A Review of
A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict
Naim Stifan Ateek
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Leroy Seat
Naim Stifan Ateek (b. 1937) is an ethnic Arab Palestinian, a citizen of Israel, and an Anglican priest. His slim but highly significant book is the fruit of decades of theological thought and praxis.
Nearly thirty years ago Ateek wrote a closely related book, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. In that same year, 1989, he founded Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. That organization has continued to grow in influence through the years with chapters in several countries. One such chapter is FOSNA (Friends of Sabeel North America).
Ateek ends the introductory chapter of his new book with a clear statement of its purpose: “The intention of this book is to provide an understanding of Palestinian liberation theology that will challenge readers to active participation in the work of justice, peace, and reconciliation” (7). Throughout his book, it is clear that Ateek wishes not merely to inform his readers about the plight of the Palestinians and their need for liberation but also to stir his readers to action.
Following the introduction there are ten chapters: the first four are largely historical, the next four biblical/theological, and the last two about taking action in the present.
The first chapter gives a very brief summary of liberation theology as first articulated by Gustavo Gutiérrez and as developed among some Latin Americans, black South Africans, and feminists. The common emphasis in all of these is that the central Christian message is one of freedom and justice. Thus, “Within this global liberation movement, Palestinian liberation theology was born when faith confronted the injustice of the conquest of Palestinian land by the government of Israel and its oppression of the Palestinian people” (11).
Since Ateek realizes that one important characteristic of liberation is “the way it takes seriously the context of liberation” (15), the second chapter sketches the historical story of Palestinian Christians. “Today,” he writes, “more Palestinian Christians live outside Palestine than inside. It is estimated that fewer than 200,000 Christians live inside historic Palestine, while over 200,000 are living in the diaspora” (23).
This is a part of the larger “Nakba,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is used to refer to what happened in 1948 when “approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled in fear or were driven out by force from their country because of the brutal onslaught of the Zionist militias” (25). Accordingly, the third chapter is “The Threefold Nakba,” the human, identity, and faith catastrophe for Palestinians in general and especially the latter for those who were Christians.
In addition to Nakba, according to the author there are three other historical events that led to the emergence of Palestinian liberation theology: the Holocaust, the War of 1967 and the rise of religious Zionism, and the first intifada (1987-91). Akeem’s fourth chapter succinctly explains the significance of those events.
The fifth chapter begins the theological/biblical section of the book. It is about Jesus and makes the highly significant point that Jesus is “the lens or principle of interpretation” by which we Christians should interpret the rest of the Bible (44).
The next chapter deals with the Old Testament and especially with some of the difficult passages found there. Based on his assertion of the previous chapter, Ateek insists that all those passages must be interpreted from the hermeneutic (method of interpretation) based on Jesus and the centrality of love. Further, he emphasizes that in the Old Testament there is a progression from a tribal and exclusive theology to a theology of inclusion. The former is seen clearly in Leviticus, the latter especially in Ezekiel and Jonah. Concerning the latter, the author writes, “With the story of Jonah, the Old Testament reaches a theological climax” (82).
The New Testament is considered in the seventh chapter, and a major emphasis is on how Jesus “rejected exclusivity and emphasized inclusivity” (90). That same emphasis is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
In his brief summary of key biblical themes, the next chapter begins the primary assertion of the book: “Justice is foundation for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (105). In seeking justice, though, Ateek makes “a plea for a strategy of nonviolence” (117-9). This emphasis on nonviolence is seen throughout the book and stands in stark contrast to the common charge that Palestinians are terrorists.
The ninth chapter is about Sabeel, the organization the author started in 1989. The core objective of that movement and its chapters in many Western countries is stated clearly: “to see the end of the illegal occupation of Israel of the Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, so that a just and secure peace can be achieved for all the people of Palestine and Israel” (131). To this reviewer, that sounds like a goal worth being sought by people of goodwill everywhere.
The main emphases of Palestinian liberation theology are reiterated in the final chapter. From that perspective he emphasizes “three essentials that must be realized in order for a genuine peace to be achieved: justice, peace, and reconciliation” (142). So, to the end there is stress on justice linked to love (“When there is genuine love, justice is done. When justice is done, there is love,” 148), on peace sought by nonviolent means, and on reconciliation that is linked to forgiveness. This is an outstanding vision of a man who represents a people who have been severely mistreated for decades. That vision is based upon and due to the author’s superlative Biblical interpretation and theological acumen.
The impact of this book is heightened by Walter Brueggemann’s fine foreword, which ends, “This important book will be a great learning among us to which Western Christians of every ilk should pay attention” (xix). Of course, those who should especially pay attention to this book are those who are least likely to read it: Christian Zionists and Christian conservatives or fundamentalists who are greatly pro-Israel because of their eschatological views. But this book is one that those of us on the other side of the theological spectrum can recommend to those who do not have strong opinions about—or much knowledge of—the history of the mistreatment of the Palestinians. Perhaps some who are now “neutral” will be convinced that the gross injustices being experienced by Palestinians need to be addressed along the lines suggested in Ateek’s work.
This book should be especially significant now in light of the hoopla surrounding the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The content of this book can—and should in the opinion of this reviewer—be shared without hesitation. It is highly readable, informative throughout, and consistently irenic.
In short, I highly recommend reading this book and sharing it, or at least its ideas, with others, and the more the better.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com