Sabeel’s Demonizing Liturgy

When Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, the man who turned God’s promise to Abraham into a cosmic “kick me” sign permanently affixed to the back of the Jewish people in his error-laden book, Whose Land? Whose Promise? appeared on Hank Hanegraff’s show in May 2007, he invoked an essay by Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center as evidence that there are Palestinians opposed to acts of terror against Israel.

If you go on the web and you just simply were to Google an article by a Christian leader named Ateek A-T-E-E-K and he has an article published on the web [about] suicide bombers. Just type in Ateek and suicide bombers and there you will have a Christian leader, a Palestinian who actually comments on that kind of Muslim violence.

Readers who do as Rev. Dr. Burge suggests will find hundreds of links confirming that indeed, Rev. Dr. Ateek has condemned suicide bombings – in an essay written in English and using Christian theology.

While Rev. Dr. Ateek’s essay is often invoked before Christian audiences in the U.S. to demonstrate that indeed, Sabeel is a peacemaking organization, it is unlikely that Rev. Dr. Ateek’s essay contributed to the decline of suicide attacks that has taken place since 2004. Israel’s security barrier was built to stop attacks perpetrated by Arabic-speaking Muslims living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, not English-speaking Presbyterians, Episcopalians or Congregationalists who are Rev. Dr. Ateek’s primary audience in the U.S. Still, for what it’s worth, different versions of Rev. Dr. Ateek’s essay are available here, here, and here. It is also appeared in the September/October 2003 issue of Church and Society, a defunct journal previously published by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Readers will have, however, a more difficult time finding another document published by Sabeel – “Contemporary Way of the Cross – A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa.”

This document, which draws straight-line comparisons between Israeli policies and the Stations of the Cross – a Christian liturgical meditation on the suffering and crucifixion of Christ – cannot be found on Sabeel’s website or anywhere else on the Internet, but can only be obtained from the organization’s Jerusalem office. The document – which makes no mention of Israeli suffering or Palestinian culpability – is however, publicized by the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. (A direct link to the PDF of the Global Ministries flier advertising the 40-page booklet is available here.)

The document, published in 2005, demolishes assertions from Sabeel’s Christian and Jewish defenders that the group’s use of crucifixion imagery is something other than what it is – an attempt to portray the Palestinians as innocent, Christ-like victims of a crucifixion perpetrated by Israel, the Jewish State. The document also demonstrates allegations that complaints and concerns regarding Rev. Dr. Ateek’s hostile rhetoric have taken his words “out of context” are false.
The discriminatory application of the Passion Play in to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a central aspect of Sabeel’s agenda and the liturgy proves it. 

While Sabeel’s use of the Passion to demonize Israel – in a worship liturgy – is troubling, there is another problem – the relentless tone of irresponsible self-pity that permeates the document. The way the Arab-Israeli conflict is described in the liturgy, nothing is the fault of the Palestinians or their Arab “supporters;” everything is Israel’s fault, and ultimately, there is nothing the Palestinians can do to improve their lot except enlist Christians in the U.S. in their efforts to demonize and isolate Israel. (The only Israelis whose humanity is acknowledged are Israeli peace activists that can be used to lend credence to the notion that the conflict is all Israel’s fault.)


The Liturgy

The introduction of the liturgy states:
This ‘Contemporary Way of the Cross’ has been developed as an act of worship rooted in the land where Jesus was born, lived, and died, linking the original events of Good Friday with the continuing suffering of the occupied people who live in th at land today. It seeks to help others to understand something of the events which have shaped this troubled place over the last century and draw attention to the very real and constant suffering of the Palestinian people. It strives to provide an honest account of the situation, and simply asks those who take part in this act of worship to listen, to pray for us and to pray with us as we look towards a just, comprehensive and enduring peace.

The un-named author(s) of the document then offer(s) several suggestions as to how it can be used in worship – “three or four stations a week throughout the whole of lent”; “two or three stations a day during Holy Week”; during Sunday school classes or “as a personal devotional tool.”

The structure of each “station” is the same: A pseudo-historical introduction that leaves out important information is followed by an “opening meditation” which compares an aspect of the current conflict to the suffering of Christ during his last day on earth. For example, Christ’s condemnation is equated with “The Nakba of 1948” and his death on the cross is compared to “devastation in Gaza.” These opening meditations are then followed by a mixture of scripture, first-hand testimony, prayers, poems and finally, a closing reflection. The overall effect is to portray Israel as a Christ-killing nation, and the Palestinians as innocent lambs of God who suffer for the sins of both Israel and for the failings of the international community.

