Witness to the crucified and risen Christ, and to the different kingdom he established here. We are also witnesses to our neighbors. 

Today: Can we form a theology that puts Christ at the checkpoint? Our theology starts with Christ at the checkpoint; Christ as the center of our faith, and checkpoint as the symbol of our reality. This is where our theology begins. Kairos began, and rightly so, with the context (KP 1). If we are to produce a theology that serves the Palestinian church, we must bring theology in conversation with our reality. Kairos’ affirmations, or words of faith, hope, and love, are all read and interpreted in this context:
We repeat and proclaim that our Christian word in the midst of all this, in the midst of our catastrophe, is a word of faith, hope and love. (KP 1.5)

(2) Christ as the Reference Point
The theology of justice has Jesus as its reference point. Jesus is the true test of orthodoxy! And he the true test of orthopraxy. Here is Bethlehem, Emmanuel – God with us – is the cornerstone on which we build.
Dare I say today that even Jesus must be liberated from the paradigms of the Empire! 

The Jesus of the empire wants to make the people of the empire richer and happier – at the expense of others! Jesus would not be silent over injustice. Jesus cannot teach apathy for the sake of being politically right. And no, his main concern is not individual happiness or fulfillment. 

Jesus was an occupied Jew who embodied the prophetic and humbly and gently challenged the empire and introduced a new kingdom that embodies and elevates the realities of justice over power, equality over superior conceptions, humility over pride, peace over violence, and love over bigotry.[11]

Jesus’ theology – his kingdom theology – is solidarity with marginalized! Who were his friends? Whom did he honor? Where did mostly preach (hint: not in Jerusalem)? 

We need a theology today that emphasizes and even begins with the great declaration that in Jesus there is no Jew or Gentile, free or slave, male or female (Gal. 3:26-29).

(3) Theology of Truth
Today, many confuse love with compromise! Peacemaking today compromises the truth.There are today those I call diplomatic Christians! Toothless Christians. Christians who do not want to offend anybody. (Is this even possible in our context?!) We have a deficiency in our understanding of peacemaking. Is it about being polite? I do not think so. Tapping both sides on the shoulder? This is a theology that seeks to remain in the comfort zone. We’d rather remain comfortable than get into places that force us to take difficult decisions. This is where truth is compromised

Peacemakers stand for the truth. As such, they sometimes take sides. Peacemakers must challenge the empire first. 

What is happening in Palestine today is not a conflict – it is oppression! Let us call things by their names.
Again, we must listen to Kairos Palestine. When addressing the issue of  occupying Palestinian land, there was no diplomacy:  
We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against  God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. (KP 2.5)

(4) An Alternative to the Empire  
Jesus challenged the empire. But he did so by offering an alternative way. His “kingdom” way. It sounds strange to counter the empire with a kingdom – but we all know what Jesus meant with the kingdom of God theme: a criticism of the empire and an alternative to it. Life on earth… differently!

Probably the best place where we find this is the sermon on the mountain, and in particular in the Beatitudes. (This sermon rescued my faith. It is a favorite!)

I suggest that we read the Beatitudes as Jesus’ way of challenging the empire: Consider for example the qualities Jesus introduces for the people of kingdom and how radically these qualities are different from those of the empire:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice), for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10 ESV)

The poor in spirit – not the proud.
Those who mourn – not those who live in prosperity
The meek – not the powerful; not empire builders
Those who hunger and thirst for justice – not for money, comfort, power, or fame
The merciful – not the oppressors
The pure in heart – not those who seek a “pure” society
The peacemakers – not the indifferent
Those persecuted for justice’s sake – not the ones who stay in their comfort zone and do not speak out

Jesus’ way, his kingdom way, is radically different than that of the empire. It is not enough to criticize the empire. The best way to challenge the empire is to offer an alternative.

(5) A Theology of Mourning and Hope
The situation in Palestine today looks hopeless. Things went backward five years after Kairos Palestine was launched. Is there hope? Paul’s words, the conference theme, come to mind here:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 ESV)

Today we mourn the situation. We mourn the failure of the political leaders. We mourn the silence of the church. We mourn the theology of the empire. 

We mourn… but in hope

Here, in the land of the resurrection, the land that gave the world the gift of hope, we must continue to hope.
Is our Christian hope naïve? Wishful thinking? 

Jesus is Risen! 

Is this escapism? Quite the opposite. Our hope is our call to action. Hope is active by nature. Today, faced with the challenges we face, we must produce a theology of hope that is active and not satisfied with the current reality. It is because we have hope  that we work tirelessly to change our reality.
Our Christian hope is our call to action …

[2] Gustavo Gutiérrez: Theology of Liberation.
[3] See Mitri Raheb: Faith in the Face of the Empire. I have been influenced by Rev. Mitri, with whom I am privileged to serve in the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. See also Challenging the Empire, and Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis: The Future of the Prophetic.
[5] Ben White: Israel Apartheid.
[6] Christianity Today: June 20, 2012. Do Jews Have A Divine Right to Israel’s Land? By David Brickner and John Piper.
[7] Christianity Today is representative of the evangelical movement in USA. Yet of course there are some evangelical leaders who speak for the rights of Palestinian and challenge the theology of Christian Zionism which is very common evangelicals. See for example Gary Burge: Jesus and the Land, and Whose Land? Whose Promise?
[8] Eric Hoffer: The True Believer
[9] "Covenant, land and city: finding God's will in Palestine," The Reformed Journal 29 (1979) 10-16
[10] See Marc Ellis: Unholy Alliance.
[11] See my presentation: Who in my Neighbor? At the third Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2014.


A-K Roth said…
Eric Hoffer: “The Jews are a peculiar people: Things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews.

Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people, and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it. Poland and Czechoslovakia did it. Turkey threw out a million Greeks and Algeria a million Frenchmen. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese--and no one says a word about refugees.

But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis. Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace.

Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.”

Dear Mr. Munther Isaac,

You are so clearly feeling the hopelessness of this eternal situation. I sympathize with your pain at the direction history has taken during the last centuries, when jews (and arabs as well) moved into the region in great numbers. And yet, what does it serve to politicize christianity, to engage in hurtful (to jews) wordage as in The Kairos Palestine document, criticizm of which you must surely have seen?

Let us hope that the Christian palestinian leadership stops heaping blame and guilt only on all others but palestinian actions. I was particularly offended by the KP-document's way of honoring all those who had lost their lives in the "resistance", or similar wording, when we know full well the bloody methods used and also the embarrasing form of liberation and replacement theology that was present. It was enough for me to discard the entire document.

But I sympathize with your pain. Let us hope that all together can work to reform that which needs to be reformed on both sides, not the least the need to disarm the terror groups. The way even Fatah har incited to racial hatred and celebrated evil and bloody deeds and honored evildoers in the last few months should not be ignored!

Anonymous said…
Tell the truth Kairos Palestine!