At the recent Democratic National Convention, North Carolina clergy activist William Barber spoke of Jesus as a “brown-skin Palestinian Jew.” Jesus certainly was Jewish, but was he “Palestinian?”
The Romans, when eradicating the Jews and their homeland in the second century AD, renamed Judea as Palestine, which hearkened back to the ancient Philistines. Neither Jesus during His earthly walk nor His Jewish contemporaries were likely to have ever thought of themselves as Palestinian. They were Jews of Judea.
Barber’s brief reference, which at least admitted Jesus was Jewish, reminded me of a sermon at this year’s United Methodist General Conference by South African Methodist (separate from United Methodism) Bishop Ivan Abrahams, who preached on “Jesus of Palestine” versus “Jesus of Constantine.” The first was friend of the oppressed, of course, while the latter aligned with the oppressor.
Oddly, Abrahams never mentioned Jesus was Jewish. Instead he recalled “Palestinians under Roman rule,” i.e. Jews, none of whom likely identified as Palestinians. Abrahams also recalled that from the “time of the Exodus to the wars of the Maccabees, there was always a quest of the people of Palestine to be free.” He was referring to Jews but seemingly was determined to avoid their mention. Why?
Abrahams’ political agenda was pretty clear: “Lest we forget, the Palestinian theologian, Naim Stifan Ateek, reminds us, like many Palestinians today, Jesus was born under occupation.” Ateek is a prominent Palestinian exponent of Liberation Theology as a weapon against Israel. Palestine is for Palestinians, not so much for Jews.
Predictably Abrahams wove a liberationist narrative in which Constantine is the archtype of empire and corrupted religion. He spun the usual mythology of Constantine hijacking Christianty at the Council of Nicea, etc., thereafter repressing heretics while the church became the agent of imperial power.
Actually Constantine ended centuries of anti-Christian persecution and established a rough form of relative religious freedom. Later emperors repressed paganism. What Constantine began was, for all its flaws, superior to what it replaced. Christians as they became the majority were able to enact some social reforms based on human dignity.
Abrahams ignored these societal Gospel wins for the usual simplistic storyline about Crusades and Inquisition. In this lore, Christianity invents war and injustice, with everybody else as victims. He even inveighs against “transnational companies who serve the idols of neoliberal economic policies in a casino economy.” Jesus was actually just like Hugo Chavez. Yawn-yawn.
Jesus was and is actually much more exciting than stale socialists and statists who ignore what really liberates the poor from chronic poverty. Compounding the irony, the aging and dwindling proponents of 1970s style Liberation Theology preach against “empire” but demand widely coercive governmental powers to enact their version of social justice.
Abrahams’ dull and discredited politics and economics would be pardonable, but his de-Judaizing Jesus and the people of Jesus is historically, theologically and morally deplorable. How odd that some supposed champions of justice and the downtrodden are so indifferent to the most persecuted people in history, the Jews. They were tormented by Pharaoh, Rome, and countless other empires, most murderously by the Third Reich, and even today millions of people, including some governments, work for their destruction.
Yet too often liberationist clerics like Abrahams write the Jews out of history and God’s plans, except to villainize them as oppressors. Jesus the Jew expects better from people who profess to follow Him.