Old Wine in New Bottles: Liberation Theology and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict *

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Liberation theology is a new arrival in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Though the roots of this conflict precede the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 by decades, only recently have Christian thinkers who have been influenced by the ideas of liberation theology become engaged in the dispute. Although liberation theology developed in an entirely different context, it has emerged as a central method of theological discourse among Palestinian Christians and non-Palestinian Christians who support the Palestinian cause. It furnishes an ideology of resistance and sympathy with the downtrodden that has proved popular among contemporary critics of the State of Israel. Though the influence of Palestinian liberation theologians among Palestinians is limited because of the relatively small number of Palestinian Christians, they have found a rapidly growing audience in the West, especially in the Protestant churches.

Some churches and church organizations (especially the so-called mainline Protestant denominations) are developing deeper ties with Palestinian Christians, and conferences with and church delegations to the Palestinian territories are becoming more frequent. Recent conferences run by Naim Ateek's Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, for example, have drawn hundreds of participants from many denominations around the world. (1) Statements from Western church organizations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict show the influence of liberation theology, and liberation theologians--both Palestinian and non-Palestinian--are often called upon to present their theological and historical views. (2) As the conflict grinds on and interested outsiders continue to be involved as advocates for one side or the other, the influence of liberation theology continues to grow. (3)

There are, however, serious problems associated with the emergence of liberation theology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Liberation theology is preeminently Christian theology, and the decision to employ Christian theology as a response to the practices of the State of Israel distorts liberation theology in an unprecedented way. Even apart from this conflict, some Jews were uneasy about the central ideas in liberation theology. (4) Liberation theology has always drawn heavily from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, especially the narratives of the Exodus and the life and teaching of Jesus; it derives from these narratives a religiously based ideology of resistance to injustice. (5) A fundamental claim is that God has an overriding concern with the poor and oppressed. However, the Exodus story--which to Jews is a narrative about God's delivering the chosen people from bondage, bringing them to the land of Israel, and instituting a Law-based covenant--became for many liberation theologians a universal narrative of divine deliverance for all peoples. The focus on one people and the emphasis on the goal of entry into the land often drop out, along with attention to this broader Exodus theme of the creation of a covenant.

Moreover, the connection of the narrative to the historical people of Israel sometimes diminishes or disappears. (6) Liberation theologians' claims that the Exodus is about the generic oppressed (sometimes even denying that the Jewish people were the people originally liberated) move the Jewish people out of their own story. This resembles classic Christian supersessionism in its hostility to the particular covenant between God and Israel. (7) Similarly, the emphasis that liberation theologians place on Jesus' teachings about oppression and injustice sometimes ends up repeating, even in different contexts, classic denunciations of Judaism. Also, there is a strong dualism at the heart of many liberation theologies, typified by the belief in a God who shows favor to one group. It is thus an easy move to develop a model of resistance to injustice based on an analogy to Jesus' standing in opposition to a deficient, overly nationalistic Judaism of his time. …