A review by Michael Sandford
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre 8th International Conference
‘Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance’
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend this conference, held in Bethlehem, Palestine. As you may imagine, a conference organised by a Palestinian Christian Liberation Theology centre – whose very aim is ‘challenging empire’ – could be described as fairly ‘political’. As a result, the political situation in Palestine and Israel is something that I will not avoid in this blog entry, and my perspective on the situation will hopefully be clear. Nonetheless, I will try to give more attention to those elements of the conference which were more explicitly related to biblical studies.
To be clear, the conference was less a biblical studies conference, and more a melting-pot in which biblical scholarship was one ingredient, along with liberation theology, politics and social activism. The conference brought together academics and activists to explore the ways in which the modern state of Israel functions as an extension of America’s empire (confirmed most recently by the US veto of the UN resolution to denounce Israeli settlements as illegal, overruling the other 14 Security Council members who voted for the resolution). The way in which this arrangement affects Palestinians was illustrated by trips that we took to numerous sites of political significance, including the wall, checkpoints, refugee camps, demolished Palestinian homes and Israeli settlements.
The current political situation in Palestine and Israel was juxtaposed with that of Jesus under Roman imperialism, and the ways in which Jesus challenged the imperial systems that he inhabited were explored by several of the speakers. The first biblically-based lecture came from Richard Horsley who spoke on ‘Jesus and Empire’. He squeezed a huge amount of information into an hour or so, presumably in the hope to get everyone at the conference up to speed with the importance of Roman imperialism as the immediate context for Jesus and the Jesus movement. Horsley’s talk was excitedly received by a gathering which included many who were disillusioned (myself included) with the depoliticized, individualistic Jesus that they were so used to hearing about from pulpits (For Horsley’s comments on the ‘depoliticized’ Jesus see Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire, Fortress Press, 2003 p.6-9); although, come to think of it, one person asked a question which made it clear that they were unconvinced by Horsley’s portrayal of Jesus. Horsley’s Jesus, understandably, is probably quite hard to stomach for many of those accustomed to a more spiritualised Jesus who politely avoids discussing politics. Horsley’s lecture on the first morning set the tone for a conference whose concern was to continue in the manner of Jesus in confronting an imperialistic and oppressive political situation.
In the following days, two more talks on Jesus were given by Ched Myers (author of Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Orbis, 1988), in a similar vein to Horsley. Myers’ presented a political reading of Mark’s gospel in a thoroughly involving way, which was received with great enthusiasm. A couple of points to note are Myers’ illuminating comments on the prophetic connotations of the phrase ‘fishers of people’ (see Jer 16:16, Amos 4:2, Ezek 29:4), and what I would call a postcolonial interpretation of the Gerasene Demoniac, for which he made a compelling case (see Binding the Strong Man, pp. 190-4. Very similar readings have also appeared in recent works by Sugirtharajah, Horsley, and Cohen).
Other particularly memorable lectures included Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel on ‘Theology and Empire’. Ateek spoke eloquently about the new ‘god’ of the state of Israel: the God of Security, who is sought at all costs. Another excellent lecture came from Munir Fasheh on ‘Conquest of Knowledge as a Tool of Empire’, in which Fasheh, a former Mathematics professor at Harvard, levelled strong criticisms at the Western academy’s pretentious and arrogant approach to knowledge. Fasheh contrasted this sort of knowledge with that of his mother, an illiterate but highly-skilled Palestinian woman for whom he had infinitely more appreciation. This fascinating and challenging talk caused a stir, with many objecting to Fasheh’s monolithic presentation of ‘Western’ academic institutions. Personally, I imagine that Fasheh’s negative experiences of the Western academy were in part to do with his experiences at Harvard, which surely should not serve as a representative for all Western universities. However, I think that the problematic that Fasheh presented becomes more understandable when viewed in the context of the worldwide eradication of indigenous knowledge and lifestyles that is occurring under Western imperialism, whether that be in the name of global ‘security’ (perhaps as we see in Israel/Palestine), ‘development’ or ‘education’.
In my brief time in Palestine, I feel quite certain that I met more inspirational people through this conference than I met in the whole of the rest of my life. This includes the likes of Naim Ateek, the founder and director of Sabeel, and John Dear, the Noble Peace Prize nominee and activist. This also includes many who had formerly been involved in the American civil rights movement, protesting the South African apartheid, and who had been supporting the Palestinian struggle for many years. But it also includes many ordinary Palestinians that I met, who face daily oppression with incredible dignity, perseverance, and strength.
I cannot recommend the Sabeel annual conference highly enough. Not only was it intellectually stimulating, but it was a place where scores of fascinating and socially engaged people came together in an amazingly welcoming, hospitable and beautiful country. If it’s at all possible, I urge you, go to Palestine, go to this conference, and see for yourself!