Faith in the Face of Empire

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Review of: Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire. The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 2014) 166pp

The title of this slim volume, along with the eye-catching cover depicting the crucified Christ with keffiyeh alongside other victims, accurately captures what this book is about. Mitri Raheb, Palestinian Christian and Evangelical Lutheran pastor, has written a thoughtful and provocative book which aims “to lay the groundwork for a genuine Palestinian Christian narrative that is politically relevant and theologically creative” (6). He is developing a biblical hermeneutic to serve a theology of liberation from and for a Palestinian context, but what he writes also deserves a wider audience. Certainly my own reading of scripture has been enriched and my perspective shifted in subtle but significant ways by the gift of being shown aspects of the biblical story ‘through Palestinian eyes’.

Raheb calls his approach ‘geo-political’ and reads with the lens of the longue durée. This last term, borrowed from the French Annales School of historiography, implies that he takes the long view, focusing on repeated patterns or recurring themes rather than specific events. The biblical story and the current Palestinian situation are the bookends of a long continuous history marked by occupation by a succession of Empires: the Assyrians (722 BC), the Babylonians (587 BC), the Persians (538 BC) the Greeks (333 BC), the Romans (63 BC) the Byzantines (326) the Arabs (637) the Tartars (1040) the Crusaders (1099) the Ayyubids (1187) the Tartars (1244) the Mamluks (1291) the Mongols (1401), the Ottomans (1516) the British (1917) and (controversially) the Israelis (1948 / 67). As for the geo-political element, Raheb works with the story of a particular land and its inhabitants, whose experience has been profoundly shaped by its geographical location vis-á-vis the centres of power. Further, he names as subjects ‘the people of the land’ (Am Ha’aretz) who are defined by long-term habitation in this region rather than by any ethnic, religious or linguistic markers which have varied greatly over the centuries. The case of his own father illustrates some of this complexity. He was born in 1905 as an Ottoman citizen with Ottoman identification papers. He then became a citizen of Mandate Palestine with a Palestinian passport issued by the British Mandate Government. In 1949 he became a citizen of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and when he died in 1975 he held an ID card issued by Israel. And yet he was the same person throughout, living in the same geographical space. Beneath all this flux, the native inhabitants are “the enduring continuum” (12).

Mitri Raheb’s hermeneutic is also political in that it recognises and highlights the anti-imperial stance of much of the Bible. This anti-colonial perspective has received increasing emphasis in biblical studies over the last two decades, though it is has seldom been applied to the State of Israel, the ‘Empire by proxy’ which exercises Raheb in this book. It is this which makes the book controversial, along with the distinctive reading which places the Palestinian ‘people of the land’ rather than the Jews or Israel as privileged heirs to the biblical story. Palestinians find themselves today the victims of the actions of those who were themselves victims. The long shadow of the Holocaust has, for many in the West, obscured “the fact that Israel has developed … to become the seventh-largest military power in the world, with nuclear weapons and an advanced military industrial complex.” (16) Only recently has the plight of the Palestinians come into focus on the world stage. It is hard to argue against the voice of personal experience as Raheb describes life in Gaza and the West Bank against seven patterns common to most imperial contexts, including control of movement and resources, and settlement policies. It is a damning description. Raheb’s reading resists making a connection between the State of Israel and the biblical entity of the same name, a connection which typically either casts the Palestinians as ‘Canaanites’ or renders them theologically invisible.

Raheb lays the groundwork for a contextual Palestinian theology around four existential questions that arise from the geopolitical situation over the centuries: Where are you, God? Who is my neighbour? Which way to liberation? and When will we have a state? The beginnings of answers to these are worked out in trinitarian mode and in conversation with Scripture over three chapters entitled God, Jesus and Spirit. These chapters sparkle with insights which are all too briefly developed, but which hold out promise for future work. One example of reading ‘through Palestinian eyes’ with a sensitivity to geopolitical issues and the patterns of Empire and occupation and using a longue durée lens is Raheb’s interpretation of the Beatitude “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land” (Matt 5:5). ‘Land’ is a correction of a mistranslation of the Greek ge, which can be rendered ‘earth’ (most common in biblical translations) or land -which makes most sense contextually. This is a hope-generating promise, which history has proved true time and again, that the Empire does not last forever. Imperial occupiers come and go, even if they seem invincible and eternal at the time, but the powerless will outlast them. It is ultimately to them that the Land belongs. Another biblical interpretation he offers works with the frequent connection made between the Tower of Babel and Pentecost. For Raheb, Babel is the arch-narrative of the imperial project which is answered by the counter-image of Pentecost. Paying careful attention to the list of nationalities in Acts 2, he notes that the community brought into being by the Spirit brings together as equals those who historically have been oppressed and oppressor, still maintaining their diverse identities within a greater unity. “The church born in Jerusalem was meant to counter the empire, not by creating another, but by providing a new, pluralistic Euro-Mediterranean vision.” (113). 

