Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb (Photo: MITRIRAHEB.ORG)
Mitri Raheb, Palestinian Arab and Christian pastor, is an accomplished theologian. Born in Bethlehem to a family whose roots in Palestine go back centuries, his life has been shaped by Israel’s harsh occupation. But his family’s faith—and that of his community—has had the greater effect.
As senior pastor, Raheb served Bethlehem’s Christmas Lutheran Church for thirty years. He is founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, and a founding member of Kairos Palestine—the broadest Christian movement in Palestine—and co-author of its 2009 document, A Moment of Truth.
Along the way, Raheb has authored over 40 books.
His most recent, Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, the People, the Bible (Orbis Books), is a provocative examination of how the Bible has been used to support Israel’s apartheid settler colonial regime. One doesn’t have to be a theologian to benefit from a reading of Decolonizing Palestine. It’s written for any who seek to understand the religious roots of settler colonialism and how Zionists—Jewish and Christian—use a presumed claim to the land of Palestine to further their own agendas.
For the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, an essential step in decolonizing Palestine is the ongoing work of the Western Church to “decolonize” its interpretations of the Bible that, both wittingly and unwittingly, have supported one of the last anti-colonial struggles in what many regard as a postcolonial era.
The focus of Raheb’s critique includes but goes beyond the biblical interpretations of evangelical Christians and Christian Zionists whose “weaponization of the Bible” supports Israel’s ongoing plan to take the whole of historic Palestine. Raheb also exposes the work of “well-regarded, mainstream, and accomplished theologians of many denominations” whose theologies, he charges, “[strip] the indigenous Palestinian people of their land, livelihood, and roots.”
Decolonizing Palestine, Raheb writes, “is a wake-up call for people interested in Israel/Palestine to recognize the reality on the ground, to reflect critically and prophetically on the scripture, and to engage in a new paradigm.”
A new paradigm: settler colonialism
The prevailing paradigm used in media and academia to describe events in Palestine/Israel is that of a conflict—a conflict between two peoples, a conflict over land and resources and, as Raheb writes, “a conflict over holy places deeply connected to identity.” But the designation conflict and the reality of occupation—even the charge of apartheid—fall short in describing the root of the situation, according to Raheb.
In the book’s first chapter, he argues “for a new framework and a paradigm shift,” insisting that “the situation prevailing in Palestine since the Balfour Declaration is one of settler colonialism” which, acknowledging the work of other scholars, he describes this way:
The permanent settlement of colonists in an occupied land is the main feature… The settler colonialists establish and enforce state sovereignty and juridical control over the indigenous land, ultimately aiming to eliminate the native people. The natives become extraneous while the settlers are cast as natives through different political mechanisms, ideological constructs, and social narratives. The indigenous land is described as terra nullius, empty or barren land that is just waiting to be discovered, thus becoming the private property of the settlers. The native people are depicted with racist constructs as savage, violent terrorists, while the settlers are portrayed as the civilized and brave pioneers. To defend the settled property from the savage, a police state is created and is granted extraordinary power over the native people….
Raheb’s contribution to the literature on settler colonialism grows out of his recognition that scholars writing about settler colonialism have not been trained in theology and, hence, haven’t thought to examine how over the centuries the Bible has been used as a significant justification for settler colonialism.
Decolonizing Palestine fills this void, bringing Palestinian Christian theology to the study of settler colonial theory for the first time. Raheb demonstrates how, as he writes, “Christian theology has played a role in almost all settler colonial projects, including North America, South Africa, and Australia.”
“While no one would dare today to cite the Bible to justify settler colonialism in Australia or North America,” Raheb insists, “many Christians and Jews have been doing exactly this for nearly two hundred years….” He writes,
The settler colonial nature of the State of Israel is obvious, and the reality on the ground is crystal clear. The situation is not “complicated” as some claim in order to blur the issue. International law is decisive on this issue, as the many UN resolutions testify. Yet, biblical passages and terms such as “divine rights,” “land promise,” “Judea,” and “chosen people” are constantly repeated to bestow the colonization of Palestine with biblical legitimacy and thus political legality. This terminology is used in church circles, popular events, as well as at the highest political levels in the UN Security Council.
