A Palestinian Theology of Liberation

The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict

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Naim Stifan Ateek
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     2017.
     192 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982604.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The enduring suffering of Palestinians, which has lasted for decades, is becoming more visible every day, and it has given rise to a Palestinian theology of liberation. With the present book, Naim Stifan Ateek, who wrote the first book on the subject in 1989, has made another significant contribution. His descriptions of the situation need to be read slowly and with care. Beginning with his own experience of expulsion from his home town of Beisan in 1948, Ateek tells stories of a deep-seated lack of respect and consideration for Palestinians, manifest in occupation (up from the original 55 percent of Palestine that the United Nations guaranteed Israel in 1947, Israel now occupies over 78 percent of the land [22]), economic deprivation (in 2014 there were over five million Palestinian refugees [26]), and sustained efforts to erase Palestinian identity by confiscating books, controlling language and symbols, and manipulating education and history (27). These traumatic experiences of violence, domination, and humiliation deeply affect the humanity, identity, and faith of Palestinians.

While Ateek challenges actions of the State of Israel and the right-wing Zionist mindset that has increasingly come to shape it (the War of 1967 being the watershed moment), he reminds us also of the responsibility of Britain (which implemented the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that promised Jews a homeland in Palestine), the United Nations, the United States, and Christian Zionism—popular among many Western Christians. In many ways, international influences have aggravated the situation, exemplified by the facts that since 2001 Jewish and Christian Zionists have been working together more closely than ever, and that the United States has aligned itself ever more closely with Israel.

Ateek’s theological critique demonstrates what happens when religion not only sides with the dominant powers but becomes oppressive. While, according to his analysis, early on it was the international embarrassment of the Holocaust that fueled the Zionist agenda, increasingly this agenda has been justified by references to God and to the Bible (36). God thus becomes the God of the dominant group, and the sacred scriptures are used to defend the domination of one group over another.

This book is a contribution to the genre of liberation theology because it clearly distinguishes between charity and justice, with an effort to confront injustice and to address the structures of oppressive power, and because it is linked with liberation and resistance movements and their engagements of Bible and faith, beginning with the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 1987. In this context, Ateek reclaims Jesus’s humanity as a Palestinian who struggled for liberation in his time, presenting significant insights into the life of Jesus and its implications for today. Yet the reader wonders whether a reminder that Jesus’s humanity cannot be separated from his divinity might have strengthened the argument even further. What if Jesus’s life were not just a moral imperative, but God and humanity at work together in a way that continues to be active in an ongoing presence? 

The Palestinian struggle demands an account of the Bible, particularly the texts that are shared by Jews and Christians, variously called the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. These writings contain “texts of terror” that sanction ethnic cleansing, revenge, and war, texts which have become questionable, even to some of the later texts in the Hebrew Bible itself. Jesus, argues Ateek, was selective in his own use of these texts and never quoted from the “texts of terror.” For good reason, Ateek is concerned about what he calls “tribal” and “exclusive” understandings of certain texts (51). Instead, he seeks to follow Jesus by combining traditions of love of God and love of neighbor (86, 147). 

In the ensuing nonviolent struggle for justice, Ateek promotes more inclusive, universal, egalitarian, and tolerant views, with respect for international law and democracy, education, and a view of religion as private (90, 102, 110, 111). Those are time-honored traditions, many of them rooted in the theological heritage of Western modernity. However, since the trap of supersessionism always looms over us to some extent in relations between Judaism and Christianity, it would need to be made clearer what is superseded: not archaic religious traditions by modern ones, or Judaism by Christianity, but oppressive religious traditions by liberative ones. Ateek’s text could be misunderstood along the lines of the former, although he makes important contributions to the latter. 

The contrasts of inclusion and exclusion, and of universal and particular, are important components of the conversation in Israel and Palestine, where exclusion is deep seated and universal appreciation for all (as well as the principle of equality) is lacking. In places where the theological heritage of modernity has unfolded in colonial and neocolonial contexts, however, such as Europe and the United States, things can look different. Here, universal perspectives have often been used in order to assimilate minorities and erase difference, inclusion has often functioned in terms of the dominant system, and principles of equality have led to blaming those who were not able to make it in the winner-take-all world of neoliberal capitalism. 

As a result, I would argue that some of the traditional views of a God who takes the side of the oppressed should not be abandoned too quickly for assertions of inclusivity, universality, and equality. Liberation theology’s classical emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and the oppressed, for instance, which does not play a prominent role in Ateek’s work, reminds us that there are limits to inclusion: those who exploit the poor and oppress people, for instance, exclude themselves, are “pushed from their thrones,” and “sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Justice, in this context, is not just a matter of upholding international law or fairness and balance, but a matter of taking a stand. That is, of course, what Ateek does in his own ways, and for that I am grateful. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joerg Rieger is Distinguisher Professor of Theology and Cal Turner Chancellor's Chair in Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Naim Stifan Ateek, an Anglican priest, is a Palestinian Arab and a citizen of Israel. A former canon of St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, he is founder of Sabeel, an ecumenical center in Jerusalem that uses a theological approach to work for liberation for Palestinians. He is the author of Justice and Only Justice and A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation.

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