Feb 25, 2011

Jesus Challenged Empire

Today, there was hundreds of confrontations between the power of states (armed to the teeth) with peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in cities like Hebron (Palestine), Tripoli Libya), Faluja (Iraq), Amman (Jordan), Aden (Yemen), Manama (Bahrain), and other places. Hundreds of people were injured, many were killed (especially in Libya).  I joined the large demonstration in the old city of Al-Khalil/Hebron that is commemorating the day 17 years ago when a Jewish settler massacred worshippers in the Haram Ibrahimi (and this racist act was supported by the Israeli authorities because they followed it by expanding the colonial Jewish settlement and restricting Palestinian more (i.e. strengthening racism). Despite attempts by Israeli forces to encircle the city and prevent demonstrators from arriving, over 100 people came from around the west Bank (and many Internationals) to join the over 200-300 local people.  THe Israeli army would not even let us assemble peacefully and started to use tear gas and concussion grenades (some of the gas drifted in the soldier's direction ;-).  A back and forth ensued when demonstrators stood the ground and regrouped to advance again (at least three times). 

I included a short but powerful video from Hebron event today in the second half of this video which also include segments of our demonstration in Bethlehem in support of Egyptian and other Arab people (Feb. 13, note Palestinian security officers tried to stop us) and a demonstration last Friday (Feb. 18) in Al-Ma'sara. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MufoYyA2JjU

Feb 24, 2011

Bethlehem, Occupied West Bank -- About 200 international participants have come to Bethlehem for the Eighth Sabeel International Conference. The group gathered at the Bethlehem Hotel under the theme, "Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance." Sabeel is the ecumenical liberation theology center based in Jerusalem.

Dr. Richard Horsley told participants, "Jesus was a Palestinian under imperial rule. Just as the modern state of Israel and other states in the Middle East were the creation of Western colonialism, so the ancient temple-state in Judea" was set up by foreign powers.

Horsley described Jesus as a community organizer working to renew in village communities a commitment to the covenant laws of God. He said, "... all of the Gospels ... portray Jesus as having the same basic agenda, the renewal of the people of Israel in opposition to the Jerusalem and Roman rulers of the people." Jesus' program "tapped into the people's deeply rooted cultural traditions," he said. Horsley is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion, University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA.

Jesus' commitment to renewal in village communities was strategic, Horsley said. It was "a key component in a strategy of resistance to the rulers, a confrontation of Empire. By restoring their mutual cooperation and solidarity, villagers could resist the further disintegration of their communities." Vulnerable families could be encouraged "not to succumb to the outside forces that would turn them into share-croppers or force them off their ancestral land and out of the village community," he said. "By mobilizing people power and building community solidarity, Jesus' renewal of the covenant also became a form of resistance to the predatory pressures of the Empire," he said.

Horsley pointed to "a new form of Empire, global capitalism." He said, "The transnational megacorporations that constitute this dominant imperial apparatus are far beyond any attempt at regulation (...). The U S still is, or has, an Empire. But it is now interlocking with the new Empire of global capitalism (...) while the US military serves as the enforcer of the New World Order which aids and abets the operation of global capitalism."

Ambassador Hind Khoury told the group Wednesday that they could not be meeting at a more interesting moment in history, "a historical moment for us Palestinians and Arabs, for empire and for the world. While the situation in Palestine has been dramatic for too long, events are now snowballing in front of our eyes planting the seeds of change for the region and forever." Khoury is the former ambassador to France from the Palestinian Authority. She serves on the Sabeel Board of Directors.

Khoury described "the hegemonic grip of the global American empire, with Israel constituting an integral and essential strategic partner" in the Middle East. Disregard for "the human factor" is both shocking and consistent, Khoury said.

"People and values simply do not matter, you walk over them, you crush them, you bombard them, you assassinate them, you deny them a present and a future, and all is legitimate on the altar called the security of the state of Israel," Khoury said.

Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh described "the 13 percent of Bethlehem that is the concentration camp we (Palestinians) are allowed to live in," while the remainder is either zoned restricted or is "illegally annexed." He said, "Israel continues building its Wall, which in Bethlehem is 60-70 percent complete." Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities, addressed "Mapping Empire Today in Palestine and Israel."

"Shedding fear is the most important part of people-power resistance," Qumsiyeh said. "State power requires fear," and it employs "unimaginable" tactics such as demolishing homes six and seven times.

 As for "empire," we have to ask who is behind all this, Qumsiyeh said. "Greed and interests of greed that cannot be ignored. We must understand the biology of the disease we are facing so that we can treat it." Palestinians are facing world powers, not just another state, he said.

"Justice, peace, truth - these are not just words. Leaders blurt them unconsciously. I say as a Palestinian Christian, look to Jesus Christ. He was the first Palestinian martyr. He spoke Aramaic, a precursor to Arabic, and he was killed for acting, not just for saying these words," Qumsiyeh said.

