Book Review: A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation February 18, 2015 19:00
By Naim Stifan Ateek, Orbis Books, 2008 paperback, 224 pp.
Reviewed by Sister Elaine Kelley
Rev. Naim Ateek is often called the “Desmond Tutu of Palestine” for his leading role in promoting Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Rejecting the misuse of scriptures by Jewish and Christian Zionists, he has written a new book offering theological insights to biblical texts that help Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. These original Christians find relevance and meaning in a biblical God who is sympathetic to their cause for justice, and in Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered and died under Roman occupation.
The book may be even more important for Christians in the West, however, who, having little knowledge of their own scriptures’ central message against the domination and violence of empires or of Jesus and his radical, subversive teaching, repeat the mistakes of history in their allegiances to power. A Palestinian Christian Call for Reconciliationpresents a very human Jesus who will appeal even to non-religionists (if they are peaceful ones), while also honoring the Jesus Christ of the Christian faith. Ateek also reaches back to Old Testament figures to debunk problematic Christian and Jewish theologies and uncovers ancient biblical teachings relevant to today’s Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Ateek’s book belongs to the genre called liberation theology, conceived in early Latin American colonial days by missionaries who questioned the treatment of indigenous peoples by their European conquerors. Major changes in the Catholic church during Vatican II spurred a renewal in the church’s mission to the poor and its reflection on how the Gospel addresses issues of justice and peace. Supported by research discovering a whole new historical/political dimension to the Bible, liberation theology flowered in the 1960s and ’70s among church workers and the poor peasants and urban slum dwellers they served. By shedding new light on Jesus’ teachings with new knowledge of the history and culture of the New Testament, liberation theology made faith relevant to real life, helped the faithful to better understand their own suffering, inspired them to work for change, and pointed to a greater truth with definite political implications.
Ateek applies his knowledge of history and culture to stories and parables so ostensibly simple they can be told to children. His chapter on the Book of Jonah, for example, demonstrates how literalism and the lack of historical knowledge robs great literature of its power and meaning. Jonah is known as the Old Testament’s shortest book, a simple story about a man who disobeys God, is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a whale, learns an important lesson about obedience and forgiveness—and that’s it. Or is it? Religious Jews hear the story of Jonah every year on Yom Kippur, their Day of Atonement. “Do Jews today understand the revolutionary nature of the story,” Ateek asks, “or its implications for modern-day Israel and its relationship with Palestinians?” He goes on to explain how the writer of the Book of Jonah became “the first Palestinian liberation theologian, someone who has written the greatest book in the Old Testament.”
An Anglican priest from Beisan in the Galilee, Ateek attended seminary in Berkeley during the 1960s, where he had ample opportunity to learn about the new liberation theology movement, which had spread to North America from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and other very religious Third World countries. Ateek took this new theology back with him to Palestine and cultivated it in the Palestinian Christian community through church discussion groups, just as it had been developed in the Americas. He established the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, thereby accomplishing what the institutional churches have failed to do—taking the Gospel beyond scholarship to discipleship and witness, into the pews and streets, to checkpoints, demolished houses, refugee camps, barrier walls and political prisons.
This is what Jesus did, inspiring a nonviolent resistance movement to build the kingdom of God on earth. That “original flame” of the first two centuries, says Ateek, was lost when Christianity became part of the Roman Empire. But the flame has been lit again, and may it set the world on fire.
Sister Elaine Kelley is administrative officer for Friends of Sabeel”“North America.