This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology. Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.
An edited version of our conversation follows here:
Brant Rosen: Can you tell me how you discovered Liberation Theology in a Palestinian context?
Naim Ateek: You know, sometimes I feel it discovered me rather than me discovering it. I felt maybe God was preparing me for this. I had no idea; it was not like a conscious decision on my part that this was where I wanted to go. I felt that God was throughout my ministry leading me. It all started, I guess in the fact that even as a little boy, I always wanted to be a pastor. That was always very definite. And I could go back to different stages in my life and where people tried to guide me in another direction it was very clear. I would say no, I know exactly what God wants me to be – or what Christ wants me to be. And that stayed with me throughout my life.
BR: You felt “called,” in other words?
NA: Yes, the call was very clear to me which in one sense has been a blessing for me – but it would also make me very harsh when I would find some people who did not have that kind of a call. Though mentally speaking, of course, God calls people in so many different ways, but for me it was so clear in the way the call came. And there are Biblical examples, as you know. So when I went back home after seminary I was just a pastor of a church, doing the ministry.
BR: Did you initially see your work as involving political activism as well or was it largely pastoral?
NA: In the beginning I was not (a political activist). I had my story, as an eleven year old boy – that was with me…
BR: As an eleven year old boy living through the Nakba?
NA: Yes, when we were driven out of (my family’s village of) Beisan, that was part of my background, so I was always interested and committed to justice, but I was not preaching it, not active in it…
BR: You didn’t connect it to your ministry at that point…
NA: I would in a conversation with my people and I would always emphasize it but it was not the only emphasis. It was a pastoral ministry. There were so many problems within the congregation. I did quite a bit of counseling.
BR: Where was your first congregation?
NA: Shefa-‘Amr, which is close to Nazareth. It was a small town at the time – now it’s a big city… So there were certain stages. Like at the very beginning, I always thought about the importance of ecumenical work. I never really saw myself only as focusing on an Episcopal or an Anglican congregation although that was my charge. But even in Shefa-‘Amr, the Anglican or Episcopal church was very small compared say, to the Melkites, the Greek Catholics, but I opened it up ecumenically. I had a good relationship with the Roman Catholic priest and with the Melkite priest and people were coming into the church I was serving, so from the very beginning of my ministry I was working ecumenically.
Then I left (Shefa-‘Amr) and went to Haifa and in Haifa, again, though very conscious about the importance of justice and ecumenical ministry.
BR: What year was this?
NA: 1972. And again, immediately I related to the other clergy, the other priests. I recall there was an elderly Lebanese priest, a Melkite. I went to him and said we need to start ecumenical work here. And I said, if I call a meeting nobody will listen to me. I’m still young and I’m still new here. I’ll do all the work – you just get us together. And he did. Wonderful, wonderful guy. A man of God, really, in all senses of the word. And we had some of the most wonderful ecumenical work that just flowered in that place, with great memories. The only sad thing was that I was there for twelve or thirteen years and when I left, it died. Which was very sad because they were all such wonderful clergy, but you just needed someone to do the “donkey work,” you know?
So anyway I see these stages as if God was preparing me. And then in 1985 I was forced to leave Haifa by the Bishop and go to Jerusalem. I really did not want to. God was blessing the ministry in Haifa – I did not need to go anywhere. My wife loved Haifa, she did not want to leave, she begged the Bishop to keep us in Haifa. He said no, I want Naim at (St. George’s) Cathedral. So we left and less than two years later the First Intifada happened. And that (was) as if God said “Now.” And that opened up the whole thing. From then on, it was justice. So that’s really the way it started for me. I see these signposts, these stages.
BR: Were you familiar with liberation theology at this time?
NA: Not much. Because when I was in seminary in the 1960s, I wasn’t really aware of it. And you know, it started in the 60s, at least with Gustavo (Gutierrez) and we had no courses about it at the time.
BR: So did you discover Latin American liberation theology after you had started to develop Palestinian liberation theology?
NA: Yeah, it’s really very interesting because I always said, I only needed the Bible and the context. You know, there was the context, I was living in it, so what did the Bible say about my context? That’s liberation theology. And so the intifada started and almost from the very beginning I felt that I needed to contribute. And so I started preaching almost every Sunday and I would find within the lectionary, almost within every text, something to say about justice.
And then immediately I started inviting people to stay after church one hour to discuss the sermon. Because I was taking things that were happening every day during the intifada and I was (asking) what is our response as Christians to what’s really happening there? So I was trying to be true to the Gospel in one sense and at the same time very contextual in trying to meet people’s needs. But you know, the Gospel would challenge peoples’ ideas or minds regarding, for instance violence and non-violence. So during discussion after church people would really argue with me. It was unbelievable, unbelievable.