He describes five stages of the evolving relationship between the Jewish Israeli settler colonial project and the Bible, beginning with unfolding global events and religious revivalism in the U.S. in the 1800s, and culminating in the weaponization of biblical stories to justify Israel’s settler colonial project. Raheb offers a detailed history behind each of the five stages, thoroughly documenting his conclusions. (Written by a scholar as well as a pastor, the book has over 200 footnotes, a bibliography of over 90 works, and a ten-page index, all aiding scholars and others who want to further their understanding of the topics Raheb addresses.)
Raheb begins the second of his book’s four chapters, Christian Zionism, with a personal story. He tells how in the ‘80s, following a lecture he was invited to give to German students studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a conversation ensued with students focused on Christian theology in the Palestinian context. A well-known German professor of systematic theology intervened, Raheb recalls, “and declared in front of all the students, ‘Mr. Raheb, you stand in God’s way. If I were you, I would pack my bag and emigrate, leaving this country to its rightful owners, the Jews.’ I was shocked and speechless.”
Raheb was a young pastor, not yet 30 years old. The professor’s intervention left an impression that helped shape the new definition he offers for Christian Zionism, “based not on what people believe but what they do based on that belief.”
In support of this new definition, Raheb describes the biblical interpretations and resulting theologies of “fundamentalists, literalists and fanatics” and “another important group: …the liberal, scholarly, and subtle Christian Zionists.” Each of these varied expressions of Christian Zionism, Raheb explains, “results in unquestioned support for the settler colonial practices of the State of Israel.”
“While they lobby for ‘Israel’,” he writes, “[Christian Zionists] are actually lobbying for other issues that are important to [them].” Each, he writes, have their own local and global issues—”struggles, fears, and motivations”—that contribute to a well-defined justification for their support of the State of Israel. “It’s naïve,” Raheb insists, “to think that a few biblical passages power Christian Zionism.” He writes,
The Christian Zionist narrative is always embedded within a metanarrative so that those who espouse it do not see themselves engaged in pure political lobbying, but rather as agents of a grand plan from which they read and interpret both scripture and history.
“In this approach,” Raheb writes, “the hermeneutical key to understanding Christian Zionism is not so much the biblical or theological interpretive moves, but rather the lobbying action in support of a settler colonialist movement.” To illustrate, Raheb provides a quote from liberal theologian Paul van Buren (1923-1998), as cited by Rosemary Radford Reuther in her book, The Wrath of Jonah:
The role of the Christian church is to extend the revelation of the God of Israel—and the healing work of God in and through Israel—to the nations. Christianity should do this, not only by preaching this gospel to the nations, but also by rendering service to the people of Israel… Externally, the Christian church must become the extension of the Anti-Defamation League, combatting all anti-Semitism among Gentiles. It also takes the form of defense of the State of Israel, both raising money for Israel’s defense and defending Israel against all anti-Zionist calumny. All criticism of the State of Israel, whether based on alleged injustice to the Palestinian or claims that Israel is unjust to Third World peoples, are simply lies. It is the job of the Christian church to combat all these lies against Israel, being taught the truth by Jews; that is, the government of the State of Israel.
Raheb devotes a chapter to the importance of the land, charging that many Christian theologians write about the land “as if Palestine were an ancient land that exists in a vacuum; they strip it of its sociopolitical context—of its real people” without thinking about the cost of their Western colonial narratives to the lives, livelihood, and homes of Palestinians.
He offers as an example of how both theologians and Christian guides continue to refer to the area of the al-Aqsa Mount and the Dome of the Rock as the Temple Mount. He writes,
Why would a Christian theologian call this area the Temple Mount when there has not been a temple there for the last two thousand years, and two major and ancient Muslim shrines dominate the skyline? The phrase Temple Mount is understandably used as a historical reference to where the Jewish Temple might once have stood or as an archeological reference to some of the remains of the Herodian wall. Yet ignoring and failing to reference two current and major Muslim holy sites, instead of referring to the whole area as the Temple Mount, can no longer be understood as innocent. In today’s volatile political context, the very phrase is problematic, to say the least.
“What is true for the al-Aqsa Mosque is true for the entire land,” Raheb writes. “How we name things is important, for naming is an exercise of power.” He goes on to describe the use of the several names given for the land throughout history, beginning with the oldest, Canaan, then Palestine and Israel. “With the exception of Canaan,” he writes, “no other name for this land but Palestine has been used continuously for almost 2,500 years, up to the present day.”
Critical to his argument regarding Israel’s settler colonial project, he writes, “The name Israel was chosen in the twentieth century by a modern political entity, the ‘State of Israel,’ which projected an exclusive ethno-national and religious state into the Bible, now used by the current Israeli government as a pretext for land colonization.”
