Liberation theology has finally reached the Middle East. Palestinian Christians, as well as some mainstream churches in the United States, have now embraced this call for justice and activism, given its name by the Peruvian Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez. Two organizations, Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA) and the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, USA (IPMN), have taken it upon themselves to subject the intractable Israel-Palestinian conflict to the discourse of the theologians, in an effort to sift through some of the egregious nationalist claims often made in the name of religion. The common thread running through this volume is the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians by Zionism and its conflation of faith and nationalism. By highlighting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and its Zionist underpinnings, the most important dimension of this conflict emerges as the damage done to Palestinian human rights.
This volume is also a bold foray into the arena of U.S. religious politics, explaining how Zionism succeeded in penetrating a broad swath of the American Christian evangelical landscape. Among the most informative debates recapped here are those by Christian evangelicals who dissociate themselves from the Christian Zionists, and by Jewish dissidents attempting to disaggregate the multiple strands of Zionist ideology, separating myth from history. This effort is undertaken so as to restore to Judaism its rightful place as a faith with a rich humanistic legacy.
Editors Wagner and Davis bring a wealth of experience to the debate. Both are Presbyterian ministers and academics. Wagner has written extensively on Christian Zionism and the inroads it made into American foreign policy; Davis is a prominent Christian ethicist with a long history of support for Palestinian human rights. One of Wagner's articles describes the impact of German-American Protestant theologians such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr on American foreign policy. They not only supported the Zionist program during the 1940s uncritically, but also justified their views as a response to the Holocaust. Niebuhr went so far as to recommend the transfer (read expulsion) of the Palestinians out of their land in order to make room for Jewish immigrants. Wagner marvels at this Christian push for Zionism when The Christian Century, the eminent Protestant journal, asserted in an editorial in December 1929 in reference to the Balfour Declaration that "... it is the conviction of most biblical scholars that the Old Testament contains no description of the restoration of Israel to its ancient homeland which can apply to the Jewish people of the present age" (p. 144-45).
A piece by Davis and Pauline Coffman, a member of IPMN and a leader of the Middle East Task Force of the Chicago Presbytery, argues that political Zionism was not the only choice for the achievement of Jewish redemption in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They demonstrate that the cultural humanistic Zionism of Ahad Haam, Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, with its call for a binational state in Palestine, was eventually sidelined by those advocating militant Zionism as the only response to European anti-Semitism.
One of the most thought-provoking contributions is Brant Rosen's "Rising to the Challenge." A reconstructionist rabbi, Rosen has been in the forefront of the latest wave of Jewish criticism of Zionism sweeping across the United States. In this masterstroke, Rosen evaluates the work of Palestinian liberation theologians such as Canon Naim S. Ateek, the founder of Sabeel, defending them against unwarranted accusations by the militant Zionist camp. Ateek's most original work points to the books Judges and Kings in the Torah and the triumphalism surrounding the militarist achievements of Joshua and Samuel as a celebration of the conquest of Palestine. According to him, this created a narrative of conquest based on Israel's special concept of chosenness, leading to a "land-centric militaristic ethos" (p. 64). Ateek believes that Zionism led the Jewish people back to a primitive concept of God. Jesus, by contrast, was the culmination of a prophetic tradition based on an open and inclusive concept of God. Rosen laments the fact that Ateek's theology was attacked by some Christians and Jews as a form of supersessionism, which was condemned as a new version of "replacement theology," the advocacy of a new Christian covenant replacing the Jewish people's covenant with God. Supersessionism, as some Christian liberals believe, was the inspiration for Christian anti-Semitism. Rosen explains that this view led theologians like Paul Van Buren and Franklin Little to insist that a Christian covenant does not constitute a total break with the old Jewish covenant but should be considered continuous with promises in the Abrahamic bible. Ateek became the object of accusations of anti-Semitism, a regrettable development in Rosen's view, since Ateek launched this analysis of traditional theology not as a diatribe but as an opening for a dialogue.
Ateek's own piece attests to his pioneering role in redefining Christian theology so as to reflect a moral Christian view of Zionist abuses afflicting the Palestinians today. An Anglican priest, Ateek casts Zionism as a false theology, a view he claims is gaining wide currency in international circles. He explains that Zionism became a "price tag" theology, providing Westerners with a convenient mechanism for atoning for their recent Christian anti-Semitism. He also stresses that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is a sin devoid of any concern for justice, which condemns the Palestinians to a life of suffering and despair. He concludes that Zionism commits theological injustice by "its appeal to God, history and race" (p. 219).
