July 14, 2015

Theology UCC Style: Scripture Through ‘Palestinian Eyes’

On June 30, 2015 the United Church Christ (UCC) voted in favor of anti-Israeli divestment resolutions. This was especially odd considering that on May 8th, 2015 the UCC hosted a panel of experts in which religious leftist, Palestinian, and Muslim panelists overwhelmingly urged caution on these matters.

However, after witnessing the theological climate that hosted Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb’s Palestinian-centric sermon during the 6th Plenary, one begins to discern a possible factor in the UCC’s decision to vote for divestment resolutions.

Dr. Raheb began his sermon with a wish to read scripture through “Palestinian eyes,” noting that “the Bible did not originate in the Bible Belt.” He then lamented the conditions within the Israeli occupation, comparing it to a prison and noting that its conditions make the Palestinians cry out “God where are you?” He spent the rest of his sermon developing and answering this question.

Interestingly, he superimposed the term “people of Palestine” into “Israel” in the biblical narrative,

“Throughout the Bible and with the exception of the Exodus, the God in whom the people of Palestine put their faith appears to be silent. He sees the Assyrians resettling his people and does nothing. He watches the Babylonians desecrate his temple and he doesn’t move an inch. His capital is destroyed by the Romans and he appears not to care. Even when his only beloved son is hung on the cross he is…absent and seems to hide. This has been the experience of the people of Palestine throughout its history irrespective of their religious affiliation” (emphasis added).

The revelation given to the people of Palestine was the ability to

“spot God where no one else was able to see Him. and to find Him in the most unexpected places…When his people were defeated He carried the defeat with them….showing solidarity….Jesus revealed this God on the cross in a situation of terrible agony and pain when he was brutally crushed by the empire and hanged like a rebellious freedom fighter….The people of Palestine can say with great certainty ‘for we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we.’ Just as we Palestinians. Indeed what Jesus and I share in common…is the fact that we had to spend our life under occupation….Defeat in the face of empire was not an ultimate defeat” (emphasis added).

Invoking the Apostle Paul, Dr. Raheb argued that this revelation

“made the defeat lose its teeth. Death lose its sting. And empire lose its victory….it made them develop an art of resilience to survive extremist empires. ‘Hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed.’”

Raheb concluded his sermon with the speculation that God might uses the UCC to bring justice and change to Palestine.

Unfortunately for Raheb, his attempt to recreate Biblical Israel as the nebulous “people of Palestine” who endured the silence of God in the face of oppression comes up short. While it is true that the Israelites in the Bible lived in the land now known as Palestine, they are not the same Palestinians who are in the land today. Furthermore, the Israelites were not experiencing God’s “silence” during the Assyrian and Babylonian occupations. Every Israelite knew why they were enduring such calamities; they were divine judgments for years of disobedience (II Kings 17:6-18, Jer. 25:8-9). Likewise, the Roman destruction of the temple was not apparent defeat of God, but a prophecy that He ordered (Matthew 24:1-2). These events had nothing to do with God expressing “solidarity” with oppressed people. They had everything to do with God vindicating his justice.

Raheb’s repackaging of Christ’s status as our great high priest who conquered sin and death into a crushed victim of a cruel empire is equally problematic. Christ said that he was here to save the lost (Luke 19:10), not to overthrow temporal political leaders. In fact, He said His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Additionally, the Roman Empire knew the charge that Christ was a political usurper was a false one (John 19:6), as did the high priests who made the charge. No one honestly believed that Jesus was a political rebel against an oppressive empire, certainly not the narrative of scripture. Considering Christ’s victory over sin and death is the center of the faith, rather than anti-imperialism (Romans 10:9. I Cor. 15:3-4, 14), one could argue that Raheb is in danger of allowing politics to eclipse the gospel with this revision of Jesus.

His reformulation of Paul’s encouragement in the midst of spiritual warfare and his celebration of Christ’s triumph over death (II Corinthians 4:7-10, I Cor. 15:55-56) into an icon of Palestinian resilience is indicative of an identical theological recklessness.

Raheb’s liberation theology is nothing groundbreaking, but the fact that he was invited to speak at the UCC Synod illuminates the denomination’s theological sympathies relative to the Middle East. It may at least partially account as to why they voted for divestment in spite of the warnings made by the panel of experts they hosted over a month prior.

2 Responses to Theology UCC Style: Scripture Through ‘Palestinian Eyes’

  1. JeffreyRo55 says:

    If jihadis are aware of these “useful idiots” in the mainline churches – and they probably are not – they must be laughing real hard. High-estrogen male clergy trying to sound tough in the pulpit, and only sounding silly.

  2. Richard S. Bell says:

    “While it is true that the Israelites in the Bible lived in the land now
    known as Palestine, they are not the same Palestinians who are in the
    land today.” Neither are the Israelites in the Bible the same Israelis who are in the land today.
    Do not be misled by the pun on the name “Israel” and recognize the truth that a “Jewish state” preferring Judaism is both the secular and the religious opponent of God. (Jews have a saying: “There is only one thing we Jews agree about; we all deny that Jesus is Messiah.”)
    I have read and discussed in a seminar Mitri Raheb’s book, which he adapted for his sermon. Our brother in Christ, Raheb, has a point of view that we may not share. But Bryan Ballas misdescribes Raheb’s view. Raheb does not view Jesus Christ as a political rebel. As for “Paul’s encouragement in the midst of spiritual warfare and his celebration of Christ’s triumph over death,” that may be raised up by and for any Christian oppressed by unbelievers, as our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ are oppressed by the state of Israel today; and doing so is not “theological recklessness” but exactly the kind of thing Paul wanted his words to make possible.

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