The Rev. Christopher Ferguson, United Church of Canada, said the gospel message "has been grabbed and imperialized, the message of liberation made to destroy and oppress.

Ferguson said, "Freedom is the message of the Jesus movement. Where we stand is resisting empire with the Palestinian people. It is not an optional extra but at the core of our faith and our relationship to God."

The Rev. Mitri Raheb preached at the Wi'am Center, located next to the Separation Wall in Bethlehem. He spoke to the familiar text from the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth," saying it would more correctly be translated, "for they shall inherit the land." Raheb is the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and president of the Diyar Consortium in Bethlehem.

"We really think empire will last. Jesus says it will not," Raheb said. "How wise Jesus was. No one of Jesus' time would have imagined that Herod was not here to stay. Jesus tells us through this verse that we are released from the power of empire. Jesus speaks and empire has lost its power over us. We see it in the Arab world in these recent weeks. Young people saw that empire could be shattered. God won't do it alone, only with us."

The Rev. Alison Tomin and Deacon Eunice Attwood, president and vice-president respectively of the Methodist Church in Britain, discussed the process that led to adoption of an important report and resolutions on justice and peace for Palestine and Israel at last summer's Methodist Conference in Portsmouth.

Methodist people should take seriously the deepening of their understanding of issues (here), said Attwood. "They should examine their understanding, though it will bring some discomfort into established Methodist-Jewish discussion groups. The vast majority have decided to face discomfort and face these issues, bringing the possibility for more discussion with other Christians as well as with Muslims," she said.

"Methodists are committed to listening to every voice, but particularly the poorest, the most vulnerable, the oppressed and the most needy," Attwood said.

Thanking the UK Methodists, the Rev. Naim Ateek, director of Sabeel, said Wednesday, "Today if you stand for justice and truth, you will be attacked. Churches suffer from weakness of the prophetic. Israel wants you silent, then you are okay. Once you speak out, immediately you will be attacked. Then the question is: Can you stand? And I thank God for every person who does that."

The Sabeel International Conference continues at the Bethlehem Hotel through Monday, 28 February.
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Reporter: Ann Hafften
Sabeel Media Coordinator: Nicolas Atallah
phone: 0526822443


  1. Nice article. Yes 'Jesus Challenged Empire', as the title says, but he challenged it as a Jew fighting for freedom for his people. What's missing in the discourse of the article is the recognition that Jesus Christ was a devout and reforming Jew, as were all the disciples and his early followers.

    The politics of exclusion - ie. portraying Jesus as solely a Palestinian - will not serve to unite the forces of democracy and justice in the Holy Land.

    Better to tell the whole truth, that some of us fighting for justice in the Land are Palestinian Arabs - some Palestinians are Christians not of Arabic origin - Many Muslims in Palestine originated in Africa and other non-Arab lands - and many Israelis today are descendants of Palestinian Jews.

    The fact is that few of the people inhabiting Israel/Palestine today are direct descendants of the people who lived here in biblical times. Just look at the many ethnicities and shades of color among both Israelis and Palestinians today.

    Wrapping national identity with religion and ethnicity is a fundamental flaw of Zionism. Let's not make the same mistake with whatever successor society we develop here.

    We can start by remembering that Jesus was a religious and devout Jew, long before history defined his life and beliefs as the start of a new religion called Christianity.

  2. You read too much into my note that Jesus was born in a land called Palestine, spoke Aramaic (a precursor of Arabic) and thus was a Palestinian. I did not delve into ethnicities or other issues of current populations. I talk at length about those other issues in my book "Sharing the land of Canaan" (e.g. most European Jews are converts to Judaism and are not descendants of Jews that lived in Palestine 2000 years ago).

  3. Empire doesn't work. Why not? The Emperor, like any other person who issues imperatives (Latin,"imperator", emperor), can only effectively supervise five people (to cite the management truism). Look at Gadhafi today--he seems to have a chauffeur, two thugs, a barber, and a video-cameraman as the remnants and vestiges of his empire left to him.
    When we debate politics, we are tested by how fully we embrace the problem at hand.
    Talking about Jesus in this context is probably evasive--what, Josephus is the one independent ancient authority saying that there was a Jewish dissident named Jesus, and that's about all he says about him.
    It is the inquiry itself that matters, within a person's conscience and among people. When that inquiry is blocked, that is the problem. People don't need to be told (or to tell themselves) to work, protect their children, or plan for the future. Government is merely to protect them from government, as it were. Let me pass on a joke Uri Avnery just published--he says it's a tribute to Israel's democracy: Ariel Sharon is addressing military officers and he announces that there's just been a military coup, and they all laugh. Avnery finds this funny today. Last month he was deploring the excessive influence of the Israel military.
    That story jumped off the page at me, and I quit reading Avnery's essay at that point. I sent him a report of Deputy FM Danny Ayalon's remark to the Knesset recently that Israel is in Hebron, and "Judea and Samaria", "as of right, not force". I meant to suggest that Avnery had some serious thinking to do.
    I put the basic question of government this way: What is the minimum amount of supervision we must maintain over each other to make sure that no third parties are abusing us? More pointedly, how does each of us decide if she is being respected by the person before her?
    It is constant sensitivity to this question, the moral and social freedom to have this inquiry, that proves we are living in freedom.
    By that test, Israel as a racist, if not nihilistic (but I think it is nihilistic: designed to fail, as a glorious and guilty tribute to deceased ancestors who would be ashamed of this commemoration), enterprise is simply condemned because its proponents refuse to discuss the parameters of government with outsiders--and, I suspect, with each other.

