Faith under fire in Bethlehem: Mitri Raheb’s FAITH IN THE FACE OF EMPIRE
At last year’s launch of veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy’s remarkable book, A Month by the Sea – Encounters in Gaza, she made a simple but telling point. “The Palestinians’ predicament is that they are the victims’ victims”. Of course, in Faith in the Face of Empire, an equally remarkable book by a Palestinian Christian pastor, victimhood (despite its postmodern attractions) is a dangerous mantle. As Mitri Raheb says:
It is both reassuring and comfortable to feel oneself a victim, because then one is neither responsible for the situation nor accountable. But even the weakest victim is also an actor who has to make choices and decisions – and assume responsibility. Simply blaming the empire doesn’t help. In fact, it makes the victim feel more depressed, more helpless, and more hopeless. Playing the role of victim might assist those who are oppressed gain some sympathy but not necessarily respect. (p114)
Raheb seeks the precise opposite. He does not write to elicit sympathy but respect:
- informed respect for genuine realities (on both sides of Israel’s wall) masked by propaganda and geopolitical necessities;
- inspired respect for those treading the radically counter-cultural path of taking up Christ’s cross in the face of Empire.
As Raheb points out, this tiny eastern mediterranean corridor has been devoured/controlled by almost every notorious empire going: Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, British, and now (effectively) American. The heart of this book, then, provoked from both his birth into a Bethlehem family of countless generations’ standing and his pastoral ministry to believers there, is how to live out authentic Christian discipleship in that context. But despite its specificity, there are many lessons for the wider church.
Unsurprisingly, his insights are far removed from the platitudes and shibboleths of western politics or theology.
- I was very struck by his take on familiar passages, such as his legitimate translation of Jesus’ beatitude as “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land.” For ironically, aren’t those regarded by empires as social dregs usually those left behind by imperial brain drains? (p99)
- I was also very challenged by the call to creative resistance to power abuse, rather than violence or acquiescence.
- Above all, I felt strongly that this is an urgent appeal to western Christians to listen to one of the most marginalised minorities on earth: Palestinian Christians are minorities within an oppressed minority.
For do we not have a biblical, dare I say prophetic, imperative to do that? After all, they really are our brothers and sisters in the faith.
This review was originally written for the excellent Wazala site – a really important hub for understanding and discovering more about the Middle East. Especially recommend signing up to their monthly Middle East news bulletin.
I had a fairly tight word limit, so here are a few other bits I appreciated about the book:
What such Jewish and Palestinian mythologies have in common is their static understanding of history. That is, they choose one specific moment in ancient history to relate to, as if history has stood still and as if the land was empty. … alternatively, a dynamic understanding of history carries with it endless options for the future. This is why I love these words in the First Epistle of John, ‘It is not yet manifest what we shall be.’ (1Jn3:2) p19
A very telling moment comes at one of the Israeli checkpoints:
In midsummer it is very hot, smelly, and crowded. People slowly lose patience. They push left and right. Yet nothing moves. The young soldier may be in a bad mood or be texting his girlfriend. And then, suddenly in that cavernous hall, there arises the cry of an old Palestinian woman standing in her hand-embroidered dress, raising both hands towards the sky and imploring loudly in Arabic, “Wenak ya Allah?” meaning “Where are you God?” (p68)
The God in which the people of Palestine put their faith seems to be weak and not up to the challenge of empire. (p69)
This God had to see his people repeatedly endure starvation and migrate to neighbouring countries for food and supplies. Above all, this God appeared to be weak compared with other gods. He seemed forever to be on the losing end, just like his people. This God was almost interchangeable with his people, his weakness was shown in theirs, and their defeat was his. This God was a loser. He lost almost all wars, and his people were forced to pay the price of those defeats. In short, this God did not appear to be up to the challenge of the various empires. His people in Palestine were forced to hear the mocking voices of their neighbours who taunted them, “Where is your God?” (Ps 42:3,10) (p87)
In words that resonate discordantly with events just of this week, he reflects on Zech 4:6:
The alternate deception for any empire is to believe that military power is the master of all trades and solves all problems. That is a myth. In the last two decades the military intervention of the West in the Middle East, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to nowhere and proved to be a total failure not only for the region, but also for the West. Yet the dominant mindset seems to think differently. (p109)
When will we all see that:
Once violence enters the arena, it creates a culture that is very difficult to eradicate. In fact liberation in the true sense means liberating the “enemy” from its own violence. (p120)
So the only option is:
Creative resistance goes one step further than nonviolent resistance… Creative resistance specifically tackles this notion. It works on the branding of the narrative itself. This is of utmost importance because it questions the morality of the empire and confronts it with another narrative. (p121)
And that alternative, is, of course, the utterly subversive model of the cross of Christ.
This is an accessible, challenging book, regardless of your politics or theology.