Why Won’t US Christians Stand With Marginalized Palestinians?

Reflections on the Holy Land and ‘A Palestinian Theology of Liberation’

(Photo: Cat Knarr)

Ten days after the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, 10 days after the Israeli army shot down over 1,300 unarmed Palestinian protesters killing 60, 10 days after the 70th anniversary of the Nakba catastrophe in which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland in 1948, I walked on the holy ground of Palestine for the first time.

Cat Knarr.

I am a quarter Palestinian (also White and Colombian), so I was setting foot in my grandfather’s homeland. Yet, as I spent time visiting warm family members and attending the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, I felt strangely disconnected from the events that had just happened. Here I was in a new place, a place that I loved with all my heart, a place where I felt down deep that I belonged, breathing in the cool night air and looking out at the beautiful land. And yet, in this holy land, horrific injustices had been committed, just over the past days. At the Gaza border on May 14, unarmed Palestinian protesters pleaded for their right to return to the homeland they had been expelled from—and as a result were met with live gunfire from the Israeli military.

A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict by Naim Stifan Ateek
A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict by Naim Stifan Ateek. (Photo: Orbis Books)

Meanwhile, American Evangelicals cheered for the new Jerusalem embassy that opened that day, without a second thought to the Palestinians who died protesting at the Gaza border. I left Palestine asking God so many questions, not least of which was why my fellow Christians in the United States had so coldly abandoned their suffering siblings in Palestine. Are Palestinians invisible? Is our humanity worth so little that Christians cannot be concerned with Palestinian deaths, let alone dare to stand up for Palestinian lives?
Wrestling with these questions, I turned to a book by the Rev. Naim Stifan Ateek that I had recently picked up, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict. Ateek is an Anglican priest and co-founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. I had recently heard him speak along with Rabbi Brant Rosen in a dialogue at a church in downtown Chicago.

In A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Ateek wrestles with complex texts from the Bible that have been used to justify racism or violence, and he emerges with a beautiful hermeneutic of Jesus to illuminate the truth that God’s love applies to all people, regardless of ethnicity. God loves Palestinians and cares about our struggles—and that’s not a radical idea; it’s Gospel 101. Yet, what struck me the most about the book was Ateek’s prophetic call for Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance for the liberation of Palestine. It is a call I don’t hear often enough.

At the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, I talked to many Christians who felt bad about the suffering Palestinians are going through, sympathizing with people who get harassed at checkpoints or families who fear the demolition of their homes. But inside, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would return to the U.S. and actually do something about it—who would contact their representatives, who would tell their congregation the truth about the oppression of Palestinians even though it’s controversial, who would protest in solidarity with Palestinians the next time unarmed protesters are murdered en masse. Because the truth is that it’s easier to play it safe. It’s easier to say both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are equally at fault than to acknowledge that one side possesses military power and has been systematically expelling, oppressing, or killing the other. It’s easier to use terms like “war” or “conflict” rather than “ethnic cleansing.” (Just look at historic maps to see the continual loss of Palestinian land.)

But Ateek’s theology leaves no room for such lukewarm passivity. “Liberation theology is realized when we are able to answer the question: what does God expect us to say and to do about the injustice and oppression that we see happening before us?” Ateek writes.

For we are not peacemakers if we do not fight for justice and truth. We are not peacemakers if we say “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). We are not peacemakers if we fail to do anything about urgent crises like the humanitarian conditions in Gaza. We are fake peacemakers.

So how do we answer God’s call to make peace? Ateek writes that as long as the Israeli government continues oppressing the Palestinian people, “it is mandatory for all people of faith and all who believe in justice and peace to resist, using all the nonviolent methods and means that are available.”

Nonviolence is crucial, and Ateek sees it as the path to freedom for Palestinians. “Nonviolence introduces a new moral context, believing that the arc of history bends toward justice,” he says. “It focuses on the evil that has been committed and aims to end it, while it seeks the rehabilitation of the aggressors.”

My prayer is that the Christian church around the world will hear Ateek’s prophetic call to nonviolent resistance, and that the church will have the courage to stand up to injustice and be an instrument of peace. On May 14, the U.S. symbolically gave the whole city of Jerusalem to Israel by relocating its embassy there, depriving Palestinians of their right to their holy city and their homeland. More recently, the Trump administration cut $200 million in humanitarian aid, apparently in an effort to pressure Palestinians to negotiate on a not-yet-released peace plan. This is not the time for flowery talk about long-term hopes. This is the moment to act before more Palestinians die from live fire at the border or lack of access to medical care and other basic human needs.

If you see Palestinian suffering and recognize that Palestinian lives matter, thank you. Yet, do not stop at recognizing our humanity, but advocate for it, so that lives under threat can be saved, violence can be averted, and basic human dignity can be protected. So that peace can return to the Holy Land. For that is the journey that Jesus calls us on, for the sake of Palestinians and for all those who are suffering or marginalized.

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    Written by Cat Knarr

    Cat Knarr lives in Chicago, where she enjoys writing her YA sci-fi novel with Jamie Nunn and reading all the books she can get her hands on. As a multiracial Christian, Cat has been drawn to stories about race and religion, writing for UrbanFaith, Christianity Today, The Chicago Reporter, and more. Follow Cat on Twitter: @CatKnarr.

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