The Cross in Contexts

Suffering and Redemption in Palestine

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Mitri Raheb, Suzanne Watts Henderson
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     2017.
     160 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982291.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the title The Cross in Contexts: Suffering and Redemption in Palestine, the plural is appropriately telling regarding the book’s contents. The authorship of the chapters in this book alternate between Mitri Raheb, a pastor at a church in Bethlehem, Palestine, and Suzanne Watts Henderson, a New Testament scholar who teaches at Queens University of Charlotte (North Carolina). Whereas Henderson’s chapters foreground the ancient contexts of Jesus’s crucifixion, Raheb primarily explores Palestinian insights regarding the power of the cross as a symbol today. As such, this book is “a conversation that crosses boundaries of time and space and culture to bring into clearer view many ways in which Jesus’s death continues to liberate us” (144).

In chapter 1, Raheb describes a seemingly timeless sociopolitical condition of the Palestinian region: on the margins of imperial power, often abused as a buffer and a proxy. He juxtaposes this discussion with the story of an art contest over which he presided in 2003, calling for paintings of Christ from a Palestinian perspective—one or two of which would then be placed in a Swedish exhibition titled “The Christ of the World.” Sixty percent of the artists who participated in the contest were Muslim, and all but one of these depicted Christ being crucified, a particularly striking result because “in the teachings of Islam, Christ was not crucified” (20). Raheb reflects, “The only meaning and comfort they could find was to see the righteous hanging on the cross, powerless as they are. But they could see the power of that powerless Christ” (20).

In chapter 2, Henderson discusses the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus in their Roman imperial context. She interprets Jesus’s life and death as exemplifying “vulnerable solidarity with human weakness” (37). For Henderson, this insight compels those who benefit from imperial exploitation to “cross social and political boundaries to stand in proximity to—and vulnerable solidarity with—people who find themselves ‘on the cross’ today” (41).

Raheb reflects, in chapter 3, on the interrelation of state and religious violence—both being forms of terrorism—and notes how state violence is often a driving force motivating religious violence. Although his primary focus is on recent history and the contemporary situation in the Middle East, Raheb also sees this dynamic at play in the New Testament, for example, with charges of blasphemy precipitating Jesus’s crucifixion. He closes by discussing the 2014 document “From the Nile to the Euphrates: The Call of Faith and Citizenship,” authored by individuals “from a variety of faith traditions, including Coptic, Maronite, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and even Muslim intellectuals” (50), all from “Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, [or] Iraq” (49).

In chapter 4, Henderson situates Jesus within his Jewish contexts, aligning him with biblical Hebrew prophets as one condemning “those in his own tradition who, he thought, failed to abide by the covenant” (64, emphasis original). She uses this consideration to explain the role of Jewish leaders in contributing to the sacred violence of Jesus’s crucifixion—their participation amounting to a demonstration of “their support for the ‘peace and security’ Rome was trying to maintain” (65).

In chapter 5, Raheb explores the use of biblical language and imagery—especially that related to the crucifixion of Jesus—in the poetry of the Muslim Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). Raheb stratifies Darwish’s poetic career into four stages, wherein he uses “the cross [as] a symbol of martyrdom and dying from Palestine” as a young man and “understanding martyria as a call to live for his cause” as he approached old age (91).

Henderson, in chapter 6, foregrounds how Jesus’s death calls people to a “willing self-sacrifice that locates our personal power not in self-concern but in God’s wider landscape of redemption” (94–95). She explains that “to deny oneself is to serve willingly as an agent of redemptive power ... in the world” (111). In support of this thesis, Henderson offers a cursory review of biblical and extrabiblical literature (from the exilic period to the Roman era) that attests to the value of suffering (qua sacrifice on behalf of others) as an outgrowth of one’s commitment to God’s “unimperial empire.”

In chapter 7, Raheb reflects on questions, asked by countless generations of Palestinians, that articulate a sense of abandonment by God—evident in such historical situations as the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and the current occupation of Palestine by the Israeli military. Amid these questions, Raheb observes God’s solidarity with these oppressed groups and accordingly interprets “defeat in the face of empire” as “not an ultimate defeat” (116), rendering suffering, in Henderson’s words from chapter 6, “a penultimate circumstance, not an ultimate one” (100).

Finally, in chapter 8, Henderson explores an early Christian understanding of the impact of Christ’s death in the cosmic realm. After outlining ancient Israelite and early Jewish expectations regarding the apocalyptic “Day of the Lord,” she explains that the New Testament gospels represent a revision of this perspective. Namely, although early Christians regarded Christ’s death on the cross as a guarantee of victory over the forces of evil in the cosmic realm, the full enactment of that victory is delayed until the parousia. In the meantime, Christians can expect “wars and rumors of wars,” among other signs of cosmic imperfection and injustice.

Although the change in topics from chapter to chapter can sometimes feel disorienting, the theme tying these chapters together is quite compelling. As Henderson notes, “Jesus [a Palestinian] died as a victim of state-sanctioned violence used to subjugate an occupied people, in order to maintain the peace and security of the empire” (3, emphasis original). Few people groups are subject to state-sanctioned violence and foreign occupation to the degree that Palestinians are today. Accordingly, The Cross in Contexts will be a helpful resource for (especially) Christian readers who are open to learning about the meaning of the cross from those occupying a social location similar to that of Jesus himself—and also for those who want to better understand Jesus’s social location.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Christian Studies at Hunan University.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mitri Raheb is the President of Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem as well as the president of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He serves as the Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine. In 2015 he was awarded the Olof Palme Prize, along with Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. Rev. Raheb is the author of Faith in the Face of Empire (Orbis, 2014).

Suzanne Watts Henderson is associate professor of Religion at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She is the author of Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge UP, 2008), and Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus (Abingdon, 2015).

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