Distortions of the Historical Record

To pull this portrayal off, Sabeel’s liturgy focuses almost entirely on Israeli violence without providing any information about Arab violence against Israel. For example, the liturgy’s entry on Station One which compares the condemnation of Jesus to the “Nakba of 1948” reads as follows:
Following the failure of the UN partition plan suggested in 1947, Jewish military groups began to take large areas of Palestine by force. During this period more than 400 villages were depopulated, the residents being expelled by force or fleeing from the advancing Jewish militants. The most appalling example of village destruction occurred at Deir Yassin in April 1948. Deir Yassin, a thriving community of 600, suffered a massacre of approximately 120 men, women, and children at the hands of the Irgun and the Stern Gang (Zionist terrorist forces). […] Issues of both right of return and compensation for refugees who fled and whose homes and property were destroyed or confiscated, both of which are provided for in UN Resolution 194, are yet to be resolved. Since Israel has caused the displacement of the Palestinians, destroyed their villages and towns, denied them their basic human rights, and illegally dominated and oppressed them, it is morally bound to admit is injustice against the Palestinians and assume responsibility for it.

The “opening meditation” then states: “Just as Jesus was condemned to die, so the actions of 1948 passed a death sentence on more than 400 historic Palestinian villages that were completely destroyed across the country.”

Sabeel’s liturgical narrative omits crucial facts. For example, the partition plan approved (not “suggested”) by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947 failed because the Arab-States surrounding Israel attacked the Jewish State the day after it declared independence. And while civilians were killed at Deir Yassin, Sabeel makes no mention of the 1,256 Israelis killed by Arab extremists between the approval of the partition plan and the outbreak of war on May 15, 1948. Civilians were killed and expelled from their homes on both sides of the 1948 War and yet, in a patently dishonest effort to portray the Palestinians as innocent sufferers, Sabeel omits any reference to the death or expulsion of Jews before and during this war. Moreover, the assertion that “Israel has caused the displacement of the Palestinians” is deceptive because it fails to acknowledge that the Palestinian refugee crisis was precipitated by a war started by Israel’s Arab neighbors and that these same neighbors have disrupted repeated attempts by both Israel and the international community to find permanent homes for Palestinians refugees.

Nevertheless, in the closing prayer of the Second Station of the Cross (which compares the plight of displaced Palestinians to Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion) the authors petition God to “Strengthen the will of the international community to work for their repatriation and compensation, for the sake of the One [Christ] who was made a refugee, and now lives and reigns forever.” A more honest prayer would petition God to encourage Arab leaders to reverse their policy of prolonging the suffering of Palestinian refugees.

Moreover, no mention is made in the historical narrative, testimony or prayer of this entry of the nearly 1 million refugees driven from Arab lands and Jews driven from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a result of the 1948 War.

Predictably, the Sabeel offers a distorted and dishonest portrayal of the Six-Day War and its aftermath in the liturgy. Station Three compares Jesus first fall on the way to his crucifixion to the “1967 and Occupation.” Predictably, the historical narrative recounts Israel’s taking possession of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the displacement of 460,000 Palestinians without any reference to Arab responsibility for provoking the war. Sabeel’s liturgy offers no reference to the bellicose statements from Egyptian President Nasser, nor does it mention Nasser’s decision to expel UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai, his decision to mass troops in the Sinai, or the closure of the Straits of Tiran. Instead, like most other Sabeel document, it is all Israel, all the time:

The occupation of 1967 continues today, contrary to international law, and the continued Israeli “land grab” and subjugation of Palestinian people by way of settlement building, closure, bureaucratic harassment, and military control further contravenes the way an occupier is legally obliged to treat a population under its control.

What the liturgy fails to mention is that Israel had hoped to negotiate a land-land-for-peace deal after the Six Day War, but was met instead with the Three Nos of Khartoum (No peace with Israel; No recognition of Israel; NO negotiations with Israel). Nor does the liturgy make any mention of Yasir Arafat’s failure to negotiate in good faith at Camp David in 2000 and his refusal of the Clinton Parameters in 2001. Instead, the liturgy publishes a poem by Rima Nasir Tarazi which includes the following passage:
They defiled our holy places and violated our sanctuaries.
They crucified our humanity and trampled our aspirations.
They shut down our universities and surrounded our schools
To silence our young and to usurp our rights.

