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Question: Does the paradigm of liberation theology help us

look at the Arab-Israeli conflict theologically? Who says so?

Answers to our current Viewpoints question can influence Jewish-Christian dialogue, in particular. They are also intended to say something to the dialogue of both Jews and Christians with Muslims.

Positive responses

A Christian speaking

"The Christmas story is a story of a liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation.  God’s message through the angels is a message of defiance.  In spite of the presence of empire, human arrogance, and oppression, God is announcing peace and goodwill.  This is God’s agenda.  Glory belongs to God and not to the emperor nor to the powers.  Once that is genuinely acknowledged, peace is not far away."

-- Naim Ateek, Christmas 2004, "The Defiant Spirit of Christmas," Sabeel Christmas message

"I have a responsibility to my Arab brothers and sisters, my Palestinian brothers and sisters, my Christian community and my Israeli connections. . . . . [H]ow can I, as a Christian Palestinian Israeli citizen, do theology in my own context? I immediately ran into the whole difficulty of how one interprets the Bible. The Bible has been abused by people who have wanted to support exclusivist Zionist claims to the land. What was needed was a theology of liberation, a theology of the land, that can help my people maintain and strengthen their faith in God. To help them be empowered to work for justice and peace by following Jesus in his nonviolent path. To have the courage to stand up and say that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end, that there has to be a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. . . . .

"It is clear to me that we need an alternative to the violence, that we cannot allow the armed struggle to be the only way to resist the occupation. . . . [W]e’ve been doing some reflection on the life of Jesus and nonviolence with our community. . . . . The feeling is that a paradigm shift must take place. What can be done so that this paradigm of violence can be broken? If we can somehow push or effect a shift, the movement can contribute to the ending of the Israeli domination of the Palestinians. The mentality has to change so that the word "domination" becomes passé. The new word must be 'partnership.'"

-- Brian Grieves interview with Naim Ateek, September 2001, "A journey of justice, a journey of faith" in The Witness

A Jew speaking

"Both Israelis and Palestinians must make . . . sacrifices, by renouncing part of their rightful claims to all the land. And what of Yerushalayim / Al-Quds, the city of Jerusalem? Clearly, the Holy City must be shared. . . . Whatever political compromise is negotiated, Yerushalayim / Al-Quds has to be a heterogeneous community witnessing to a pluralistic monotheism -- the greatest challenge to any devout believer of any faith, but the only healing path for Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

"However tempting it may be to paint a picture of villain-and-victim that fits some model of liberation from oppression, historical and biblical honesty compels us to search more deeply for a way toward justice and reconciliation in the Holy Land. A more appropriate biblical paradigm for the Israeli-Palestinian situation is found in Genesis, in the motif of two brothers fighting over the birthright and the blessing. (Arthur Waskow has developed this theme in his book Godwrestling.) One may gain the upper hand at one moment, but both are weak and sinful and neither can be readily labeled the oppressor. The sibling-struggle motif runs throughout Genesis, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers, from the second to the 23rd generation of humanity. Only when Jacob, on his deathbed, is called upon to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh in the 24th generation is this rivalry stopped: he gives the two boys a joint blessing. He asks God to "bless the lads; and in them let my name be recalled, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (48:16). Jacob does this while crossing his arms, symbolizing an equal portion of the blessing to the first- and second-born."

-- Yehezkel Landau, December 20, 1989, "Blessing Both Jew and Palestinian: A Religious Zionist View" in Christian Century [Landau currently teaches at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Ct.]

A negative response

A Jew speaking

" Presbyterians are familiar with liberation theology, an approach that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, focusing on Jesus as liberator of the poor and oppressed.  As political theory, it is often characterized by opponents as 'might makes wrong,' positing, as it does, that the wealthy and the powerful are definitionally  unjust, and that any claim made by the poor is necessarily just. [The Sabeel Center for Liberation Theology, headed by Palestinian Naim Ateek] blends this theology with Replacement Theology, in which God rescinds His covenant with the children of Israel, replacing the Jews with Christians (rather than adding a New and more universal Covenant or Testament between God and the Church to the enduring Covenant between God and the Jewish people)."

-- Diana Appelbaum, March 2006, on "The Anti-Semitism of the Presbyterian Church, USA" in American Thinker, a conservative internet publication [Appelbaum is an author who has written about problems in PCUSA actions concerning Israel.]

Resources cited:

Arthur Waskow, Godwrestling, ISBN #13-9780805236910 and ISBN #10-0805236910, 1978

Naim Ateek, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, ISBN #0883445409, 1989

For a negative response, see also:

The Jerusalem Sabeel Statement, May 2003

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder on the Anti-Defamation League web site

For Middle Eastern Christians' problems with reading the Old Testament, see:

Alexa Smith, August 24, 2000, Old Testament "war stories" wound Palestinian Christians from Presbyterian News Service


What do you think?

If you are a member of the PCUSA Ecumenical and Interfaith Network would like to contribute a thought on the question, send it by e-mail. Mark your message, "Re Viewpoints."

© 2006 Ecumenical & Interfaith Network - PCUSA

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