Tag Archives: Scripture

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.

Engaging the Old Testament Story

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We all love stories. They entertain us, move us, make us laugh and cry. And they shape us, they tell us who we are. Think of the stories that we want our children or grand-children, our nieces and nephews, to hear. Because they are our children we want them to know the stories of our family, and of our local community. We want them to know the stories of our cultural heritage, and we want them to know the stories of our faith.

I drive my children crazy. One of the ways I do that is the way I watch films with them. I almost never sit through a whole DVD. I pop in and out picking up threads of the story until right near the end when I get absorbed into the drama. Then I sit down and keep asking them – “is that the guy who owned the shop? Am I supposed to like that person? Why’s he saying that? Why’s she crying?” It doesn’t take long before someone tries to shut me up by saying “Watch it from the beginning!” I wonder if that isn’t how we interact with the Christian story? We join part way through. We’re captivated by the climax, where Jesus rises from the dead, and we know the stories of his birth, and his miracles. We also know bits of the earlier story – Moses and the ten commandments, David and his harp, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But those are free-floating images, which we battle to fit into the overall plot, and we’re not quite sure of how we get from there to Jesus. And maybe that’s one reason why its sometimes hard to get from the story of Jesus to our story in the here and now.

The Old Testament is full of all kinds of things – there are weird laws, beautiful psalms (provided we skip through some of the more vindictive sentiments expressed in some of them), confusing prophecies, lots of heroes like Samson and Joshua who do different things. But underlying it all, the Old Testament is the story of the people of God. As an Old Testament scholar, what matters most to me is that story, and how that story is the backdrop and first part of the story of Jesus, and how that story, as it interacts with my story, shapes me as a member of the people of God.

The story is of a world that is given as gift by a Creator who blesses the creation with the ability to co-create, a world which is beautiful, but also fragile and fractured, a world in which we experience both connection and alienation, among ourselves, within our self, and with those who are different from us. God begins the story, and God won’t allow our stubbornness, sinfulness or stupidity to derail it. So God calls one family to journey with God. That one family and their children and children’s children will come to know God, and how to live in a way that promotes the full flourishing of humanity along with the whole of creation, so that they can become a channel through which the gracious, giving God can bless all the families of the earth. 

 And so the journey begins with Abraham. Not too far into the journey, the people of God experience oppression in Egypt, which provides the setting for their experience of the power of God to set them free. This story of the Exodus becomes their foundational story. They are set free from slavery, from the systems of power that dehumanize them in order to live freely as the people of God. The laws that they are given at Sinai are not there to enslave them all over again, but to guide them into a life lived in freedom that respects the freedom of others and that does not result again in the enslavement of the poor by the powerful.

The people of God find it too hard to live in that freedom under God, and so they ask for kings to lead them. There are a few good kings like David, but even good kings play politics and are tempted by power. The story of the people of God becomes the story of a state struggling with issues of social justice and covenant faithfulness, with prophets calling them back to the vision of the Exodus. The people of God live out their story against the backdrop of powerful empires that threaten to engulf them. They find it so hard to life faithfully and trustfully in freedom. Their elite choose to ignore the voice of God’s messengers, and instead play the games of power. They lose, and it looks like they might have lost everything. But in this dark time of loss, they begin to discover again something of the truths of the journey with God that their fathers and mothers knew. The God who led them out of Egypt leads them out of this exile back to their land where they begin to rebuild life out of the ashes of their old life. The story continues, on in to the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus, son of Abraham, son of David. And it continues today in the story of God’s people in their communities throughout the world, in the 21st century, struggling to live faithfully, tempted by power or frustrated by its lack, feeling overwhelmed by economic, political and cultural forces, and yet looking for and finding God’s fingerprints in the details of our lives, learning to trust, to build and rebuild. The journey with God continues.

Praying in Dark Times

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If you want to know how to pray, read the Psalms. They are the song- and prayer-book of the people of God. There are different types of psalms to give expression to different experiences. One of the most common types of psalm is the lament, which is a psalm to be prayed in the midst of a crisis. These psalms all follow a similar structure, and by paying attention to that structure we can learn something about how to pray authentically in dark times.

The lament psalm always begins with an INVOCATION, in other words with a plea addressed to God to get God’s attention. It is often phrased as a plea for God to listen, or to take note of the psalmist. It is often desperate, sometimes accusatory – why are you ignoring me? – but it is always addressed directly to God. And when the sufferer only experiences the absence of God, even then the cry to God is flung into the silence: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1)

The psalmist then does two related but distinct things: she or he complains, and she or he petitions God. The COMPLAINT uses statements and descriptive language to present the crisis. Here the psalmist does not ask God for anything but dwells on the situation and the pain and anger it evokes, describing it to God. PETITION refers to the requests that are made of God, often in the form of strong demands. God is asked, often told, to do something about the situation. Complaint and petition often alternate through the psalm.

There is an element in every lament psalm which, until you understand what it is doing there, looks out of place. This is the STATEMENT OF CONFIDENCE. In the middle of pouring out a complaint to God, the psalmist will declare trust in God and confidence in God’s goodness. This statement of confidence serves as a reminder of the God that has been experienced in the good times, and is the reason for the psalmist’s hope in the dark times.

Often a lament psalm will conclude with a VOW OF THANKSGIVING. “Lord, when you have delivered me from my troubles, I will declare your praises in the assembly.” This is not an attempt to bargain with God, or to twist God’s arm by promising to do something in return. It is another way of expressing confidence in God, as the psalmist looks forward to the time when God will have delivered them, and they will be able to stand up and give public testimony to that. These two aspects help to situate the psalmist’s plight within the wider narrative of their story with God. The world may be a chaotic place now, but there have been times, and there will be again, where life is lived in God’s light, joy and peace.

That structure gives us a model for our own prayers in dark times. First, the invocation: If we are feeling God-forsaken, then we would be lying if we began our prayer: “Oh Lord, I thank you that you always hear me.” We may believe intellectually that it is true, but if it is not our lived experience at that moment, then it is not a heartfelt cry. The invocations in the lament psalms model how to fling a bridge across the chasm that sometimes opens up between God and us in times of crisis – talk to God, and talk honestly. Beg and plead, accuse and cajole until you feel that God is listening. Find that connection.

Petition tends to come easily in a time of crisis, but we must not forget the importance of the complaint. We have to stay with the problem, acknowledging both what is happening and how it is affecting us. Complaint is more than just getting things off our chest or having a pity party; it is acknowledging our crisis and its effect in the presence of God. A word about petition: Some petitions in the psalms sound harsh, like asking God to destroy our enemies. Should Christians pray this sort of thing? Don’t think of the petitions primarily as suggestions to God about how to get us out of our crisis. They are cries rooted in our anguish and directed toward God. If we ask God too quickly to bless our enemies, we are probably fooling ourselves and connecting from the level of where we think we should be rather than where we actually are. And that is something the lament psalms don’t do. That howl of rage directed to God could be the only authentic reaction available to us. If we get it out we can, with God’s help, move beyond it.

When talking to God in dark times, remember to look back with gratitude and forward with hope. Reflect on the good times. And spend some time looking forward to when we will be able to look back in amazement at how God has brought us through.