Having given this tantalising overture to a contextual reading of the Bible, I hope that Raheb will follow up this book with some more more detailed biblical studies. The scope of the material covered in a mere 130 pages, if one excludes notes, means that there are as many questions raised as answered, and the author tends to evoke and assert rather than give detailed arguments for his positions. One aspect in particular that I would have liked him to address is the biblical story of the Return in Ezra and Nehemiah where the community of returned exiles define themselves over against the Am Ha’aretz, the people of the land. Another small omission that struck me occurs in the Epilogue, Imagination and Hope. Here Raheb combines realism and hopeful openness to the future, stressing the role of faith in imagining and living into God’s future. “Hope is faith in action in the face of the empire.” (130) Rich as this chapter is, I noted that one element of the triad is missing – love. Raheb does advocate nonviolent, creative resistance that aims at abundant life for all, but I was left wondering whether faith and hope, tied in with the exercise of the imagination, should be fueled more explicitly with love.

 

The book is engaging and throught-provoking. A reader would need to have a good general grasp of the biblical stories to fully appreciate his rather brief sketches of how these look ‘through Palestinian eyes’. A basic understanding of the Palestinian situation is also assumed. His is an articulate and prophetic Palestinian Christian voice, and one that needs to be heard.

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Samson

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(Judges 13-16)
It is hard to know quite what to make of the story of Samson. It is certainly entertaining: the long-haired, larger-than life Danite hero with his appetite for Philistine women uses his superhuman strength to get out of a number of scrapes largely of his own making, until the beautiful Delilah gets the better of him with her incessant nagging and extracts the secret of his strength. With his hair shaved, he is captured and blinded by his enemies. Perhaps there is redemption of sorts at the end when he pulls the house down on the oppressors of his people, taking thousands of Philistines to death with him.
But that story, no doubt told and retold with relish in ancient Israel, is set within a larger narrative in the biblical canon. It is the last in a series of accounts of saviours of ancient Israel found in the book of Judges, a list that includes heroes like Gideon and Deborah. Each story has been woven into a theological framework with a highly stylised introduction and conclusion. The LORD’s people forsake their God, who then allows their enemies to oppress them. When they cry out in distress, God raises a deliver to rescue them. Under his or her rule they enjoy a time of peace. That is exactly how the Samson saga begins: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” (Jdg 13:1 NRSV). But then the pattern changes. Here there is no crying out for help. The people of God seem resigned to their fate. They no longer even look to God to save them. To the contrary, a little way into Samson’s saga, they are annoyed with him for provoking their oppressors with his personal vendettas and hand him over to appease the Philistines (15:10-11). But the LORD is determined to save them nonetheless.
Samson’s story starts well. His birth is announced by an angel: the barren woman will conceive and give birth to a son, who is to be consecrated to God. He is to be a nazirite, a vowed religious of sorts. Numbers 6 sets out the terms of the nazirite vow: to abstain from alcohol and grape products, to avoid corpses and not to cut the hair. The vow was usually taken for a limited period, but Samson, like Samuel and John the Baptist after him, was to be a nazirite from the womb to the tomb.
The LORD had great plans for Samson. He blesses the growing child, and the Spirit of the LORD begins to move him (13:24-25). But from this point onwards the story of Samson is an uneasy weaving of discordant narratives. There is the underlying story of God and God’s people, and God’s plan to rescue them from oppression. But there is also the story of self-centred Samson, driven by his appetites and desire for revenge. He does fulfil his calling somewhat by vexing the Philistines, but not because he is living out of the story of the people of God and God’s plans for them. It is always a result of personal vendettas. These stories intersect. The Spirit of the LORD is ever eager to work through Samson, coaxing him toward a confrontation with the enemy and coming upon him on a number of occasions to empower him to act as Israel’s saviour, as well as save his own skin (14:4, 6, 19; 15:14).
Twice in the narrative Samson prays. Dying of thirst after massacring a thousand Philistines with an ass’s jawbone, he cries out to God, referring to himself as God’s servant, and crediting God with the victory (15:18). God responds immediately by causing a spring to gush forth. In his last prayer, when the shorn and blinded Samson is providing entertainment for the worshippers in Dagon’s temple, he says: “Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes,” followed by a final “Let me die with the Philistines” (16:28, 30 NRSV). The divine response is implied in the answer that is given when the pillars are toppled so that the roof comes crashing down. Is this final request of Samson that of the noble hero? I hear in it the final act of revenge for a personal grievance. Even here Samson has not risen above his own story to consciously join God’s story. He is his own avenger, not Israel’s saviour.
Samson doesn’t give us much of an example to aspire to. Once we have been entertained by the superbly told tale, what stays with us? Perhaps we can find in Samson not who we should be, but who we are. As called, gifted people, empowered by the Spirit, out of whose story are we living? That story can be writ large, with great exploits, but is it at the end of the day about us, or about what God is stirring us to do in the world?
There is something hopeful about Samson’s story too. The Spirit of the LORD was patient and willing to work with a very flawed individual. Even his self-centred actions could be woven somehow into the divine tale. The shearing of his locks on Delilah’s lap was not the first time that he had played loose with his vows. He had hosted a drinking party at his wedding (14:10) and dug honey out of the corpse of a lion (14:9). It is only when his hair is cut that the Spirit leaves him (16:20). But immediately after we are told that his hair began to grow again. There is still the possibility of redemption. As Samson veers from one ‘incident’ to the next, the Spirit of the LORD is at work, finding the gaps and the opportunities, using Samson’s temperamental personality to disturb the numbed acceptance of the status quo where God’s people have resigned themselves to their life of un-freedom.
Will God’s will be done anyway? Samson’s story suggests ‘yes and no’. Even Samson’s eye for women can be the opportunity for God to upset the settled relationship between the Israelites and the Philistines. But by the end of the story there is still no real deliverance from the Philistine oppression, despite the accumulation of dead bodies. In the canonical context, we see how the whole system is failing. The book of Judges will now leave the accounts of individual saviour-judges to paint a shocking and depressing picture of life within the community of the people of God. Things are falling apart. This next part of the book has as a repeated refrain:”in those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). God’s chosen instruments, called, gifted and empowered by the Spirit though they are, are no longer effective in doing the work of leading God’s people. A new dispensation is needed.
I wonder whether our lives and mission are God’s story or ours? Is the power of the Spirit squandered on personal agendas, or are we truly those who bring salvation? Thank God, the LORD is creative in weaving the stories together. And shorn hair regrows.

