A Palestinian Christian Speaks
by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
Naim Ateek is the founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem and the author of Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. He spoke at the Festival Center in DC on Oct. 3 at the invitation of the Friends of Sabeel—North America and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. He noted that his organization will have their 7th international conference next month in Nazareth (4 days) and Jerusalem (4 days) with a focus on the Nakba (the Zionist conquest of Palestine), and the Israeli destruction of over 500 villages after the war.
Sabeel started as a liberation theology center inspired by the life and mission of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him). Rev Ateek noted that Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God;” he said peacemakers, not peacekeepers or peacetalkers.
Rev. Ateek argued that it is dangerous to solve the problem on a Biblical basis because there are too many contending interpretations of Biblical text. The solution must be based on International Law, but our faith helps us because there is no contradiction. He said that sometimes he sees more faith in secular activists than in people of faith because of their commitment to justice. But, he said, theology inspires us and drives us to action. It fills us with passion for justice and peace.
If you believe in God you must always be hopeful. His theology is to use religion in service of justice and peace, not to the continuation and perpetration of injustice. He gave four simple tests for Jews, Muslims or Christians—or even secular people: Does our theology meet the test of the love of God? If your theology begins with the claim that God loves a chosen people, you fail. Does it meet the test of love of neighbor even our enemy? Does it demonstrate the Golden rule? Does it meet the test of justice with mercy? Absolute justice for the Palestinians means no more Israel; justice with mercy means we want Israel to live in peace—but it must end the occupation. Does the theology of the Jewish and Christian Zionists meet this test?
An audience member pointed out that in a book he wrote with Michael Pryor, Ateek called Latin American Liberation Theology naive, despite the similarities between the Israeli settler movement and “Manifest Destiny.” Rev. Ateek said the basics of Palestinian Liberation Theology are contextual: checkpoints, confiscation of land, etc. Sabeel is a grass-roots ecumenical organization. He argued that three areas must be addressed to be sure we are faithful to God: the political context, the interfaith problem (including the fragmentation of the Christian community, without compromising the mosaic of the community), and the abuse of the Bible. Sabeel produced an over-300-page book challenging Christian Zionism, which according to Rev. Ateek, is not only a theological menace, but a heresy.
“Our Biblical theology digs deeply into the Bible and rejects any notion of a God of war.” Rather, he said, like Micah (“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”—Micah 6:6-8) and Amos (“But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”—Amos 5:24), ours is the God of Justice.
He argued that one must not stop with justice, but must make peace and reconciliation. One democratic state with equal rights for all is the best solution, but to be realistic he urged looking to International Law and the UN resolutions. He alluded to Psalm 87: “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” He called it revolutionary in its depth, for it sees Jerusalem as a city of God to which everyone comes, even the enemies whom God welcomes including the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Philistines.
Ateek expressed some disappointment with Palestinian-Americans. I pointed out to him that we at the Minaret of Freedom Institute have struggled to get Palestinian Americans (both Muslim and Christian) to get the plight of Palestinian Christians on the agenda, but that the mainstream media has tried to blame the shrinking Christian population of Palestine (from 24% under Muslim rule to 2% today) not on the occupation but on an alleged persecution by Palestinian Muslims. Ateek said the allegations that Muslim persecution rather than the occupation was responsible for the drop in the Christian population refuted in a survey of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Israel available on their website.