New book recounts living faith of Palestinian Christians

28 June 2013

While many Palestinians proudly point out that they are the oldest Christian community in the world, the history of Western Christian influences in the “Holy Land” is more suspect. Historically the Crusaders brought chaos and bloodshed, and missionary activity provided a bridgehead for European colonialism in nineteenth-century Palestine, as in many other parts of the world.

More recently, Christian Zionists from evangelical sects have been some of the staunchest supporters of the State of Israel — to the point where the largest Zionist organization in the US is not Jewish, but Christian (“Christian Zionism: An Overdue Reality Check,” The Daily Beast, 12 July 2012).

Although the existence of Palestine’s Christian communities is often highlighted, as is the prominent role of Palestinians from Christian backgrounds such as George Habash, Wadi’ Haddad and Kamal Nasser in the armed resistance, outside of specialist groups there is little discussion of modern Palestinian Christian thought.

Samuel Kuruvilla’s Radical Christianity in Palestine and Israel seeks to correct that absence. It does so by analyzing the theologies developed by two major figures in current Palestinian Christian thinking: Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel center in Jerusalem, and Mitri Raheb, founder of Diyar, a group of social enterprises which includes the Dar Annadwa center in Bethlehem and several schools and social care organizations.

After a whistle-stop tour of Christian history in the region and of the origins of liberation theology (a form of Christianity which incorporates radical ideas of social justice and anti-colonialism), the book explores modern theology in Palestine.

Theology

This includes grappling with issues such as how to square opposition to the State of Israel with a belief in the Old Testament stories of the Jewish people, and Arab efforts to distance themselves from Western Christianity’s heritage of anti-Semitism (108). Kuruvilla also charts aspects of the relationship between Levantine Christians and the secularist Arab nationalist movement, and with the Muslim majority.

Looking at the personal and professional careers of Naim Ateek and Mitri Raheb, Kuruvilla then recounts the history of developments in Palestinian Christianity in recent decades. These are both practical changes — of political alliances, debates and organizations — and shifting ideas.

To take just one example, the book analyzes discussions of the meaning of “Israel” in the Old Testament. For American theologian Paul Van Buren, the crimes of the Holocaust meant that Western Christians should “combat all lies [sic] against the State of Israel” (131). For Naim Ateek, however, this reading of the Bible saw the Christian God as a “tribal God of Old Testament Israel and not the New Testament God of love, grace and mercy” (130).

Such disputes over the implications of different readings of the Bible form the core of the book. These illustrate how Palestinian theologians have used the tools of interpretation and exegesis to bring new meaning to the scriptures, as Christian thinkers have done since the time of the Apostle Paul.

Alongside Ateek’s liberation theology, this also includes Mitri’s “contextual theology,” which has led him to a faith practice rooted in Diyar’s building of “the physical, material, technological and spiritual infrastructure to help … rebuild their nation” (194).

Kuruvilla’s own Indian background provides an interesting angle on his subject. He says from the start that his choice of topic was influenced by hostility he encountered when studying in the UK, from people who assumed that, rather than a Christian, he was Muslim (XI). He also notes that his life experiences gives him first-hand knowledge of the troubled relationship between Christian minority communities in non-Western countries and Western Christians who take a potentially self-serving interest in their fates.

Church hierarchies

However, perhaps Kuruvilla’s religious closeness to the topic at times makes him uncritical of church hierarchies. Despite his academic background in political, not religious, studies, he makes almost no mention of how fundamentally political liberation theology was, and how intimately it was associated with, for example, the Nicaraguan revolution. His description of the beginnings of liberation theology sticks to the “theology,” rarely mentioning the “liberation” of its revolutionary ideas.

This also means that we aren’t told how energetically church leaders opposed this “Marxism” within their ranks, condoning human rights abuses in Latin America and often siding with right-wing, US-supported dictatorships.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, there are a few basic issues with this book, ones common to many academic texts. An adaptation of Kuruvilla’s PhD, the text is chopped into short subheadings designed for academic marking rather than smooth reading — although given the complexity of the theological explorations and bewildering range of Christian denominations, this does sometimes help to make the book clearer.

Like many academic titles, it also appears not to have been comprehensively edited. Sometimes this just leads to oddities of style, but occasionally it results in howlers such as the statement that: “the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius … represented the Church when [Jerusalem] capitulated to the Abbasid Caliph ‘Omar in … 637[CE]” (9). This sentence is broadly correct, except that the Abbasids were an Islamic dynasty which came to power in 750, more than a century after the death of Omar, who was one of the four immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad.

It’s also important to remember that the theological analysis of this book only reflects one aspect of today’s Palestinian Christian society. Despite a seven-page glossary of the specialist terms used in the book, there is no mention of Palestinian Christian political activity. One such absent example is the 2009 Kairos Declaration, a statement by church leaders — including Ateek and Mitri — which presented a united Christian front against the occupation.

And, as with communities the world over, there is a difference between individuals calling themselves “Christian” or “Muslim” as an identity, and the extent to which they actually engage with doctrinal detail.

Nevertheless, Kuruvilla’s book is a significant addition to scholarship on Palestinian Christianity. More importantly, it also demonstrates that this religion is not a historical remnant. It is a living faith with the ability to develop and respond to the political context, and to assert a role and identity for Palestinian Christians without the spurious help and colonialist interference of Western evangelicals.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.