By Bob Allen
Theology is part of the problem of instability in the Middle East but can be part of the solution, a Palestinian theologian said Nov. 9 at a conference titled “Waging Peace in Palestine and Israel” sponsored by the Alliance of Baptists.
Mitri Raheb, 51, senior pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, was 5 years old when Israel began its occupation of West Bank territories seized during the Six-Day War of 1967.
He said he remembers his mother wanting to flee for safety to the nearby Church of the Nativity, but his father saying he would rather die in his home than live as a refugee. “When war is waged against you and your people you don’t run away, but you stay steadfast,” Raheb said was the lesson he learned that day.
With 16 books the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date, Raheb said during the past 30 years he has received several offers to move somewhere else but always decided to remain as a minority Christian in the town where the Bible says Jesus was born.
“Leaving to me means giving up on peace,” Raheb said. “It means surrendering to the power of the empire. It means running away from your calling. This is why we continue to be in Bethlehem.”
Raheb studied abroad in Germany in the 1980s at a time when more politically aware Palestinian students around him were absorbed by the conflict. He found their ideas interesting but stuck with his study of theology.
Following his studies, Raheb found his education had not fully prepared him for ministry in a setting where the sounds of gunshots outside the building would drown out his preaching, and numerous church members were placed in prison under “administrative detention.”
“You cannot actually wage peace until you listen to the people,” he said, “people on the ground, people on the grassroots level, to hear their stories, to feel their pain, to look into their eyes, to read between the lines.”
One of Raheb’s first projects, in 1992, was to open a guest house to get people to come and listen to the stories of the Palestinian people. Many building projects followed, creating infrastructure for a hoped-for future that he compared to the Old Testament prophet buying a piece of land when Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian army in Jeremiah 32.
In 2009, Raheb returned to theology with a group of other Christian leaders that published Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth declaring Israel’s military occupation of the land “a sin against God and humanity” and countering Christians who defend it by quoting Scripture.
“Unfortunately, theology is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Raheb said Saturday. “While the international community keeps sending Israel all these hardware toys for free, the seminaries and the theologians are providing the software for occupation to continue.”
Raheb said that is why he began organizing theological conferences in 2005. “In 1948 we did not lose our land alone,” he said. “I think more importantly what we lost in that year was our narrative.”
“We almost started to believe that we are aliens in the Holy Land, and that this land belonged to someone else,” he said. “I didn’t see a lot of theology that is questioning that. All this talk about the Jewish people coming back, what do you mean by ‘coming back?’”
Raheb said he believes early on he was influenced too much by European theology but is now working on a new narrative.
“I am back to Jesus,” he said. “I came to realize, actually, that what Jesus and I, or what Jesus and the Palestinians, share is that Jesus was born under Roman occupation, and we grew up under occupation.”
“He grew up under occupation,” Raheb said. “He lived his life under occupation, and he was crushed on the cross under occupation.”
Raheb said he now reads the New Testament as a story about how to live under occupation. “I started describing the Bible as nothing but the story of my forefathers,” he said. “They confiscated the land, but the narrative they should not be able to confiscate.”
“More importantly, I see the role of the church in waging peace,” he told an audience at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington convened by the Alliance of Baptists’ Justice in Palestine and Israel Community. “This is why I think this conference is so important. Jesus knows you cannot conquer the empire but through the Kingdom.”
Raheb said Israel is afraid of the actions of Palestinian Christian leaders “because they know we have access to the pulpits” and “we are part of an entity that is larger than the empire.”
“That is why I think the role of the church today is more important than ever,” Raheb said. “We have to focus again on the role of the Kingdom.”
In April, Alliance of Baptists directors adopted a statement endorsing the work of the Justice in Palestine and Israel Community in response to the Kairos Palestine document. One of the Alliance’s mission partners is Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a nonprofit started in 2005 by Raheb and supporters in the United States to promote development and peace in the Middle East.