Palestinian Liberation Theology
By: Christopher Katulka
Naim Ateek believes you cannot take the Bible literally. He has a particular problem with the Torah (Pentateuch), which he considers a “Zionist text,” and the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings—all of which confirm God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people.
He speaks of peace and nonviolence but makes no apology for Palestinian terrorism. In fact, much of his rhetoric regarding Israel is indistinguishable from that of a Palestinian Muslim.
But Naim Ateek is not a Muslim. In fact, he is a highly respected, American educated, Palestinian Christian and ordained Episcopal priest. At 75, he is the president and director of the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, also called the Sabeel Center (Arabic for “the way”), which he helped found in the 1990s. He has written books and won awards; and as an Israeli citizen and pastor to Palestinian Christians, he speaks on behalf of his people, whom he says feel disenfranchised under “the colonialist Zionist Israelis” who stole their land during the War of Independence in 1948.
Believing his people cannot accept the “dangerous theology” of Zionist Christians,1 Dr. Ateek helped develop Palestinian Liberation Theology (PLT), which he and the Sabeel Center say provides a relevant way to interpret Scripture for Arab believers who need a healthy dose of encouragement living in Israel. Today PLT is the primary doctrine of Palestinian Christians, rooting and grounding them in a highly politicized form of Replacement Theology.
Liberation Theology itself is nothing new. In the 1960s it surfaced in Latin America, advanced by the Roman Catholic Church to encourage the poverty-stricken to react against President John F. Kennedy’s economic development plan for Latin America, which the church believed would cause further injustice.2
Proponents of Liberation Theology encouraged political activism against those who sought to preserve a class system. The movement’s leaders in Latin America manipulated the gospel message to mean deliverance from political, social, and economic injustice. As a result, the theology spread throughout mainline Christian denominations and has typically been labeled a Christian form of Marxism.3
Liberation Theology faded not long after it began. However, within the past 20 years it has reemerged as the principal theology of Palestinian Christians in Israel because it focuses on freeing the outcasts and downtrodden.4
The most important issue Palestinian Christians struggle with is the literal interpretation of the Bible. Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, most considered the Old Testament crucial to the Scriptures. It stood as a witness and guide to the coming of Jesus Christ. However, after 1948, Arab Christians abandoned reading and preaching it because it is too “Zionist” for their liking. Instead of recognizing God’s faithfulness in seeing the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant fulfilled before their eyes, many found the Old Testament repugnant and offensive.
Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Center have used the Palestinian dismissal of the Old Testament as an opportunity to propagate PLT, which desires to de-Zionize the Bible in order to promote an anti-Israel agenda.5 In fact, Sabeel’s definition of PLT refers to Jesus as having lived “under occupation” and tries to rally people to “stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people”:
Palestinian Liberation Theology is an ecumenical grassroots movement, rooted in Christian Biblical interpretation and nourished by the hopes, dreams and struggles of the Palestinian people. . . . In a situation where justice has been long neglected, Palestinian Liberation Theology opens new horizons of understanding for the pursuit of a just peace and for the reconciliation proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By learning from Jesus—his life under occupation and his response to injustice— this theology hopes to connect the true meaning of Christian faith with the daily lives of all those who suffer under occupation, violence, discrimination, and human rights violations. Additionally, this blossoming theological effort promotes a more accurate international awareness of the current political situation and encourages Christians from around the world to work for justice and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.6
Ahab and Naboth
The biblical foundation used for PLT is the account of King Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. Usually, Liberation Theology uses the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt to establish its message of freedom from political oppression. But for Palestinians, the Exodus is too pro-Israel.
So Dr. Ateek teaches how Israel’s King Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel, murdered Naboth for his land and how the Lord sent Elijah the prophet to them to pronounce judgment on them. Their eventual death provided the divine justice Naboth deserved.
Dr. Ateek’s interpretation of 1 Kings 21 portrays King Ahab as the modern State of Israel, murdering Naboth and stealing the land of the Palestinians, who are cast as the stalwart Naboth. He preaches that a day is coming when God will judge Israel for what Ateek says is its abuse of the Arabs, and divine justice will prevail for those who suffered at the hands of the Zionist Israelis.
For Dr. Ateek, Naboth is the story of every Palestinian Christian. He has been quoted as saying, “The death and dispossession of Naboth and his family has [sic] been reenacted thousands of times since the creation of the State of Israel.”7 Ateek was 11 when his family lost its home in Beth Shean in the 1948 War of Independence.
Today he says Christians no longer need to acknowledge the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Jewish people’s return to the land because, as he sees it, they reveal an understanding of God that contradicts Jesus’ message in the New Testament.8 He claims by using a new and relevant interpretation of Scripture, “the Bible can be reclaimed for Palestinian Christians.”9
A Wall of Separation
As PLT advanced to become the primary theology for Palestinian Christians, it has built a wall of separation between believers—something Jesus died to tear down (Eph. 2). With it has come increased tension between Israeli and Palestinian churches.
Meno Kalisher, pastor of the Jerusalem Assembly, said in a recent interview, “Whenever our young adults go to activities to fellowship with other churches that include Palestinian Christians, they immediately hear how Israel is the problem and the oppressor of the Palestinian people. As a result, our young adults have lost the desire to fellowship with Palestinian Christians, which is tremendously upsetting.”
Sadly, although Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Center claim to stand on Christian principles, their rhetoric sounds no different from that of Palestinian Muslims who incite violence against Israel. In fact, in his quest for peace, Ateek makes no apology for Palestinian terrorism nor holds Palestinian Muslims accountable for their ill treatment of Palestinian Christians.10 Ironically, Arab Muslims consider Arab Christians weak and spineless.
While Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Center claim PLT offers Palestinian Christians a fresh way to read the Scriptures, the truth is there is nothing novel about it; PLT is Replacement Theology. Wrote Shelley Neese, vice president of The Jerusalem Connection Report,
Replacement Theology teaches that the Church superseded Jews as the benefactor of God’s covenants. PLT goes one step further saying that the Jews never had a place of favor in the first place. In some cases, they erase Israel from the Bible altogether. Many Palestinian Churches that teach PLT have changed the Psalms by removing every reference to “Israel” and “Zion.”11
PLT blatantly disregards God’s eternal promises to the Jewish people by manipulating Scripture to suit its needs. Wrote Neese, “It is a dangerous propaganda tool cleverly wielded by Sabeel to undermine Israel’s right to the land. All the while, this anti-Semitic politically-driven theology void of the Gospel hides behind a façade of peace, justice, and love.”12
In the end, said Kalisher, the Palestinian Christians themselves will lose out: “Due to their theology they consider Israel an enemy and lack the blessings God could provide.”
E N D N O T E S
1 Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 64–65.
2 Ian Linden, Liberation Theology: Coming of Age? (London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1997), 3.
3 Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987), 138–39.
4 Shelley Neese, “Palestinian Liberation Theology,” The Jerusalem Connection. 5 Ibid.
6 “Palestinian Liberation Theology,” Sabeel Center <sabeel.org/ourstory.php>.
7 Ateek, 87.
8 Ibid., 82.
9 Ibid., 86.