The message of this passage is obvious: Israelis have crucified the Palestinians, who have done no wrong. (About the only reference to Israeli humanity comes in Station Eight, which compares Women Against the Occupation  to Jesus’ meeting the women of Jerusalem.)

Sabeel’s use of the Passion Play as a Procrustean Bed for its dishonest narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes even more obvious in the liturgy’s treatment of Station Four, which compares the “siege and curfew” experienced by the Palestinian people to Jesus meeting his mother on the way to his crucifixion. The introductory narrative describes the security measures imposed on the West Bank (which are indeed onerous) without describing the suicide attacks that preceded them. There is no acknowledgement that during the 1990s, Israel reduced its military and administrative presence in the West Bank and turned over large portions of this territory over to the Palestinian Authority led by Yassir Arafat, who failed to stop incitement in Palestinian media, refused to negotiate in good faith at Camp and failed to stop suicide attacks during the Second Intifada.

The testimony offered in this station begins with a diary entry from Cedar Duaybis, a Sabeel board member. The entry, dated April 20, 2002 begins as follows:
This is day 23 of the Israeli invasion and curfew on the twin cities of Ramallah and Al Bireh. 120,000 people have been confined to their homes for three weeks now. Although about half of the Ramallah cars have been completely smashed like cardboard boxes by the Israeli tanks, the ones that still run can cause impossible traffic jams with many roads blocked or damaged by the Israeli war machine. Crowds form outside every shop but many can only afford little. When people meet each other, they take a minute or two to exchange news. Thousands have been arrested, many killed or made homeless. News is of nothing but suffering, and people trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. …

Duaybis fails to mention that on the twenty-fourth day before her diary entry (March 27, 2002), a Hamas-perpetrated suicide attack at a Passover Seder in at Park Hotel Netanya that killed 30 Israelis and injured 140 others.

Her entry includes another passage:
Our long confinement is accompanied by the constant sounds of the Israeli army exploding its way into houses, shops cultural centers, theaters, and the different national ministries as well as the municipality. They destroy everything in their way including valuable documents, archives, research work, medical and dental records. In short, they are destroying the Palestinian people – their identity, their culture and their memory.

Destroying the Palestinian people? While the destruction of paperwork and medical records is regrettable, describing these losses as the destruction of the Palestinian people, whose population has quadrupled in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the 1948 War is preposterous, irresponsible and divorced from reality.

The liturgy continues in the same vein throughout the remainder of the text. “Bureaucratic oppression” is equated to Jesus being stripped of his garments (Station 10); the “devastation in Gaza” (which is blamed on Israel) to Christ being nailed to the cross (Station 11); and the security barrier (which is described with no reference to the suicide attacks it has helped stop) is compared to Christ’s death on the cross (Station 12). 
Two entries include references to those responsible for Christ’s death and suffering. Station Five (which compares the stress and humiliation caused by the occupation to Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross) states: “Those in power offer greater accusations and condemnations, including mockery and ridicule. Yes, there are the chief priests, the Herods, the Pilates and the soldiers.” And Station Seven (which compares home demolitions to Jesus’ second fall) includes a passage from Father Rafiq Khoury, a Catholic Priest in Jerusalem who writes:
The greatest victory for Herod is to kill the will for life in us. This is the real victory of Herod over the infant Jesus. It is the eternal conflict between Herod – the authority and the infant – the dream. Rockets, tanks, and the bulldozers can limit our external movement, put us in the corner and demolish our houses. However, they are unable to kill the will for life in us. If they succeed, then this is their real victory.
The impact and intent of these references to Herod(s), Pilate, and the chief priests is to portray modern-Israel as responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ, represented by the Palestinian people. The overall effect of this rhetoric is to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict as a Jewish assault on Christian sensibilities when in reality the conflict is largely between Jewish Israelis seeking to preserve Israel as a Jewish state and Muslim Arabs who object to Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East.
“Contemporary Stations of the Cross” embodies Sabeel&#14 6;s tendency to affirm demonization over liberation, grievance over forgiveness, resentment over hope, self-pity over responsibility and dishonest propaganda over an honest understanding. Ultimately, the people most likely to suffer the most from the attitudes embodied in this document are the Palestinians themselves – the very people Sabeel says it is trying to liberate. If Sabeel’s liturgy is “The Way” for the Palestinian people, they are headed for more self-inflicted suffering and disaster. Unreflective mainline support for Sabeel is irresponsible for it only encourages and rewards the organization for its continued demonization of Israel and failure to acknowledge the moral agency of the Palestinian people.
One can only hope the document has not been translated into Arabic.

Comments are closed.