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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Faith in the Face of Empire: Four Questions

Soon, in just a few days, people around the world will be celebrating the Passover – most of them Jewish, but among them will be not a small number of Christians as well. During the Seder (“order”) four questions will be asked and answered.  They are asked and answered every year; they are part of the story, part of the telling.  They are part of the way that the story is communicated from generation to generation.  They are questions that lead to freedom.

In chapter six (“The People of Palestine”) of his book Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes[i], Mitri Raheb asks four existential questions of his own, questions that he hopes will help lead to freedom for the Palestinian people.

1- Where Are You, God?  This is an old, old question; “a three-thousand-year-old lament that the inhabitants of Palestine have passed from one generation to the next (Raheb, 68).”  And it is a question asked repeatedly throughout the pages of scripture.  It’s not that they doubt his existence, or his love, but…

 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain[a] in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
(Psalm 13:  1 – 2 – NRSV)

Raheb makes a rather striking declaration – “throughout the Bible, with the exception of the Exodus, the God in whom the people of Palestine put their faith appears to be silent (Raheb, 69).”

My friend Tim and I have been talking about this very thing today.  He has a sense of Geborgenheit in God.  Warmth.  Security. Closeness.  But this is not everyone’s experience with God.  And does not appear to be the experience of the Palestinian people.  God may have heard, and may have been moved by the cries of his people as they suffered in slavery under the Egyptians, but the cries of the Palestinians under the successive waves of crushing empires has not moved him to effect their release.

2 – Who Is My Neighbor? Another familiar question.  The Bible can be read as a collection of narratives about the land, the peoples, and identities.  The whole of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament is a struggle toward a national identity.  The New Testament flips this head over heels and “instead of identifying with one people over and against the others, which is the traditional way of forming one’s identity, it calls people to reflect on the entire process of identification as misleading (Raheb, 72).”

But in Palestine, this is not just a question of learning to accept outsiders, foreigners and one’s enemies as neighbors; it is also a question of how to relate with one’s own people.  Empires have a long history of playing various occupied groups against each other.  It’s an effective way to suppress resistance. “The siege that Israel imposes on Gaza aims at developing two diverse and unrelated identities, one in the West Bank, the other in the Gaza Strip.   The stronger these identities develop in isolation from one another, the less likely it is for their people to unite (Raheb, 73).”

3 – What is the Way to Liberation? What is the best – most effective, moral way to achieve a free and independent state? There is no real consensus on this issue.  And there has never been.  Throughout Palestine’s long history of occupation there has never been a universally accepted answer to this question.  And here Raheb identifies five patterns drawn from the New Testament that are still being used in Palestine today.

A – Fighting Back – like the zealots.  Every now and again the occupation has become too oppressive, too brutal, too insulting and some (never all) of the people have taken up arms against their oppressors.  These Intifadas (“uprisings”) are usually brief – three to five years – “That seems to be the length of time or capacity of the people of Palestine for enduring direct military confrontation. The longer an Intifada continues, the more it becomes a liability for the population (Raheb, 75).”

B – Observing the Law – like the Pharisees.  In this mindset the best way to achieve liberation is to commit oneself to fully obeying God’s law.  The occupation is not the result of God turning away from us, but of us turning away from God.  And the best way to ensure our release is to ensure that everyone obeys the laws of God (as we understand them).  The Pharisees of the time of Jesus were not rigid, power hunger, religious hypocrites; they were sincere followers of God who believed that the best (and only) way to live was in complete adherence to God’s law.  This understanding is comforting in several ways – it is observable and quantifiable. You can see the results of people following the laws.  And it preserves the goodness of God. God’s (apparent) silence is not evidence of God’s lack of concern or powerlessness – it is the result of our rebellion.

This pattern is found today in the political manifesto of Hamas [Islamic Resistance Movement] (Raheb, 77).”   “The group who is promoting the law today as the solution to the Palestinian problem is Hamas.  The Arabic word for law is sharia.   For Hamas, as part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, sharia is the way to true liberation.  The fact that Hamas has been engaged in fighting Israel since 1988 should not make us think that this group belongs to the zealots.  On the contrary, in all Muslim Brotherhood writings, the main focus is on having divine law control peoples’ daily lives.  Their main fight is not with the empire, but with their own people who have forgotten their religious identity (Raheb, 78).”

C – Accommodation - like the Sadducees, walking the tightrope between God’s will and the emperor’s (Raheb, 79).  Some try to work within the system of power. Trying to please the people and keep the rulers happy. 

D – Collaboration – like the New Testament tax (toll) collectors.  “In today’s Palestine these are the subcontractors who distribute Israeli products to the Palestinian markets, who bid on contracts in Israeli settlements, or who collaborate by providing information on people and organizations.  This group wants to exploit the empire by helping to exploit its own people.  For this group, the empire is good business.  Why fight for liberation?  Long live the empire (Raheb, 80)!”

E – Retreat [ii]- like the Qumranites.  Those that hold this attitude believes that that there is no hope.  No chance. And it doesn’t matter anyway since the world is about to collapse.  They retreat into self enclosed community to wait for the inevitable end.   Then they will reemerge to reestablish the old ways and the pure laws.  Raheb identifies the Muslim Salfists and some conservative Christian free churches as contemporary examples of this pattern; “disillusioned and disinterested in politics, they maintain a faithful watch preparing for the great battle against the evil of the present (Raheb 81).”

4 – When Will We Have a State? -   Raheb relates this question back to questions in the Hebrew Bible /Old Testament (1 Samuel 8:20) and the Christian New Testament (Acts 1:6).  But, for Raheb, the question isn’t enough.  “Liberation is not an end to itself (Raheb, 82).”  It is not enough to “be like all the other nations.” It is not enough to “restore the kingdom.”  The goal must be a free and independent state.  Liberation from the control of the empire will leave a power vacuum that will inevitably be filled. 

And even this may not be enough.  “If Israelis and Palestinians are frank with themselves, they need to admit that the state project they’ve respectively worked so hard to achieve for the last sixty or so years has failed.  Israel developed an apartheid system, and the Palestinian mini-state in Gaza or the Palestinian “holes in the cheese” of the West Bank are not the dream for which people fought.  Yet, both peoples are still unable and / or unwilling to admit that hard and painful truth and begin looking for new models of coexistence (Raheb, 84).”

Previous Chapters 
Chapter 1 – Longview of History 
Chapter 4 – Omphaloskepsis  
Chapter 5 -  Seven Marks of the Empire 

[i] Raheb, Mitri, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2014.
[ii] In the book this is “Retrieval” (page 80) – but I wonder if it’s not a mistake.  

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