BR: What were some of the arguments?
NA: Well the Palestinians were like everybody else: they were bringing their stories from the last week. Whatever happened, you know, their neighbor was picked up by the soldiers, he’s in jail, or somebody was killed. And so people were telling their stories – it was also like therapy and we would deal with it. And I’ll tell you: Palestinian liberation theology started in those meetings, through those stories and people saying OK, how would Jesus respond? Because he was living under occupation. And so we started relating everything: “OK, Jesus was under the occupation. How did he behave? What can you find in the Gospels? You know, he was born under occupation, he lived all his life under occupation and he was killed by occupation forces. How can he help us, living under occupation?” That’s when Palestinian liberation theology began to come to life. And so we did it throughout the intifada. Every Sunday.
So that’s really the way Palestinian Liberation Theology got started: after church in St. George’s in that little hall. And it just started developing. I had some rich experiences from there. I still remember when I was preaching on loving one’s enemy which was the text for that Sunday and this woman, this wonderful woman, coming out of church looked at me, we shook hands at the door and I know she liked me very much. I was very close to the congregation, I used to visit them quite a bit. She looked at me and she said, “I cannot love the Jews”… So I said “Selma, if you don’t like the Gospel, write the Gospel. I want to read it. I want to know what you have to say.”
And so we took that discussion into (our conversation after the service) and what was so beautiful was that it was not me. It was them – the whole congregation was speaking and discussing about this and many of them, they were responding to her. And at the end we said “Selma, the Gospel is trying to pull you out – and you are pulling the Gospel down. I’m not telling you you have to love the Israelis. Just try it. Think about it.
And it was several weeks later, she came back and she said, “I’m trying, I’m trying.” At one point she said, “I think I know what Jesus is talking about.” So it was so beautiful, these things that were taking place there and I think it revitalized my whole ministry. And then some people started hearing about it so we had many people come to church who were not members. And some of them even if they might skip the service, they would stay for the discussion. Anyway that’s the way things really started.
BR: When did you make the transition from the theology emerging out of people’s stories in discussion groups to your writing systematic liberation theology from a Palestinian point of view?
NA: Well actually, while this was happening, I already had a manuscript for (my first book) “Justice and Only Justice.” I had to leave the congregation for a while to finalize the text. I took all of my experiences and when to Orbis Books in Maryknoll, in New York and they hosted me and I was there maybe a month or two. Actually, I had a Jewish editor, she was working there – she was wonderful. And they asked me, and I said, “No, I want her” because she asked me the right questions. So I worked with her and I wrote about my experiences in Jerusalem and the intifada and I put it into the manuscript I already had and added several chapters and so on. It came out in 1989, you see, while the intifada was still going on. And that’s when I chose the term “Palestinian liberation theology.” I think it was then, at that time, it so happened that Gustavo Gutierrez was visiting Orbis and we got to know each other and I talked to him about (my work).
BR: So if someone asked you in a nutshell what is Palestinian liberation theology, what would your definition be?
NA: I would say it’s really just living faith in our context and trying to make it relevant to what it means to be a Christian living at a particular time in a particular context. What does faith mean to us? Not just faith as in “I believe” but putting your faith into practice, into action in everyday life. That’s the way I would really see it: a very practical way of living faith, whether it’s in one’s family or in one’s society or in one’s community or in the world. It’s very contextual in that sense.
But although I use the words “context” and “contextual” I chose the word “liberation,” not “contextual theology” because I believe liberation makes it much bigger, much more open than only my context. Because if it is true liberation theology, it has to apply to every context of oppression anywhere in the world. That’s why I can identify, for example, with people in South Africa.
BR: One of the things that struck me when I read “Justice, and Only Justice” was that Christianity was born, as you put it, out of the context of occupation, but then after Constantine, Christianity became the religion of an empire.
BR: But now, once again you’ve found yourself in the context of living under another empire – and for Palestinian Christians, Christianity has returned to its origins, as it were.
NA: Yes, and that’s why I think we, as Palestinians living under occupation, have something to say to our brothers and sisters who are living under empire.
BR: When did you found Sabeel?
NA: Officially in 1992 or 1993. I don’t have a very specific date because the ideas started with the intifada and then in 1989 the book came out. Then the book helped me get a group together which included women and men and that’s when (Elias) Chacour got involved and others became involved and we called ourselves PLT – Palestinian Liberation Theology. But I didn’t know where God was leading me, so it was a discerning period.