The volume also provides perspectives by leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church, citing the spiritual careers of Metropolitan George Khodr, the heirarch of Mount Lebanon, and Metropolitan Philip Saliba, primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America, in defense of the Palestinians. According to Carol Monica Burnett, the church upheld a historic lack of emphasis on pilgrimage, insisting that the land of promise was not Palestine but the Kingdom of God. Thus, Patriarch Ignatius IV, head of the church in the Middle East, reiterated that the people were his concern in Jerusalem, not the stones.
Rosemary and Herman Ruether, noted academics and theologians, take on the issue of the Vatican's relations with Israel. Although the Catholic Church defended Jews throughout recent history, it has always maintained that, due to Jewish denial of Christ's divinity, they were doomed to dwell in perpetual exile. The politics of the church reflected this stance when it declined to recognize the state of Israel at its founding in 1948 and instead directed its humanitarian aid to the Palestinian refugees. But when this universal church engaged in diplomatic interactions, the politics of the Vatican as a quasi-state pushed it to reach a resolution of this complex earthly issue. After decades of contentious relations with Israel due to its annexation of Jerusalem in violation of the Catholic-inspired UN resolution calling for the internationalization of the holy city, the Vatican finally recognized the Jewish state following the signing of the Oslo Accords. A year later, the PLO was also recognized. The Ruethers conclude that the current Vatican position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict matches that of developing nations, rather than that of Western states.
But, lest we assume that the Christian evangelical community presents a monochromatic vista supporting the return of the Jews to Palestine as fulfillment of prophecy in anticipation of the second coming, a prominent evangelical professor offers a clarification. Gary M. Burge, who teaches the New Testament at the evangelical flagship educational institution, Wheaton College of Chicago, affirms that there is a great diversity of opinion on theological issues relating to the Middle East. Not unlike the diverse theological interpretations currently consuming the world Muslim community, evangelical churches differ according to theologians with whom they identify and the literal reading of the holy text they follow. Rev. John Hagee, who organized Christians United for Israel, to cite one example, is a dispensationalist, someone who divides human history into a series of seven biblical categories (dispensations). The current period is the era of the church, or the penultimate chapter of human history before the end of time, the millennium. Believing that the day of judgment is approaching and taking his inspiration from recent writers such as John N. Darby, Cyrus I. Scofield and Charles Ryrie, Hagee and his followers believe that the creation of the state of Israel, regardless of the circumstances, heralds the end of time. Burge, on the other hand, adheres to the views of older philosophers, such as John Calvin and other Reformed Tradition figures including John Piper, N.T. Wright and John Stott. The Christian Zionists' chief charge against these theologians is that they paved the way for what came to be known as "replacement theology," or "supersessionism," which alleges that Christianity supersedes or replaces Judaism. But Burge insists that, by rejecting the interpretations of the new theologians and their unyielding and blind support for modern Israel, he is merely adopting the historical teaching of the church, not a modern heresy, as is often charged.
A Muslim contributor, Mustafa Abu Sway, adds a unique perspective to this collection, both as a Jerusalemite academic who lives the consequences of Israel's bizarre bureaucratic and military war on the Palestinians, and as a believer in interfaith reconciliation. He delivered lectures at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, titled "Islamic Theology of the Holocaust," in which he explained that the Quran regards the unjustifiable killing of a human being as genocide in its cumulative effect. But he also contends that there can be no moral equivalency between the two sides in this struggle — one the occupier, the other the occupied, who suffers the whole negative impact of this relationship. He reminds us that, if the Palestinians were the followers of a third religion, they would still mount a vigorous struggle against the occupier. Abu Sway also repeats the common Palestinian belief that Zionism preceded the Holocaust but preempted the latter in order to justify flooding Palestine with Jewish refugees who were victimized, not by the Palestinians, but by Europeans. To prove his case, he cites the story of 90 Peruvians from Latin America who converted to Judaism and moved to the Israeli settlement of Alon Shvut. They readily admit that they are of Indian origin, according to their spokesperson, Nachshon Ben-Haim (a. k. a. Pedro Mendosa), who explains that after a two-week conversion by Israeli rabbis visiting Peru, the Indians "returned" to their "original home" in Palestine. The story broke in The Guardian on August 6, 2002, as proof of the dishonesty of Israel's nationality laws.
In sum, this is a rich compendium of the debates of mainline Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians; it sheds a great deal of light on today's battle for American hearts and minds. Despite references to eschatology and abstract theological concepts, what is being presented is essentially an argument over U.S. foreign policy. Who claims a monopoly over the religious proclivities of American Protestants today? What justifies the overwhelming dedication to all things Israeli by members of the U.S. Congress? Some of the answers may be found here, in the voices of the voiceless Christians in this country who have long suffered charges of anti-Semitism and denial of biblical truths simply because they looked deeper into the complex ethnoreligious Israeli-Palestinian issue. In short, no congressional official or U.S. foreign-policy expert can afford to ignore this volume.