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A Palestinian Theology of Liberation

A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. The Bible, Justice,  and the Palestine-Israel Conflict

Naim Stifan Ateek

New York: Orbis, 2017

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Reviewed by Rev Dr Stephen Need, editor of Bible Lands

The author of this book was a Canon at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem for many years and is the Founder of the Sabeel Palestinian Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem. Originally from Beisan (Bet Shean) in Israel, Ateek is a Palestinian Christian who was driven from his home by the military in 1948 when the new state was established. Two other books of his are the predecessors of this one: Justice and only Justice. A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis, 1989) and A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (New York: Orbis, 2008). The Foreword to this new book is by the well-known bible scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. 

Ateek’s Palestinian Liberation Theology has it roots deep in the recent history of the Middle East: in Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, in the 1967 War when the Israelis occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in the first Intifada during the 1980s. It was in the late 80s that the Palestinian congregation at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem began to gather after the Sunday morning Eucharist to discuss the meaning of their faith in the face of what was happening to them. The discussions (often with the New Testament Scholar Kenneth Bailey present) addressed issues such as how Palestinian Christians were to understand the Old Testament, as well as who Jesus really was for them. They began to take Jesus’ humanity and his historical context – a land occupied by Rome – more seriously than ever before.

The basic principles of Palestinian Liberation Theology which are outlined and discussed in this book emerged from the discussions at St. George’s: it is contextual, grassroots, inclusive (for Israelis as well as Palestinians), ecumenical, interfaith and humanitarian. It suggests a non-violent resistance which is prophetic and ultimately Christological, ie based on Jesus’ own life and example. Jesus himself is the hermeneutical key focusing on the love of God and neighbour. Gradually, the St. George’s meetings evolved into the organisation called Sabeel (meaning ‘the Way’ or ‘a fountain’ in Arabic) with its annual conferences, publications and worldwide groups of Friends.

A key figure in Ateek’s Liberation Theology is the Old Testament prophet Jonah (the famous one who was swallowed by a large fish). Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the land of the Assyrians. He is reluctant to go but after the incident with the fish ends up making the journey. He hates the Assyrians and thinks God should punish them. But God changes his own mind and shows that he loves the Assyrians as well. For Ateek the Jonah saga is the paradigm story showing that God loves everyone and includes everyone in his purposes. Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on God as ‘inclusivist’ rather than ‘exclusivist’. The theology of the book of Jonah, seen also in some of the prophetic books such as Ezekiel, points forward to Jesus.

The question of how to read and interpret the Bible is a key concern in this book. Zionist readings have emphasised exclusivity. But Ateek shows that we must reject the exclusivist parts of the Bible and filter everything through the other strand of inclusivism. Jesus is the ultimate key for interpreting biblical texts. One surprise to readers will be Ateek’s suggestion that we should sometimes say, ‘This is NOT the word of the Lord’ after reading an exclusivist passage from the Bible in church!

Ateek’s new book is a handbook of Palestinian Liberation Theology. In addition to the main text, there are details of resources such as the Purpose Statement of Sabeel, the Sabeel Prayer, details of Friends’ groups, publications and bibliography. Clear, engaging and extremely challenging, this book is easier to read than its predecessors but would lead nicely into them. Ateek’s overall suggestion is that Christians should practice what they preach and love even their enemies, as Jesus said. Taking this seriously could change everything!


Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2018