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Bombing in the name of ‘redemption’


At a recent conference on Christians in Palestine, Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Church in Bethlehem, spoke on events in this storied town. Bethlehem and nearby Palestinian towns have been under continual bombardment from Israeli tanks and missiles in October and November. Many houses have been destroyed, and the people live in a state of terror. The house of a 6-year-old friend of his daughter was destroyed, and her family had to flee. Children have difficulty sleeping and are haunted by nightmares. Raheb showed paintings done by the children in the church’s kindergarten, in which they expressed their fears. They showed lines of fire coming down from the sky and Israeli tanks surrounding the town, while the people stood beneath.

“What is the legacy of this bombing of Bethlehem for its children?” Raheb asked. “What hatreds are they storing up in their hearts that will shape the rest of their lives?”

Raheb wondered whether the Christians of the West care about what is happening to the “little town of Bethlehem.” Christians sing the song of Bethlehem every Christmas with tears in their eyes. But do they know and care about the real town of Bethlehem, plunged into darkness by bombs that have cut the electricity, gripped by fear with little hope of deliverance?

Raheb reflected on the possible witness of the tiny Christian minority in this and other Palestinian towns. Perhaps the problem, he suggested, is that the people of Palestine have been acting as if they were waiting for some messiah that would come and save them from the Israeli occupation and its continual attacks and pressures. “Christians know their messiah has already come. Our salvation has already taken place. We are not waiting for a messiah to come, but must act today to create conditions for peace. Perhaps this is our witness to the other two religions, Judaism and Islam.”

The recent intifada in Palestine has taken now over 200 lives and caused more than 8,000 injuries, most of them from bullets directed to the upper body. I had just come to this meeting from another conference that opened a new Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists came together to celebrate the founding of this new center, which, as Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, the center’s director, put it, would be the first center of Jewish studies in America that would have the Palestinians at its heart. In his many books, such as his most recent, O Jerusalem: The Contested Future of the Jewish Covenant, Ellis has insisted that Jewish ethical traditions can only be renewed today through solidarity with the Palestinian people and a joint construction of a just future by Jews and Palestinians together.

Yet some of the Jewish scholars at the conference were having great difficulty incorporating concerns for Palestinians into their own frame of reference. One young Jewish scholar spoke of the development of Holocaust theology in Jewish thought. For Jews, the Holocaust has become a central symbol of evil visited upon them, while Israel has been seen as its redemption. Through the state of Israel, Jews have found the place of rescue from the Holocaust and its possible repetition in the future.

In my reply to this talk, I suggested that reference to the Holocaust has too often degenerated into a justification of the oppression that the state of Israel is visiting upon the Palestinians. I cited an experience in Gaza where I witnessed a group of settlers that had seized the last piece of agricultural land of a Palestinian village. When asked why they had done this, they retorted, “It is because of what they did to us in the war.” When we argued that the Palestinians of Gaza had not done anything to them in the Second World War in Europe, they shouted back, “It makes no difference. Everyone must pay. The whole world must pay.”

The young Jewish scholar was highly annoyed at my linking of rhetoric about the Holocaust with the experiences of the Palestinians. He could see no connections between the Holocaust and the Palestinians, and found it inappropriate to speak about the Palestinians in the same context as the Holocaust. Yet he himself had just linked the Holocaust to the state of Israel as the expression of redemption from the Holocaust. What is the underside of this “redemption”? Why are the impoverished and battered people of Palestine expected to pay the price of this redemption, and yet at the same time remain invisible in these reflections about the state of Israel as “redemptive”?

Can a state be regarded as the embodiment of redemption from some previous evil, when the price of its creation is the destruction of another group of human beings? What kind of messiah is this that vindicates one group as God’s chosen people by imposing continual destruction on another group of people who cower under their beds while tanks and helicopters shell their towns? What does it mean for Christians that the “little town of Bethlehem” is being bombed in the name of this “redemption?”

The words of Pastor Mitri Raheb suggest a different approach. A God who loves all people does not deliver one people from evil by imposing new evils on another people. Any human enterprise constructed to favor one group by terrorizing and destroying another group is by definition not “redemptive.” Rather it is human sinfulness as usual. To erect such a state into a messiah is idolatry, not a true discernment of the work of God in history. New prophets need to arise in Israel, indeed are rising in the voice of Jewish theologians such as Ellis to denounce this travesty of messianic hope.

Christians are not called to await such messianic comings. They have the message of the messiah already in their hearts. They are not to wait for another messiah. This means they are not to look to American, Israeli or Egyptian presidents to deliver them from evil, but arise and go about the work of constructing the conditions for peace today. This peace can only come when one people’s flourishing is not paid for by the destruction of another people, but when all people can flourish together.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000