In contrast, Raheb writes, only the name Palestine has “historically had an inclusive character. Palestine in this sense does not refer to a political, religious, or ethnic entity, but rather to a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multireligious region that was able to include diverse identities and peoples within its boundaries.” For centuries, Raheb reminds the reader, Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in the land of Palestine.
Raheb turns next to the biblical texts that Zionists and the State of Israel have used to justify their taking of the land. “The book of Joshua,” he writes, “frighteningly contain[s] all the elements of settler colonialism as a political practice.” He explains,
The Israelis who cross the Jordan into Canaan are seen as having a divine entitlement to the land. They are portrayed as belonging to the land and as the legitimate heirs while the natives are described as wicked and decadent (Genesis 9:35), needing to be replaced, displaced, and exterminated (Deuteronomy 7:2) …..
“Theologians should be troubled when the promised land becomes the colonized land,” he writes, “when indigenous people are robbed of their land and resources and left to be landless refugees and confined in reservations.
In a helpful exegesis of one of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5), Raheb describes how a more accurate translation—“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land,” instead of the more familiar “Blessed on the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”—more faithfully reflects Jesus’ encouragement to first century Palestinians who likely thought that the Roman Empire would last forever. In the land where the empires of Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and others had come and gone, Jesus offered his followers what Raheb describes as a “decolonial teaching”—assuring the people of Palestine that the empire wouldn’t last, that the land would one day return to its rightful inhabitants.
In the book’s final chapter, Raheb addresses the issue of election, the notion that God has chosen one people over another. He writes,
Many Palestinian Christians struggle with the question of how to understand the issue of election in the Old Testament, which constitutes an integral part of the biblical canon… Palestinian Christians feel threatened when election is connected to the notion of a promised land as a theological pretext to occupy their Palestinian homeland.
Raheb explores the many complexities of such a claim. For example: What, biblically speaking, does it mean to be chosen? After exploring answers offered by three Palestinian theologians (Naim Ateek, Protestant; Paul Tarazi, Greek Orthodox; and Michel Sabbah, Catholic), Raheb offers his own understanding.
He insists that any interpretation of the Bible and resulting theology must be set in the modern contexts of European nationalism, settler colonialism and American exceptionalism on the part of the religious and political right. In this—his insistence that the ancient texts be interpreted in the context of contemporary realities—he reveals his answer to a fundamental question in biblical hermeneutics: Is the Bible story or history?
“The Bible is a story,” he argues. “Biblical hermeneutics that prioritize the Bible as a book of history, whether a history of a certain people or the history of God, are a critical characteristic of religious fundamentalism and have no place in a decolonial theological approach to the theme of election.”
Raheb acknowledges that it is understandable that a people would view their story with God as unique, believing themselves to be chosen, whether pious Jews, Christians, or Muslims. But he insists that the notion of election not be used to violently claim a land that is not one’s own (e.g., the Book of Joshua).
Raheb points to a second understanding of election in the Bible. In times of devastation, he writes, the claim of election is also used “with the aim of restoring people’s hope in themselves over and against the tragic political reality they were experiencing [see Isaiah 49:14-16].”
Raheb insists that these two diverse interpretations—one, a message of hope for the weak and devastated; the other, a tool for religious and national ideology—are to be examined “through a geopolitical lens and analysis of the prevailing balance of power. Today, the State of Israel has developed to become the regional power, an empire in proxy. The Palestinians now live in a situation similar to the Israelites of the Bible: occupied, crushed, their children driven into exile, and left with little land and no resources.”
“Election, correctly understood,” he writes, “is therefore a promise to those crushed by imperial power, encouragement to those discouraged by the political realities, and consolation to the desperate….” It’s a matter of faith and hope, according to Raheb. “Otherwise,” he writes, the notion of chosenness becomes a dangerous ideology that sanctions religiously based nationalism, settler colonialism, and racial exceptionalism with disastrous ramifications.”
Following the news as the situation in Palestine worsens daily and recognizing, as Raheb writes, that the Western World “has not yet come to terms with the ramifications of its colonial heritage,” one can’t help but feel discouraged. Even Raheb acknowledges that “there is no indication that this will change in the short term.” Still, in his Epilogue, he points to “some cracks in the wall [that] are visible,” writing, “the Israeli settler colonial project is failing…. I have no doubt that all walls will fall. There is no future for this settler colonial project.”