Liberation theologies, from Latin America to Palestine, are the results of painful struggle. They are born in situations of oppression, when people of faith strive to interpret their experience through scripture, prayer and worship.
This was the case in Jerusalem during the 1980s, a time when Palestinian clergy and laity met to search for meaning in the midst of a repressive occupation. Together they wrestled with biblical passages that tried their faith, challenged and, at times, consoled them. In this process they created a distinctly Palestinian theology rooted in a faith that had sprung to life in their own land two thousand years before.
In 1990, under the guidance of the Rev. Naim Ateek, a group of laity and clergy organized a conference to explore liberation theology in the context of Palestinian experience. The proceedings of this conference led to the publication of Faith and the Intifada (Orbis Books, 1992) and the founding of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.
The essence of Palestinian Liberation Theology has since then found expression in other publications and in the work of Sabeel and the Friends of Sabeel chapters throughout the world. In a speech given in Milwaukie, Oregon in 2008, the Rev. Ateek stated the core values of this theology with clarity and passion. We reproduce that statement in a series of notes below:
The Theology of Sabeel—What We Believe
Ten Characteristics of Sabeel’s Theology:
- It is a contextual theology. Sabeel’s theology arises from a particular context, namely, the Palestinian historical context and experience of oppression under the state of Israel.
- It is a liberation theology. We seek, like all liberation theologies, liberation from a particular situation of injustice.
- It is an ecumenical theology. We seek to bring together all Palestinian Christians, all the Christians of the land of Palestine who have been divided by so many schisms going back to the 4th century A.D., to work together as one Palestinian local church.
- It is an interfaith theology. We seek to bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three peoples of the Abrahamic faiths, to work together for justice and peace in this one land.
- It is not identified with any one political party, but we are not apolitical. Rather we deal with politics and with all reality, from a faith perspective. We speak from a comprehensive reality of life.
- It is not just critical theology. Rather we offer solutions; we provide a vision of alternatives to the present unjust situation.
- It is biblically based. We seek to counteract the misuse of the Bible but offer a deeply rooted vision of how the Bible points to justice, liberation and peace, from the context of a theology of the land.
- We critique Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is a prime example of the misuse of the Bible to promote violence, racism and injustice. We show why this kind of theology is not authentic to the Bible.
- We also address the apathy of mainline Christians. Christian Zionism is not just a problem of evangelical conservatives. There is a subtle and more diffuse theology of mainline Christians, which justifies domination of the land and Palestinian people from the perspective of ideas of election, chosenness and the promised land, as well as recompense for the Holocaust. We critique the mistaken premises of this kind of mainline Christian thinking, especially in the West, that promotes Christian silence and apathy toward the Palestinian plight.
- It is a theology of nonviolence. We reject all forms of violence and seek to follow Jesus in the Way of nonviolence toward authentic justice and peace.
Seven Themes of Sabeel's Theology
Sabeel's theological vision explores seven key themes:
- We address the issue of God. What kind of a God do we believe in? A racist God who chooses one people against others or a loving God of all peoples?
- We focus on Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation of the biblical message. This means we emphasize not just Jesus’s divinity but the fullness of his humanity in his historical context and reality, as a Palestinian Jew living under the occupation of the Roman empire. We are followers of Jesus Christ in his way of nonviolent resistance to imperial occupation.
- It is a prophetic theology. We stand in the line of the great prophets of ancient Israel in their unmasking of injustice and call for justice.
- We stand particularly in the line of the theology of the book of Jonah (the first Palestinian liberation theologian), which we see as the climax of the theology of the Old Testament and which dismantles the theology of exclusivism and racism of his day. The theology of the book of Jonah discloses a) an inclusive God, a God of all nations; b) an inclusive people of God, a people that includes those on both sides of nationalist conflicts, the Ninevites, as well as the people of Israel; the people of Iraq today and those in the West; in Palestine, Jews and Palestinians; and c) a theology of the land for all the peoples of the land.
- It is an anti-imperial theology. It critiques all theologies of empire, whether the Roman Empire in the biblical context or American empire today. Sabeel stands in the tradition of the anti-imperial theologies of both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
- We challenge Son of David christology, a messianic theology with its imperial designs, in favor of a Suffering Servant christology. We reject the false fusion of Suffering Servant Christology with Son of David Christology that occurred later in the Church’s history with its integration into the Constantinian Roman Empire. We root ourselves in the Suffering Servant Christology of the early Church with its witness to the nonviolent way of the cross.
- Ours is a theology of peace and reconciliation. This is not peace at any price, but a way to peace through justice, which brings authentic reconciliation of estranged peoples into a new relation of just peace.