Derek Campbell 15 December 1930-15 June 2014

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A tribute to my Dad, which my sisters and I wrote for his funeral.

We may be a little biased, but I think we can truly say that Derek Gilliland Campbell was a very special man. A doctor, sportsman in his youth, an elder in the Presbyterian church, someone who loved to create with his hands, a person of deep faith, and, most especially, a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Our Dad loved to reminisce about his sporting days – he played first team rugby for Hilton College and captained their gymnastics team. But the sporting achievement of which he was most proud was as an oarsman, when he rowed for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games. That was when he was at Queens University, Belfast, where he studied medicine like his brothers and father and mother before him. He came from a long line of doctors, and he was proud of being DR Campbell. He loved Ireland and all things Irish, especially our Mom.

He worked very long hours as we were growing up, but he always made time to be at our special events, and would listen when we recounted the stories of our day – even if he nodded off to sleep occasionally before we were finished. Our Dad enjoyed his sleep almost as much as he enjoyed his food. He liked his nap after mealtimes, and we’d watch in great amusement as he’d nod off even before he’d left the table.

Our Dad loved his woodwork, and we’ll always associate him with the smell of fresh wood shavings. He’d relax in his workshop, creating things. He was also an organiser and creator of systems. Everything had its place; even his workshop was neat and tidy. He actually enjoyed creating rosters for the anaesthetics department at Wentworth Hospital. Dad was very particular, and had an aversion to anything sticky or out of place. Pictures had to hang perfectly straight on walls. For all that, Mom loved to recount how his own mother told her that, when she saw his scribbles on the walls as a child, she despaired of his spelling. He was always interested in how things worked, and would quiz us at table about all manner of things, trying to awaken our curiosity and hone our analytical skills.

