Hearing the Good News in Palestine

MIKE MINETER. A Catholic layman highlights the work of a theological centre in East Jerusalem in promoting peace with justice in Israel-Palestine through non-violent action.

As I write, the Palestinian Land Day has been commemorated with a mass non-violent protest in Gaza.  Land Day recalls the internationally recognised right of return for Palestinian refugees, of whom about 1.3 million are crammed into the open prison of Gaza.

During the protest, Israeli forces killed 15 people and injured 1500, over-filling hospitals already depleted by ten years of blockade, power outages, and water shortages caused by Israel’s extraction of ground water.  No Israelis were reported to be injured.  Non-violent protests were met with live fire.

It is 70 years since 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of more than 400 villages and towns that were then erased from the map (http://www.palestineremembered.com).  Palestinians call this the Nakba, the catastrophe, and it is recalled on 15th May.  In the Balfour declaration of 1917 Britain promised that in Palestine there would be a homeland for Jews (Open House, Nov-Dec 2017).  Israel decided this was to be a land solely for them, and embarked on policies of settler colonialism undertaken by Zionists who contend that God is deemed to have given the land for all time to Israel alone.  In this view Old Testament Israel is identified with the new state, and members of the Jewish faith worldwide are viewed as having a right to citizenship in that state.

I was told in the West Bank that there are four responses to the Israeli oppression: be violent, but that is wrong and merely provides an excuse for yet more violent response; be passive which might meet Israel’s definition of peace but will not stop the settler colonialist expansion; leave, which the oppression seeks to make happen by destabilising and demoralising every Palestinian; or actively resist, non-violently.  This is the option which is increasingly being chosen, often due to its effectiveness as well as its morality.  Israelis are often quoted as saying, ‘We know how to respond to violence, but not Gandhi’.

Non-violent resistance is expressed in many ways.  Protests are the most evident and the arts keep alive the vibrant Palestinian culture, narratives and spirit, despite attempts to demolish them.  Merely existing is an act of resistance, despite the pressure to leave; as is keeping and rebuilding connection to the land, and taking opportunities to improve life despite the occupation that obstructs every aspect of life and well-being.  A growing number of Israeli and American Jewish groups challenge Israel.  Haaretz, the website of Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, reports that hundreds marched in Tel Aviv on Easter Sunday, in solidarity with Gaza.

Reclaiming Christianity from its Zionism of 1948 is one focus of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.  The word Sabeel can be translated as ‘the way’ or ‘a spring of water’.  Early Christians were called the people of the Way and Jesus is the spring of life giving water.  In November 2016, I called in on Sabeel in its East Jerusalem office for the open Eucharist and lunch which takes place each Thursday.  There I met Rev Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel 30 years ago and, until the end of 2016, its leader.

On the day of my visit Naim led the Eucharist with a simple Bible study.  The nativity passage was read, in both English and Arabic, and we were invited to share our responses, including ‘half-formed ones, for someone else might complete them’.  It was so simple as a process, and led to deep sharing, moving quickly into resonances between 2,000 years ago and today.  A strong theme was of Jubilee (which is also in the powerful 2017 Bishops’ Communique following their annual visit (http://catholicnews.org.uk/hlc-final-communique-2017)).  A dozen or so folk were there, mainly Christians working in East Jerusalem for different denominations.  I met Omar Haramy, who now leads Sabeel.

I returned in March 2017 for their international conference.  The superb talks, from Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers, can be found in the Sabeel Cornerstone editions 76 and 77, online at https://www.fosna.org/content/cornerstone-archive.  Dominant theological themes in the conference included Jesus’ universalisation of God’s love, from being a covenant with the Jews to one for all people.  Therefore we must all challenge any theology that justifies oppression.

Omar spoke in Glasgow on 12 June 2017.  He said: ‘The context, when Sabeel was started, was the faith nakba – people had left the churches, as the churches failed to respond to Zionism and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.  Many Palestinian Christians felt the Church approved our suffering through Christian Zionist theology….  It was a crisis of contradiction to be both Christian and Palestinian: when we lost everything, was that God’s will?!  That was in the years after 1948: my grandmother said “we went to sleep in Palestine and woke up in Israel.”  She fled Haifa on a donkey, and in Nablus gave birth to my father.  The Ottoman empire had killed those who could read, so my grandmother carried faith but not a developed theology; she had never read the Bible.

