“When we most needed our faith, it wasn’t there for us,” says Cedar Duaybis, recalling the deep pain of the Nakba. Duaybis is one of the co-founders of Sabeel, a Palestinian Ecumenical Christian Liberation Theology Center. She was speaking to three of us from MCC’s advocacy offices who were visiting our staff and partners in Palestine and Israel this past March.
Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic. It refers to the period from 1947 to 1949 when over 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by Zionist militias in connection with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed in the process, thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands shut out from their homeland indefinitely. On May 15 every year, Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day and again call for justice.
But Nakba is much more than losing one’s homeland, which in itself was and continues to be so devastating. It is also about losing an identity, as family members, friends and communities were separated in the chaos and scattered across the region. And for many Palestinian Christians it was also about losing the depth of their faith. That is what Duaybis was talking about – the Faith Nakba. As she puts it, “[O]ur Holy Book was used as justification for our suffering.”
For decades Christian Zionists, especially in the West, have used the promises of God to Abraham and conquest narratives in Joshua and other biblical books, to justify the actions of the modern State of Israel, despite the displacement, dispossession and suffering inflicted on Palestinians. Many Palestinian Christians could find little hope in the Scriptures for changing their current situation. Duaybis was a young girl at the time of the Nakba, but the memory of that time and the years of a faith struggle among the community of Christians that followed have shaped her whole and vocation life.
Palestinian Christians, like Duaybis and so many others, have long felt ignored or forgotten by the global Christian community. Their numbers are small, but their voices cry out for justice and solidarity. Plus, most Palestinian Christians, like the Rev. Dr. Munthur, Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, remind us that “The Palestinian Christian struggle is the Palestinian struggle.” In other words, like their fellow Palestinians, the principal struggle of Palestinian Christians and churches is the struggle against occupation.
Yet in those first few decades after the Nakba, the Palestinian Church had developed almost a theology of resignation.
During the First Intifada (1987-1992) Palestinians began resisting the occupation en masse, predominantly through non-violent means. At that time, a group of Palestinian Christians, led by the Rev. Naim Ateek, Canon of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, began meeting after Sunday worship to talk theology and the realities of their context.
Like Duaybis, Rev. Ateek experienced the Nakba as a child and the memories of that experience have been forever ingrained in his psyche. He called these Sunday reflection times “theological debriefings” – opportunities to ask the tough questions, to explore the meaning of Christian faith in a context of suffering, and to challenge the idea that God desired their meek resignation to that suffering.
It was during these meetings that people re-discovered Jesus and his response to the military occupation of his day. They encountered Jesus’ proclamation of an upside-down kingdom founded on justice, human dignity for all, and active nonviolent resistance, rather than political and military might or passive resignation.
It was out of these times of reflection that Sabeel was born as an ecumenical movement to resist the injustice of occupation and oppression as a vocation of faith, nonviolence and the search for a peace with justice for all in the region. Rev. Ateek, Duaybis and the other founders of Sabeel recall their profound awakening and their renewed hope in the Christian faith.
These past few weeks Rev. Ateek has been traveling across Canada, speaking to Canadians from the West Coast to Atlantic Canada, while launching his new book on the history and theology of this grassroots movement: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice and the Palestine-Israel Conflict. Several of us were able to join Rev. Ateek in Toronto, and other colleagues heard him on his various stops across the country. Despite facing harsh opposition, his message spread.
The essence of his message is this: “Indeed, Christ is our liberator, and God in Christ wills that we should be free. Therefore, we need to stand firm and must not submit to anything that dehumanizes or enslaves us… Our response to suffering must extend beyond meeting basic needs to naming the injustices that perpetuate suffering, challenging political systems, and acting to ensure a more just and equitable world” (p. 6). While at the same time, following in step behind the non-violent teachings of Jesus. “For us, walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and using his non-violent methods can make a difference in spite of the thorns and hurdles along the road” (p. 5).
Across the world many people of faith living under injustice and oppression have found a liberating and lifegiving word in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Rooted in a deep commitment to Jesus, they have given birth to movements of non-violent resistance, liberation and justice. Their voices have been central in the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa, in the rallying cry against oppressive regimes across Latin America, and in the diners and buses of the civil rights movement in the American South.
As Rev. Ateek says, “When Palestinian Christians recognized and accepted [Jesus Christ’s] full humanity, it was a turning point that drove us directly back to the Gospels to study Jesus’s life and teachings. Such an exercise inspired and encouraged us to commit ourselves to the work for justice and peace” (p. 42).
Now Rev. Ateek and our other Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ look to us to stand with them in their struggle for justice and liberation. How will we respond? In our churches, in our communities, with our Canadian government policies?
Bekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa
See also MCC Canada’s Cry for Home Campaign in Palestine and Israel for more resources and ways to get involved.