Our Dad loved quoting the poetry that had been drummed into his head as a schoolboy, listening to music, and watching TV – Sewende Laan was his favourite. He loved the history of the Anglo-Boer war – he’d drag us off to battlefield sites in KwaZulu Natal and tell us the stories. He also loved biltong, Turkish delight and coconut-covered marshmallows. He loved fishing, especially with Oscar Willis, his best friend. It was such a delight to see the two of them together. They would giggle like kids.

He was shy and reserved when he was younger, so it was with a combination of delight and embarrassment that we watched him become so much more outgoing in his later years. He’d love to tease people, and had a wicked sense of humour. He had a nickname (often less than complimentary!) for almost everyone. He was the master of deliberate spoonerisms – his favourite was to ask the waitress for a ‘tot of pee’.

Church was always a very important part of his life. He was the Session Clerk for many years at Stella Presbyterian Church , and also served as an elder here at Stellenbosch United Church. He faithfully attended a men’s prayer meeting at Stella at some unearthly hour every Saturday morning. He and our Mom would read Scripture together every single day and he prayed for his family. He would pray for each of us, and our husbands and his grandchildren every single day, mentioning each one by name.

Dad liked being the rose among the thorns – he was so proud of his wife, three daughters and seven granddaughters. He accepted our husbands as sons, and thought the world of them. He was patient in the extreme, grateful , content, and generous to a fault. There is a verse our Mom often quotes, which really does describe him: “Better a patient man than a warrior; the one who controls his temper than he who takes a city”. He always, always wanted the very best for us. He was immensely proud of his children and grandchildren – sometimes embarrassingly so – but more than anything else, he loved us. And we will always be so grateful that he didn’t just assume we knew – he told us constantly. Thanks Dad. We love you too.

Latterly, he spoke often about how he was looking forward to seeing his departed loved ones again. We know that he is with them, and with the Lord. And, knowing Dad, he stopped on the way to quiz St Peter about the swing mechanism of the Pearly Gates, and he’s found a good place near the food at the heavenly banquet.

Alone and on Foot

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This is a review of a book I’ve read for a course in Spiritual Direction …

Alone and on Foot

Brian Grogan SJ, Alone and on Foot. Ignatius of Loyola (Dublin: Veritas 2008) ISBN 9781847301345 (Paperback), 223 pages (Available here)

This biography of Ignatius of Loyola is an abridged translation of the Spanish Sola y a Pie by Jose Ignacio Tellechea. That original is noted for being by a compatriot of Ignatius, a Basque, who is also a medievalist and, unusual among biographers of Ignatius, not a Jesuit. This version, however, is by an Irish Jesuit. I am not sure what difference that makes, other than that it certainly strikes me as being very ‘Ignatian’ in this retelling. Biographers of Ignatius are fortunate in having both the Autobiography and witness statements for the canonisation process from people who remembered Ignatius, so the interesting small details and insights with which this book abounds are probably more than the imaginative recreations of an able storyteller. Perhaps as a result of the choices Grogan made in shortening the original, what we have here is a sharply drawn and utterly fascinating verbal portrait of Ignatius, with just enough historical and cultural context given to make sense of the story without losing focus on Ignatius and his companions. The narrative is the verbal equivalent of the delightful black and white illustrations throughout the book – simple, uncluttered, and quietly evocative of an intriguing personality.

Alone and on Foot tells the story of Ignatius as a graced personal history, and it is designed to be read slowly. The book is not overly long – 223 pages – but those pages are divided into 70 chapters, around 3 pages long. Each chapter should be savoured and mulled over; one can’t read the book in a few sittings. The final page of every chapter has a shaded sidebar with a sentence from the chapter quoted in the upper part and a question for the reader to ponder in light of the chapter at the bottom. It is perhaps this above all else which makes the experience of reading the book one of listening to a personal faith journey more than an historical exercise, and also a journey of understanding one’s own life story as graced history.

These questions enriched my reading experience, but occasionally they jarred by cutting across the direction of my own thoughts in response to the narrative, knocking them right out of my head, much like an ill-timed comment or question from a spiritual director might shatter a sacred moment for the directee. After a while I began reading with a piece of paper obscuring the sidebar until I was ready to reflect on the chapter, meaning I could benefit both from my own musings and the insightful direction of Grogan. Often these questions were predictable enough, but there were times they were utterly unexpected and illuminating precisely because they caught me off guard. One of my favourite was: “How do you think God finds the task of teaching you?” (p66)

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Ignatius and the Jesuits. It is not a scholarly account in that only sometimes is the source of the material made explicit, so it would not be the go-to-book for historians, but for those who are interested in the spiritual life. For those engaged in Spiritual Direction, this book can accomplish several things at once. It is an excellent way to get to know the story of Ignatius, precisely because it is told as a graced personal history. The questions invite one to reflect on one’s own journey. It is also an indirect education in good questions to ask of someone in order to encourage deep reflection on their life with God. It is a concise book, but paradoxically not a book that can be read quickly. One needs to work through it from beginning to end, not dip in and out of it, and the best would be to read only one chapter in a sitting. I’d even recommend it as a prayer companion.

