Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Orbis, Maryknoll, 2014. 166 pp. $20.00. ISBN: 978162980655.
“Why can’t they just get along?” “How can we solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine?” “If only they could understand the other side.” These are questions and comments I often encountered when interacting with North American members of our constituency who visited Palestine while I was working with an international Anabaptist aid organization. It was difficult to explain the situation, since a lot of them came with assumptions about what was happening in the Middle East—assumptions that had been shaped by television, churches, and books from North America. These assumptions blinded them to the systemic power imbalance and the structures of imperialism that continue to haunt the region. I wish I could have handed them a copy of Mitri Raheb’s Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, a book full of insights about the web of connections linking the empire Jesus experienced to the experience of many people in current-day Palestine.
Raheb, a Palestinian theologian who serves as the pastor of the Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, offers a glimpse into Palestinian interpretations of empire within the Bible. In the first half of the book he describes a biblical account of empire and uses that account to explain what empire looks like in Palestine today. Raheb does this by explaining the context of the geo-politics of the Middle East and exploring how Israel imposes mechanisms of empire on Palestinians. In the second part, Raheb gives an account of how people of faith can respond to empire. Raheb looks at who and where God is in the context of empire, how Jesus is our teacher for resisting empire, and how the Spirit is our sustaining energy in our struggle.
Although it is not explicit in this regard, the book seeks to dialogue with a Western audience. Having engaged many church delegations from North America, Raheb has written a book for those who are trying to understand what is happening in Palestine. He specifically explores the ways in which facets of “Imperial thought” influence our interpretive moves and processes. It is this infiltration of the imperial mind that prevents many American Christians from seeing the blatant injustices taking place in the Occupied Territories. Moreover, the imperial mind often impacts those of us who consider ourselves allies.
As an example, Raheb describes a woman who, in her frustration with how the state of Israel was treating Palestinians, quoted Exodus 22:21, a passage that offers clear direction on how strangers are to be welcomed. I have often cited this same passage in speaking to Christian Zionists, but as Raheb points out, this use of scripture ignores Palestinians’ inherent and natural connection to the land. “I am not the stranger! Nor are my people,” Raheb responds. “We were made strangers” (37). This story warns against the ease with which North Americans are caught up with imperial and colonizing logics as we position indigenous peoples as strangers in their own land—as if military power and European statecraft is determinative for deciding who belongs where, for deciding which people group belongs in a given region of the Middle East.
To live under empire is to live a life of struggle. As Palestine approaches sixty-seven years of occupation, the situation for Palestinians continues to deteriorate. Settlements are expanding, the wall is being expanded, land continues to be confiscated, the number of political prisoners is increasing, youth are being shot, Gaza remains under siege, lynchings are occurring in Jerusalem, and leaders are being exiled from their communities. The dominion of empire relentlessly pervades every aspect of Palestinian life. After living in Palestine it is easy to feel hopeless, yet Raheb provides his readers with hope. We live in hope because of our faith, Raheb explains; because in the life and teachings of Jesus, we experience faith as resistance. Not faith as waiting for the Last Days but faith as action, faith as the power of the Spirit of Jesus to move mountains.
One of the cruelest aspects of empire is that its structures are built by those it subjects. Raheb reminds his readers of the Herodian Mountain near Bethlehem, built and created on the backs of exploited and colonized native subjects between 23 and 15 BCE. Similarly today, the separation wall and the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are often built in part by Palestinians who have no other means of employment. And yet Raheb continues to have hope despite his context and despite the overwhelming dominion of empire. And he finds this hope rooted in the wager that if empire can be built by the colonized subject, it can also be dismantled by those same subjects. He believes this is the faith that can move mountains. Having faith in one’s community to be able to stand against empire is a faith of resistance.
Raheb exposes readers to the systemic violence of empire that is being experienced in Palestine. Sadly though, in many ways what is happening in Palestine is not unique but has already been experienced throughout history. Indigenous peoples throughout the world know the violence of empire, and many have had to endure—and continue to endure—similar forms of settler colonialism rooted in and justified by Christianity. Exploring these connections would strengthen Raheb’s argument and would help us strengthen our struggle against empire wherever we find ourselves.
Rachelle Friesen worked with Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine for four years. She is now enrolled in graduate studies in Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto, ON.