The first conference was 1990 but we were not known as Sabeel. So we continued after the conference and said, “What are we going to do?” and the group decided “I think we need to continue” and by then I started calling for meetings for people using some of the ideas in the book and relating those to people. And so we were having these almost-regular meetings with ecumenical groups – not only my own congregation – and that was the discerning period. Where was God going to lead us? Should we just stop? I wrote a book – lots of people write books – but should we go on? And then the group decided no we need to go on, let’s continue.
When we started thinking about the second conference, we decided we needed a name. I still remember the way we went about it. Sabeel means two things in Arabic. It means “the way,” which is very close to “shvil” in Hebrew and it also means “spring of water.” And I still remember when we were sitting as a community and putting together a list of names, I was so sad because some of the names that I really liked were already taken by other groups, mainly political groups. Then somebody – I don’t know who it was now – mentioned Sabeel and it just clicked because I immediately thought that according to the Book of Acts, the early Christian community, before they were Christians, they were known as “the people of the way.” So I felt immediately, “That’s it!” And we talked about it and we agreed and the second conference was in 1996 and from then on, every couple of years we had a conference. But you can see that from 1990 to 1996, that was the discerning period.
BR: When did it become clear to you that Sabeel’s work was attracting the attention of certain quarters of the Jewish community? Was it soon after you started or did it happen more gradually?
NA: I don’t know, I would have to think about which views we are talking about…
BR: Well there are many in what I would call the Jewish establishment world who are very threatened by Palestinian liberation theology and some of your work. To their mind, it undoes some of the work of Jewish-Christian dialogue of the past several decades. How would you respond to that? What is your response to these critiques of the organized Jewish community?
NA: I have to say that “Justice and Only Justice” was my embarking on the way. It was like something that helped me grow or begin to think, to reflect more. And many times I would say that most of these ideas came out of the people themselves, in conversation and discussion. So in writing this and thinking about this, I started to see other things in light of liberation theology. You see, I was involved in the World Council of Churches on Jewish-Christian discussions… I and another Palestinian Christian friend of mine and we were the only indigenous people there. Everyone else were mainly Americans and Europeans…
This was before I did my graduate work, in the end of the 1970s. And through these (discussions) I was aware of the Jewish side of things, but in those days the big thing was the Holocaust. Everything was the Holocaust. And many times they would say things – and in my heart, I knew something was wrong. But I did not have the knowledge of really trying to argue with them.
BR: How would you articulate that now?
NA: Well, they could see the Holocaust and they would talk about it all the time, but they could not see that what happened after the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, how it affected the Palestinian people. We had disappeared. The Palestinians were not there. You lived with these scholars – mainly very good scholars – I admired them because in those days I was just a simple pastor of a church and these guys had done research and so on. Living in their world of the Holocaust and the Jewish people and yet completely unaware of what had happened to the Palestinian people and what that meant.
And so here is little me and my friend, trying to argue saying, “Yes, but look what is happening. We know the tragedy of the Holocaust, but look at this.” And they could not see it. But in retrospect now this is very important to me. It was all part of almost God’s preparing me for this type of thinking because I did not even think this way. I was not aware of it yet.
BR: In “Justice and Only Justice” and other writings, you’ve written a great deal about how Zionism is in many ways a theological retrogression back to a more tribal/nationalist form of Judaism. Could you talk more about how Judaism in general fits into your theological world view as a Palestinian Christian?
NA: The way I understand it, with the background of the Hebrew Scriptures, two religions come out. One of them is Christianity and one is Rabbinic Judaism. Their source is our Old Testament, your Jewish Hebrew Scriptures so I know their source… but I go that way (points in one direction), I don’t know that way (points in another direction).
BR: But of course your Jewish critics have accused you of supersessionism – the ideology that teaches your way has superseded the Rabbinic Jewish way. So what is your response to those critics?
NA: Well, I would say it is true that if you read the New Testament, there is supersessionism. There is. And that’s how the early church, I think, understood it – that they are really the “New Israel…” And maybe in one point in my past I would try to be very defensive about it or try to really explain it. Now I’ve come to the point where I say no, that’s the way the early church really understood it. But I don’t have to stick to it today – today I have a different way of interpreting this.
BR: How would you interpret it today?
NA: I would interpret it by saying the fact is God did not end God’s relationship with the Jewish people – and we did not really replace them. To begin with, practically speaking, they’re still here. It’s not like the Book of Letters to the Hebrews said, that they’re gone, disappeared. They did not disappear. And you could even critique some of those passages within the New Testament and I know these passages very well. And recently I’ve written something to the Dutch, because there are so many Dutch Christian Zionists… and I think they were testing me and so I wrote a piece and said today this is what I believe: we did not replace the Jewish people. God still continues… and not only with the Jews. God deals with all peoples…
BR: Christians, Jews and and many other religions as well.