‘30 years ago there was a need to liberate theology – and for theology to liberate us from the chains of injustice.  Theology should no longer be used to justify oppression – but instead, should deepen our faith, make it relevant, so it sets me on fire to meet the challenges of the day’.

For Sabeel, this entails many different things.  It means teaching people to lead communities in reading the Bible through Palestinian eyes.  ‘We began doing this with a focus on the women, as they are really in control, and on the young’.

It means challenging through active non-violence – using humour, scripture and phenomenal imagination, effort and time to prepare actions.  For example, churchmen in the Old City used to fight across their denominations until some six years ago.  The lay people enjoyed each other’s festivals, but the clergy were less enlightened.  The young put up posters saying ‘we who are many are one’… 3,000 posters… and said ‘take them down if you want to fight’!

Sabeel’s response when Christian Zionists are in town for a march is: ‘God collects all these Zionists in Jerusalem so that we can preach to them’!  This indicates the spirit and joy, as well as the utter seriousness of their commitment.  On one occasion they painted their faces as dogs, with handouts on the Gospel incident where Jesus is told, ‘even the dogs can eat…’  The handouts said, ‘We are the dogs of the land, have mercy – a gift in love to a brother in Christ’.  They wore tee shirts that said ‘Everybody say woof woof’… 15 or 20 demonstrators in a crowd of 15-20,000 Zionists.  On another occasion, the action referred to the story about keeping oil clean so your light can shine brighter.  The cards they handed out said ‘clean your faith to give justice to all in the land’.  Some Zionists apologised.

Some of those who take action get arrested and hospitalised, for example when tending olive trees in areas where settlers seek to exclude Palestinians.  (Writing this, I recall John Dear SJ saying, ‘“This is my body broken for you; do likewise”….in action against oppressive authorities, religious and political’.)

Sabeel’s theology also means responding to social needs – ‘begin by standing with those on the margins, before getting involved in politics’.  This can mean caring for children from the many broken homes; ensuring church members who support elderly people financially also go and visit them; being in solidarity with Armenians when they commemorate their genocide. (Time and again Palestinians I met in the West Bank had empathy and concern for those suffering elsewhere).  A group went to see a child in hospital who came from Gaza, with parents who had been denied a permit to visit.

It means taking contemporary concerns to the Via Dolorosa – for example with a woman carrying the cross.  ‘We want to be a testimony of faith, not writing books on challenges but overcoming them.  Pope John Paul II said “we don’t need more theology, but more witness.”’

It means organising witness visits every six months: ‘come and pray with us in places of suffering.  Christians pray too much inside churches: take the cross to where houses were demolished, children arrested…’

It means being the focus for many countries Friends of Sabeel organisations e.g. http://www.friendsofsabeel.org.uk/

And it means facilitating worldwide prayer for Palestine-Israel and the surrounding area: http://sabeel.org/category/wave-of-prayers/

Two final quotes from Omar: ‘Our faith should be an immune system, our faith provides us with steadfastness in the face of challenges’.

‘We have learnt that if you shy away from confrontation and continue being irrelevant, then you will deny Christ and the result will be empty churches.  If the Churches stand for Justice, we will have to carry the Cross.  A Faithful Church will have eternal life and no power can overcome it’.

Mike Mineter works as an expert in applying high performance computing to climate science.  He has visited Israel-Palestine on three recent occasions, as described in Open House August 2017.  He is one of the founders of the Vigil Group in Edinburgh.  Contact Mike at mike.mineter@gmail.com if you would like more sources of information on helping bring Israel-Palestine to the tipping point of a just future.

Rev. Naim Ateek’s latest work is A Palestinian Theology of Liberation; The Bible, Justice and the Palestine Israel Conflict (Orbis, 2017).


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.