The Middle East has always been an excellent place to examine the explosive relationship of competing political interests and religious identities. Specifically, it makes an excellent case study in examining how competing convictions influence or interfere with one’s interpretation of Scripture.
On April 21, 2017, Pastor Mitri Raheb, the Palestinian Senior Pastor of a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, spoke at St. Olaf College on the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East. His comments indicate the growing danger of letting identity politics (manifest under the guise of liberation theology) determine one’s interpretation of Scripture.
During his talk, Raheb primarily focused on interpreting recent Israeli/Palestinian events and Bible passages through the Liberation Theology point of view. Liberation theology misconstrues Scripture and the surrounding world by emphasizing the pursuit of political ends and means to achieve complete social equity.
Contextualizing his lecture, Pastor Raheb began by comparing the Jewish government to Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian dictatorship in Iraq. He accused Israel of using religious texts to secure domestic sovereignty and feign legitimacy in the international community. He then proceeded to label fellow Christians as “Zionists” who were “sent” by the Jews to defend their state under the pretext of horrifically misguided eschatology while they callously ignore the plight of the Palestinian people.
Turning then to Scripture, Raheb offered his own interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross (emphasis added):
“We have for too long tried to spiritualize the notion of liberation in the Bible. We’ve replaced liberation with salvation and the cross became nothing but atonement. I think we have to put the cross in its original context of political and religious violence…. The cross is a permanent reminder of the millions of people who are persecuted either by the state or by the religious establishment because they raise their prophetic critique to an unjust ruler or to a corrupt form of religion.”
It’s not often that a self-proclaimed Christian uses the phrase “nothing but atonement” with a pejorative connotation. Atonement by Jesus Christ was the single greatest act of self-sacrificial love the world has ever known. It satisfied around four thousand years of prophecy and a covenant made by the living infinite God who chose to make Himself known to a fallen, finite creation. Thinkers, writers, and philosophers alike have pontificated on atonement for hundreds of years. Jesus died a humiliating, excruciating death on the cross at the hands of both Jewish and Roman people because that was how it was prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 22:16-18, Isaiah 53).
Paul was very clear in Romans 6:3-7 when he stated that the cross was meant to liberate God’s people from the tyranny of sin and death. Or again in Romans 8:3, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,” implying that the cross was the ultimate defeat of eternal slavery to sin.
Raheb concluded his defense of liberation theology by interpreting the Pentecost story in Acts 2 as a celebration of diversity because the disciples were able to speak in visitors’ native tongues. A simple glance over this passage shows that this assertion is simply not true. The disciples were given the ability to speak in many different languages (in the first case of multilingual evangelism) to the Jews who had not yet heard the good news. The Jewish people with their different languages and nationalities were united under their common ethnic and religious background. There is no normative indication anywhere in the passage that would indicate that “diversity is strength,” as Rahab argues.
I agree with Mitri Raheb’s approach to observe modern conflict in a political and religious light. One cannot and should not separate the two for fear of oversimplifying, misunderstanding, and misdiagnosing one of the longest running conflicts in human history. But Mr. Raheb’s identity politics and liberation theology have done just that.
Raheb wove an implicit line of logic throughout the whole lecture: because modern Jewish people are not the ancient Israelites of the Bible, they have no “spiritual” claim over contested Palestinian land. And since ancient Israel’s only purpose was to prepare for the Messiah, there is no need for a Jewish state anymore. Any argument to preserve a physical Jewish state would, therefore, be a Zionist misinterpretation of prophecy and an act of oppression to the Palestinian people.
Pastor Raheb has allowed his political identity as a Palestinian to precede and outweigh his identity as a Christian. This became evident in how he blatantly ignores huge portions of Scripture and facts to support his case for liberation theology.
I will not waste the readers’ time in recounting the “New Zionist” position, but rather direct them to a better defense of it than I could provide in this limited space (or a fascinating read if they so desire). Without dissecting the details, Israel, and more importantly, the Jewish people remain an integral part of God’s redeeming plan for the world, but without implying that the Lord is waiting on us to immanentize the eschaton.
Several facts stand in defiance of Pastor Raheb’s assertions. First, geneticists have revealed evidence that modern Jewish people are in fact descendants of the ancient Israelites of the Bible. Distinct Jewish people groups from all over the world share genetic legacy (not just cultural or religious identity) originating in the Middle East dating back 2,000 years.
And if one believes in the inerrancy and timelessness of Scripture, it would be hard to ignore the numerous passages that indicate that the second coming of Christ will involve a unified Jewish state (Zech. 12:5-9, Luke 13:34-35, and Romans 9 & 11 to name a few).
It is only through God’s outpouring and overflowing of grace onto the Jewish people that Gentiles are also given grace by extension (Romans 1:16). The same grace available to the Jews is available to the Palestinians. Yet Pastor Raheb seems to be so caught up in idolizing his own primary identity as a Palestinian that his view and reception of grace have been warped.
That is the greatest danger of identity politics. Though identities are personally meaningful and powerful in shaping worldviews, they are immaterial in the eternal light of salvation. Liberation theology, specifically, seeks to undermine salvation and spiritual needs by replacing them with material needs and social vendetta.
The relationship between religion and politics is a tangled one. It is often hard to define where one stops and the other starts (or whether the two ought to be mixed at all). But what is undeniable is that if you’re going to claim Christianity as your religion, it must be your first and most important identity. Any party identity, political belief, or doctrinal interpretation must always be filtered through the ultimate and omniscient authority found in the Holy Bible. There will never be a characteristic that can outshine the salvation bestowed by grace alone.