Lutheran Pastor and Palestinian Mitri Raheb describes ministry of hope in an occupied land
Before presenting the address at the 151st Commencement of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, commencement speaker the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb took some from his schedule to talk about his ministry and life:
Palestine, the land where the Bible seeds were planted, has always been an occupied land since 722 B.C., explained the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who for 28 years has served as senior pastor of the 165-year-old Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. The “occupiers” have included the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Ottomans, the British, and finally — Israel.
“Many people are not even aware that there are Christians residing on the West Bank,” he added. Christians number about 50,000, roughly two percent of Palestine’s population. Raheb spent an hour discussing the challenges facing Palestinians, shortly before delivering a commencement address to 52 graduating seminarians of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).
How does the legacy of generations of occupation impact Palestinians?
“It is very tough to say goodbye to one empire only to wait for the next,” Raheb said. “There is a longing for freedom and liberation, for us to be able to reach our potential, to be recognized internationally. Yet, I find in the Palestinian people a kind of resilience not seen someplace else. The people are never defeated. They don’t give up. I am amazed despite the long history of oppression the desire is still there for justice and peace.”
Raheb reminded that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem under occupation “and was crushed by the power of empire. We share that in common with Jesus, and that reality puts things in a new light for us. God is part of the story.”
Raheb has written 16 books and is regarded as the most widely recognized Palestinian theologian of his time. His latest work, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, poses an understanding of the theology of the cross with a geopolitical emphasis. Raheb received his theological training to become a pastor in Germany. While preparing to write his latest book, he came to the conclusion that he had been thinking theologically in a European model paradigm that needed to change.
“I had been dancing to the rhythm of 19th century organ music,” he explained. “In Palestine, the drum is the main instrument.” The process, he said, “gave me new tools to reframe my understanding and the Bible story. Listening to our (Palestinian) voice might be the key to understanding the Bible today.”
He cites a quotation of a favorite theologian, the late El Salvador Archbishop Oscar A. Romero: “There are things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
“The eyes of the Palestinian people have cried for too long,” Raheb contended. “We need a new wisdom to confront theologically the developing of an empire that is doing harm to us,” he said.
“Jesus was crushed by empire,” Raheb explained. “But the power of death, the power of the (Roman) empire could not silence the voice that proclaimed life, even facing death.
“The theology of the cross is at the heart of my latest book,” Raheb said. “When those who are occupied feel the heat of the empire, they cry out, ‘O God, where are you?’ They are the same words that Christ said on the cross. And so we in Palestine understand that outcry. The message of the cross gives us another answer. God is not in empire. At the moment Jesus felt forsaken, God was closest to Jesus. In powerlessness on the cross, there came a discovery that the power of God can face all the forces that push oppressed people aside. In the hopelessness that marked the crucifixion scene the power of God was experienced in ways the empire could not overcome.”
Speaking of the difficulty of the Israeli occupation, Raheb said the international community, including U.S. foreign policy, continues to provide the hardware in weapons and support that fuels the occupation. And some seminaries “confuse the biblical Israel with today’s Israel of occupation” not always consciously, but sometimes subconsciously, he said. “We need to crack the software of that confusion and develop new software that develops tools to understand a theology found by listening to those whose eyes have cried in Palestine.”
The United States, Raheb said, is the only nation with the potential to broker a real, balanced policy of peace involving Israel and Palestine. But he is not optimistic about the likelihood. “Most in Congress would rather be re-elected than to stand up for the values espoused in the U.S. Constitution that could bring a fair solution to the occupation of Palestine.” He said he is a hopeful leader in Palestine, “but I am also a realistic person. I do not see a breakthrough coming.”
Twenty years ago Raheb founded the Dyar Consortium, and is President of Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture in Palestine. “We felt the call for the kind of outreach that cannot be confined to church walls or the normal stuff that a church does,” Raheb explained. He said encouraging cultural development of reading, writing, and art was desperately needed. “A seminary could not be sustainable in Palestine, we felt.” But establishing a program to encourage the development of art and culture “could give common ground to bring people together. We were asking, what kind of culture do we want in Palestine, one of exclusion, racism, and religious fundamentalism, or did we want a culture that celebrates life and not death? We want to develop the means to tell our collective story in creative ways, with hopeful instead of bad news.”