The Theology of Sabeel: What We Believe
Notes from a Talk by Naim Ateek, July 31, 2008, Milwaukie, Oregon
Ten Characteristics of Sabeel’s Theology
It is a contextual theology. Sabeel’s theology arises from a particular context, namely, the Palestinian historical context and experience of oppression under the state of Israel.
It is a liberation theology. We seek, like all liberation theologies, liberation from a particular situation of injustice.
It is an ecumenical theology. We seek to bring together all Palestinian Christians, all the Christians of the land of Palestine who have been divided by so many schisms going back to the 4th century A.D., to work together as one Palestinian local church.
It is an interfaith theology. We seek to bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three peoples of the Abrahamic faiths, to work together for justice and peace in this one land.
It is not identified with any one political party, but we are not apolitical. Rather we deal with politics and with all reality, from a faith perspective. We speak from a comprehensive reality of life.
It is not just critical theology. Rather we offer solutions; we provide a vision of alternatives to the present unjust situation.
It is Biblically-based. We seek to counteract the misuse of the Bible, but offer a deeply rooted vision of how the Bible points to justice, liberation and peace, from the context of a theology of the land.
We critique Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is a prime example of the misuse of the Bible to promote violence, racism and injustice. We show why this kind of theology is not authentic to the Bible.
We also address the apathy of mainline Christians. Christian Zionism is not just a problem of evangelical conservatives. There is a subtle and more diffuse theology of main line Christians which justifies domination of the land and Palestinian people from the perspective of ideas of election, chosenness and the promised land, as well as recompense for the Holocaust. We critique the mistaken premises of this kind of mainline Christian thinking, especially in the West, that promotes Christian silence and apathy toward the Palestinian plight.
It is a theology of non-violence. We reject all forms of violence and seek to follow Jesus in the Way of non-violence toward authentic justice and peace.
Eight Themes of Sabeel’s Theology
Sabeel’s theological vision explores eight key themes:
We address the issue of God. What kind of a God do we believe in? A racist God who chooses one people against others, or a loving God of all peoples?
We focus on Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation of the Biblical message. This means we emphasize not just Jesus’ divinity, but the fullness of his humanity in his historical context and reality, as a Palestinian Jew living under the occupation of the Roman empire. We are followers of Jesus Christ in his way of non-violent resistance to imperial occupation.
It is a prophetic theology. We stand in the line of the great prophets of ancient Israel in their unmasking of injustice and call for justice.
We stand particularly in the line of the theology of the book of Jonah, the first Palestinian liberation theologian, which we see as the climax of the theology of the Old Testament, and which dismantles the theology of exclusivism and racism of his day. The theology of the book of Jonah discloses a) an inclusive God, a God of all nations; b) an inclusive people of God, a people that includes those on both sides of nationalist conflicts, the Ninevites, as well as Israel; today the people of Iraq, as well as the West; in Palestine, Jews and Palestinians; and c) a theology of the land for all the peoples of the land.
It is an anti-imperial theology. It critiques all theologies of empire, whether the Roman empire in the Biblical context, or American empire today. Sabeel stands in the tradition of the anti-imperial theologies of both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
We challenge Son of David Christology, a messianic theology with its imperial designs, in favour of a Suffering Servant Christology. We reject the false fusion of Suffering Servant Christology with Son of David Christology that occurred later in the Church’s history with its integration into the Constantinian Roman empire. We root ourselves in the Suffering Servant Christology of the early Church with its witness to the non-violent way of the cross.
Ours is a theology of peace and reconciliation. This is not peace at any price, but a way to peace through justice which brings authentic reconciliation of estranged peoples into a new relation of just peace.
We offer a vision of a political solution through the two-state solution, that can provide the basis of genuine equality for two sovereign states that can then negotiate a fuller peace with justice between Israel and Palestine, as well as with the many neighbouring peoples of the region.