NA: And many others as well. Exactly. So Judaism is a religion like other religions, like Christianity is a religion, so like it or not, we are all different religions and God is working with all of us in different ways. Always prodding us to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. And that’s the way I understand it. It doesn’t mean I’ve always understood it that way, but again that’s part of my journey in my faith. And it’s a journey that continues.
BR: When you come across texts in the New Testament tradition that you find problematic, whether they’re supersessionist texts or texts that are just exceptionalist in general, how do you deal with them?
NA: Nowadays, if I don’t understand it, I say they don’t speak to me. If I read a problematic text, for example in Matthew, I might be able to understand it more in another Gospel, say in Luke. I don’t know if it was touched by somebody later on or by the early church as result of experiences during that period. So I read the New Testament very critically in that sense because I’m indebted to many good scholars. Now sometimes you read a scholar and you don’t agree with him, but sometimes you agree. Again, that’s part of our human tendencies. So I might find myself closer to this interpretation than others. Some scholars I think are way out and I can’t relate to them, but at the same time I would find myself closer to this critical scholarship than more evangelical literal (interpretations). Maybe I was there as a boy growing up but I’m not there today.
So I read the New Testament, as the Old Testament, very critically. There are ideas in both that I learn from and that speak to me today and there are some that don’t speak to me at all. But I’ll tell you one thing that I don’t think we’ve touched on yet: In my journey… I used to think that the Hebrew Scriptures could not answer the whole question of faith… For me as a Christian, I thought that you don’t get the answers in the Old Testament and that you have to go to the New Testament. This is one of the big points that I make in my new book. I now feel that within the Old Testament itself there is a great development in religious thought. That has become very exciting to me. It’s much more developed in my thinking. I can analyze the tribal from the more universal…
BR: …within the Hebrew Scriptures themselves?
NA: Yes, and this for me is a great discovery. I read everything I can get a hold of in terms of this and I would love to talk to some Old Testament scholars about these things. I can see for example, part of what I would call the tribal period, where it says “you go to the land and you drive the people out.” But then I see that after the exile there was a religious thought that has developed beautifully – so in Ezekiel (47: 21-23), although I can critique some of the words he is using, the idea behind it is wonderful. He’s saying “you’ve got to live with the people of the land.” So I can see the progression of this religious thought.
I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but in developing my theology of Jerusalem I discovered verses from Nehemiah (2:20) – awful, just awful, because he’s saying “Jerusalem belongs only to us. You guys have no claim, no historic right, no share.” The three words: “no share, no historic right, no claim” over Jerusalem.
BR: Sounds familiar…
NA: Exactly. But then I discovered Psalm 87. It’s amazing. Picture it: God is standing in the entrance of Jerusalem and embracing or welcoming the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Philistines. All the guys, (and God) is saying “You were all born here. You were born in Jerusalem.” Unbelievable.
So this is now the way I’m looking at the text. I see the development of religious thought within the Hebrew Scriptures itself without getting to the New Testament. In the past, I would not talk about the Old Testament that way.
BR: Certainly the impression, I think, of many of your critics is that you claim the Old Testament is tribal and the New Testament is universal.
NA: Yes. Now it has changed. I see the tribal. But the change takes place within the text – especially after the exile. And now I’m discovering all these texts that have been written after the exile. I now I understand why for me the story of Jonah becomes the epitome of all of this, because it is one of the latest books of the Hebrew Scriptures and I see the beauty of this.
BR: And perhaps a greater sensitivity to the ways these texts are misused in Israel today.
NA: Yes, for me now Zionism, the way it’s been practiced and continues to be practiced in Israel, continues to live within the tribal, which is sad because even within the Jewish Bible this was transformed, transcended. The tribal period was transcended in some of the writings of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel.
BR: I think a lot of it has to do with the Holocaust. The trauma of the Holocaust had the effect of causing many Jews to become, in a sense, more tribal. In other words, “What is our response to this tragic cataclysm? To know that the world is a dangerous place. We can’t depend upon the world, we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the world, we have to take care of our own, we need a state of our own, we need our own army.” I think in many ways the Holocaust was a kind of an engine that drove us back to the tribal. Which is tragic because it is a very human reaction.
But there are other reactions as well. I think we’re starting to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction in my community. Invariably when you think you’re solving one problem you’re really only creating another. And in this case it was a problem that was solved on the backs of the Palestinian people.
At any rate, that’s another interview we can have someday. Thank you so much!