Tag Archives: prophetic imagination

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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Imagining a Renewed Church in Ireland

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When I pray for the renewal of the Irish Church, I keep returning to one theme: imagination. The institution is in crisis, but I sense that it is more than a crisis of credibility in the wake of horrendous scandals and a crisis of relevance in an increasingly secular society; it is also a crisis of imagination. The Church is like a dazed animal caught in the headlights of the 21st Century. She cannot retreat into an (often idealised) past but neither does she know how to move forward. And she will not know until she remembers who she is, and whose she is. She must reconnect with her story.

The abuses, the prestige and power games, the passivity of so many of its committed members all point to a catastrophic failure of imagination. Instead of being an alternative community which embodies the vision of Jesus, the Church takes her agenda and modus operandi from the world. Even the present tendency to see herself as the victim of the media or of a hostile secular agenda looks to me like the flip side of the same coin. It is still operating from the same vision of power (or lack of it). Do we even have any idea of what a community of Christ-followers could look like?

In Scripture it is the task of the prophet to call God’s people back to their identity. So much more than simply a foreteller or a social activist, the gift of the prophet is to be able to see deeply into the contemporary situation and to interpret it in the light of God’s ongoing story. The prophet has stood in God’s presence and has some inkling of how and where God is at work in the world. And it is the task of the rest of God’s people to be listening carefully for God’s voice so that when the prophet speaks we recognise and respond to the truth. And once we have heard we must act courageously to change our thinking and our way of being in the world, to live out of the reality which the prophet makes clear to us.

The trouble is that the prophets are often not the ones we expect. The religious and political leaders and many of the people in Jesus’ day did not expect God to come to them in the person of a carpenter from Galilee. But those who recognised God speaking through this young man had their imaginations fired by the awesome new possibilities of what God was doing through him and through the community of his followers.

A renewed Church is one into which the Spirit of God has breathed fresh life. A holy discontent with the way things are is often a good starting point. That is why prophets often make us uncomfortable; they make us face and feel things we’d rather ignore. But crisis can become a catalyst for new growth if we allow the prophetic message to penetrate our numbness. Jesus often said: ”Those who have ears, let them hear!”

When we live in denial of how far short we fall or acquiesce unthinkingly to a vision which contradicts the vision of Jesus, we are like people without ears. We don’t even realise that we are ignoring the word of God. When crisis and discontent have shaken us out of our complacency we rediscover our ears. May God send prophets to Ireland! I’m sure that God already has. But do we recognise them or know how to listen?

I don’t expect perfection of the Church. I am however stubbornly convinced that the power of the Gospel is genuinely transformative. Where the Spirit of God is at work, there is life, energy, compassion and growth. There is joy and purpose even in the midst of hardship. A faith that gives us moral guidelines and hope for the future beyond the grave is good, but it is not enough. If we invoke Christ’s name but reflect the antithesis of what Jesus stood for, something is seriously wrong. That is why a renewal of the imagination is so vital. It is not about wishful thinking, or about constructing our own idealised picture which we then try to bring to actualisation. It is about discovering what God is doing now, and working alongside God. When we catch a glimpse of the possibilities we can be energised by hope.

Our Christian imagination can be nurtured through reconnecting with our founding story – the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We may be tempted to truncate that story and make it simply a matter of obtaining grace without connecting with the challenging life and radical vision of Jesus. If we feel too comfortable with Jesus, chances are we have domesticated his message and lost sight of its subversive character.

Renewal, ultimately, is the work of God. But do we know how to recognise where God is at work so that we can join in? There are many practical changes that the Church needs to make on her path to renewal. Many things can be done to restore her vitality. But before we can ask ”how do we get there?” we need to know where we’re going. Change for the sake of change without a vision of where we are headed may perk us up temporarily but it is not ultimately life-giving. That is why we need our imagination to be inspired by the prophetic vision.

(This was originally published in the Irish Catholic on 21 October 2010)