Last month saw the publication of Naim Ateek’s latest book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.
On November 3, I was at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem to launch the book, along with Cedar Duaybis and Omar Haromy of Sabeel, Ann-Sofie Lasell of the Swedish Christian Study Centre, Russ McDougall of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and Naim himself. Below is what I said.
I was asked to say something about the significance of Palestinian liberation theology for the worldwide church – the universal church of Jesus Christ. But not even good Pope Francis can speak for the whole church. We must each of us speak for ourselves.
The worldwide church is, of course, not to be identified with the Western church, although the Western church often does that. The rest of you may have contextual theologies. What we have is just theology, because God – who is, of course, a white Western male (although happily not dead) – has given us a God’s-eye view.
In his foreword to the book Walter Brueggemann, an American Presbyterian scholar of what we call the Old Testament and our Jewish cousins call the Bible, says better than I can what it might mean for Western Christians. Let me say something of what it means to me.
I am not a theologian. But in the SCM – the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland to which I belonged in my youth – we passionately believed two things.
We believed, first, that theology is too important to be left to the theologians. To use an Irish idiom, theology is not a private fight, the exclusive preserve of academics: anyone can join in.
Second, we believed – adapting a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein – that the task of theology is to put bad theologians out of business. For more than three decades, Naim Ateek has devoted himself to that task with exemplary dedication.
In the SCM of the 1960s, we learned that loving our neighbours had to mean more than being nice to them. It had to mean working for justice and for peace. Much of what this means in practice, I later learned from liberation theology in general, and Palestinian liberation theology in particular; and much of this, as so often in my life, was by accident. Academic theologians call this providence.
In 1973, in the SCM headquarters in Golders Green in London, the English Dominican Herbert McCabe told me of a fascinating book by a Peruvian Dominican he was planning to review in New Blackfriars. Published by Orbis Books in the US, it wasn’t yet available in a British edition; but it sounded so fascinating that I asked if he could get me a copy. He not only did, but with characteristic generosity asked if I would review it. So it was that I, who had yet to study theology of any kind, wrote one of the first British reviews of A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez.
I met Naim Ateek almost two decades later, at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I learned that this mild-mannered and deceptively modest Anglican Palestinian had not long published what Orbis rightly called a “ground-breaking book” – Justice, and Only Justice, the very first Palestinian theology of liberation. This time I had to buy a copy.
I was touched by the way Naim wrote of what the Nakba meant for him and his family. But I was touched too by the characteristic generosity with which he credited his title to a Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 16.20. “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…” The first “justice”, said Reuven Moskovitz, applies to the Jews; the second applies to other people. We are called to pursue justice for others.
From Gutiérrez and Ateek, Gustavo and Naim, I and many others have learned that the calling of the worldwide church – a calling the Western church finds particularly challenging – is to stand with the poor and the downtrodden.
But that calling is also to invite those who tread them down to stop doing that – to invite the exploiter, the oppressor and the dominator instead into the new community of those who live as equals because we are all God’s children.
As Garth Hewitt sang last night in St George’s Cathedral:
May the justice of God fall down like fire
and bring a home for the Palestinian
May the mercy of God pour down like rain
and protect the Jewish people
But the most important thing I and other Western Christians have learned from liberation theology, and Palestinian liberation theology in particular, is to shed the illusion of our own innocence.
If I look back over the many and contradictory things the Church of Scotland has said over the decades about Palestine and then about Israel/Palestine, the one thing they have in common is the naïve assumption that we as a church are on the side of the angels and the even more naïve assumption that the British empire and the UK are too.
Before we tell the rest of the world how to live its life, we need first to hear the instruction in Matthew 7 to take the log out of our own eye.
For freedom, says Paul, Christ has set us free. But too often we prefer the fleshpots of idolatry. This is not, or not necessarily, because we are bad people. At the Rainbow group on Wednesday, Jesper Svartik distinguished between sin and heresy. Sin is where we choose to behave badly. Heresy is where we fall, or are led by our tradition, into intellectual errors that can have devastating practical consequences.
The path that has led us to the present miserable state of Israel/Palestine and the present miserable state of our planet is a long and winding road, and there is enough blame to go around.
Jacob Neusner argues that Zionism is a modern Judaism, a way of being Jewish that responds to modern antisemitism in the same way that in the previous 15 centuries Rabbinic Judaism responded to Christian supremacy. It is, he says, “the one genuinely successful and enduring Judaism” of an age when the Judaism of the dual Torah is no longer self-evident.
For me, political Zionism is a false Judaism, the falsest of false paths. The creation of “a Jewish state for the Jewish people” has already led to tears for the Palestinians. Sooner or later it will end in tears for the Jews of Israel – unless they can be brought to recognize what Lord Balfour so delicately described as the “non-Jewish” inhabitants of this land as fellow human beings, with fundamental human rights that for three score years and nine the state of Israel has systematically denied.
But the point generalizes, and in her foreword to Justice, and Only Justice Rosemary Radford Ruether already generalizes it:
“What is true of Palestine is finally true of the whole earth. As Father Ateek affirms, the earth belongs finally to God and not to us as private property. We can learn to live in peace only when we cease to claim it as our own against others, and learn to share it as sisters and brothers, children of one God who created us and chooses us all.”
My friend Robert Smith was blogging recently about the New Christian Zionism. He concluded that all of us are confronted with a threefold task: “Now is the time for a new conversation about Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, a new conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a new conversation about historical Christian responsibility.”
In that complex conversation, the Palestinian liberation theology that Naim began now almost thirty years ago, and that continues today in his own writings but now also in the writings of so many others, is an essential voice that must be heard.
Let my last word therefore be Walter Brueggemann’s word. “This important book will be a great learning among us to which Western Christians of every ilk should pay attention.”
May it be so.
Rev Páraic Réamonn
 Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Confict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017)
 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973); Páraic Réamonn, “Liberating Theology: Gustavo Gutiérrez”, New Blackfriars (December 1973), 564-9
 Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 177
 Ok, so that’s two things.
 Jacob Neusner, The Death and Birth of Judaism: The Impact of Christianity, Secularization and the Holocaust on Jewish Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 253. And then he adds, “Alas!”
 Justice, and Only Justice, xiif.
 The New Christian Zionism. Same as the Old Christian Zionism. Or as Robert would say, with scholarly precision, same as the Older Christian Zionism. See Robert O Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Robert O Smith, “Critiquing Christian Zionism, Old and New”, Jerusalem Praxis blog: robertowensmith.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/critiquing-christian-zionism-old-and-new/
 A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, xix. I do not think that “ilk” means what Brueggemann thinks it means.