Zealous for truth

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The words “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” are used of two people in the Old Testament: Phineas and Abraham (Psalm 106:30 and Gen 15:6). Paul and James both quote these words of Abraham as a model of the way of faith (Romans 4:3, 22, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23) , but Phineas doesn’t get a mention in the New Testament. Nonetheless, he casts a dark shadow over the life of Paul prior to his Damascus Road experience.

Who was Phineas? He was a devout priest in Moses’ day, Aaron’s grandson. In his zeal for God, he resorted to violence to rid Israel of someone who brought an outsider into the camp. The whole horrifying story can be read in Numbers 25. His reward for zealously defending God’s honour and the people’s purity was a ‘covenant of peace’ and a perpetual priesthood. This is celebrated in Psalm 106 with these words:

“Then [the Israelites] attached themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and interceded, and the plague was stopped. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.” (vv 29-30)

I will sidestep for now the issue of God being implicated in the violence in Numbers (an issue I’m still wrestling with, and to which I will return in later posts) to focus on the model of righteousness that this encapsulates. Phineas is emblematic of the belief that God is worth killing for, that truth is so important that it must be defended at all costs, even with violence. This describes St Paul before he was encountered by the Risen Christ. In his own words, the old Paul was: as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:6) Interesting that he uses the word zeal, a key word in the Numbers 25 account.

The old Paul was not a religious person who, unfortunately and unrelatedly, also had anger management issues; his violence was a direct expression of his devotion to God and commitment to truth. Paul didn’t persecute the church because he hated religions different from his own. He grew up as a Diaspora Jew, after all, surrounded by pagan religions which he may have looked down on, but wouldn’t have tried to stamp out. He persecuted Christians because the followers of Jesus were a movement within first century Judaism which also included Gentiles, outsiders. The early Christians were, in his eyes, transgressing the boundaries which separated God’s people from the unclean outsiders. Like the Israelite who brought the Midianite women into the camp in Numbers 25, they were violating the purity of the People of God.

Paul’s Damascus road experience forced him to re-interpret the scandal of the cross, to recognise in the disgraced, crucified Jesus the crazy foolishness that is the wisdom of God: the power that absorbs instead of inflicts violence, the justice that reaches out to and reconciles the enemy and the outsider instead of annihilating them. No longer would Phineas’s radical zeal be the model of faithfulness to God for Paul.

This violent zeal is still playing out in many places in the world where people harm and kill in the name of God. It also exists in more subtle forms, wherever people hate in the name of devotion to God. When St Paul was encountered by Jesus Christ he discovered that truth is worth dying for, but not killing for. Big difference.

[The idea for this post is taken from Michael J Gorman, whose books Apostle of the Crucified Lord, and the shorter Reading Paul have revolutionised my understanding of St Paul.]

Ecumenical Christian

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I recently filled in an application form which had a box for ‘religious affiliation’. I was tempted to write: “It’s complicated!” I am Christian, a missionary disciple of Jesus. But which branch of the Christian family do I call home? The best way, really, to describe myself is as a practicing ecumenical Christian.
St Paul, annoyed with the divisions between Christians in the church in ancient Corinth, reminded them that “all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [with their perceived distinctive ‘brands’] or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). That pretty much sums up my own experience. As a member of the Christian household, I am blessed by a superabundance of expressions of faith in God through Christ Jesus, so many gifts of a loving God to God’s people. Christ is not divided, the Lord our God is one God, so why should I have to choose to be ‘in’ one camp and ‘out’ the other?
My move from South Africa to Ireland has given me the opportunity to learn so much from Catholicism, and for my word-based spirituality to be filled out with the richness of images and rituals. All the gifts of the Christian world, in whatever form, from whatever tradition, are God’s gifts to God’s people, and I accept them with gratitude. To paraphrase St Paul, all those who proclaim the Gospel of Jesus are God’s servants, working together, and we are all God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9). What a wonderful building, what a beautiful, fruitful field!