  4. Mazen - Of course you are correct about some of the European Jews being converts, just as all Muslims and Christians today are descendants of converts.

    The Jews of the time of Christ that the Romans permitted to remain in the Holy Land most probably are also ancestors of some of today's Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

    Our genetic pool is all mixed up in this country and the region - a product of the many conquests over the millennia. Our job today is to get rid of the present oppressive regimes, including Zionism, and develop a civilized, just, and democratic society.

  5. Jesus believed he was the true messiah, not a god king. So, of course, his main objective was to free his people from imperial rule. But the Jewish leadership knew that his attempts were doomed to fail. (That's why they tried to shut him up.) They did. Even today, Jews suffer from discrimination around the world. No messiah has yet emerged. And there can be no peace in the region until, well...

    Funny, though. When Israel emerged as a state in 1948, it wasn't long before they were also oppressors. When you live in fear, you strike out. It's human instinct. And when you have a giant like the US backing you, you take chances you wouldn't otherwise.

    Israel may well fall again before it's over. And the messiah? It's a long long way off, if ever. Perhaps peace with Palestine is in everyone's best interest...

  6. Let's not forget there were no Jews (or Christians) in Palestine (or anywhere else) 2000 years ago. The word the Koine Greek New Testament uses for "Jew" is transliterated as "Ioudaious" (Latin "Iudaeus").

    Now, there is a perfectly good English translation of that word: "Judaean". But instead of using that word, English translators of the Bible have used "Jew". In doing so, the translators departed from the convention established for other peoples who inhabited Palestine 2000 years ago. Thus, in virtually all English translations of the Bible you have Galilee (Gk. Galilaia) inhabited by Galilaeans/Galileans (Gk. Galilaios), Samaria (Gk. Samareia) inhabited by Samaritans (Gk. Samareites), and Nazareth (Gk. Nazara) inhabited by Nazarenes (Gk. Nazoraios) but Judea/Judaea (Gr. Ioudaia) is inhabited by "Jews" instead of Judaeans/Judeans (Gk. Ioudaios).

    This mistranslation has helped further the mistaken notion that Jews are one of the peoples, and Judaism is one of the religions, that Jesus would have encountered. Then there is also the mistaken idea that Jesus was himself
    a Jew. These falsehoods have animated the violent, apocalyptic eschatology and heretical movement of Christian Zionism, which first takes hold in the 19th century, around the same time as the false idea that Jesus was a Jew gains grounds in Western Christianity. On the matter of Jesus, we can place some blame on Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810–1874). As Susannah
    Heschel, author of *Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus* (U Chicago Pr., 1998), notes, Geiger's "myth of Judaism: Jesus was a Pharisee who taught Pharasaic Judaism ..." (p. 7) was an "effort to Judaize Christianity" (p. 3).

    The all too ubiquitous "Jewish Jesus" myth also contradicts the New Testament. As the Rev. Dr. John H. Elliott points out in "Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a 'Jew' Nor a 'Christian' ", Jesus is never referred to in the New Testament as an Judaean except on three occasions and then by outsiders: Persian Magi, the Samaritan woman, and the Romans. And in two of those instances he is called not a
    Judaean but the 'Kings of the Judaeans.' As the case of Herod, himself of Idumean ancestry, demonstrates, one need not be an Judaean to be
    their king.

    For a similar scholarly treatment of this subject although not focused on Jesus, see Steve Mason, "Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing,
    Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History". John J. Pilch also has an extended discussion of this subject in *The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible*. By the way, the points about the anachronistic usage of "Jew" and "Judaism" apply also to Josephus' *The Judean Antiquities*, which was also written in Koine Greek.


    John H. Elliott. "Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a 'Jew' Nor a 'Christian': On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature." *Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus*, Vol. 5, No. 2, 119-154 (2007).

    Susannah Heschel. *Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus*. (U Chicago Pr., 1998).

    "Ioudaios." *Bauer-Danker Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament*. (U Chicago Pr., 2000) p. 478.

    Flavius Josephus. *The Judean Antiquities*.

    Steve Mason, "Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History." *Journal for the Study of Judaism*,
    38 (2007) 457-512.

    John J. Pilch. *The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible*. (Liturgical Pr., 1999) pp. 98-104.