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A Liberationist Baby Jesus for the Palestinians By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Most Christians celebrate Christmas as their Savior’s birthday. But the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center in Jerusalem proposes a Baby Jesus who is fighting for a Palestinians state.

Sabeel describes itself as “an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians” that is “inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ,” and whose “liberation theology seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians, promote unity among them, and lead them to social action.” Even among most Christians of the Left, “Liberation Theology” became mostly passé with the Cold War’s conclusion, and the collapse of most Third World Marxist “liberation” movements. But it still lives among a segment of the small Palestinian Christian community, and more widely among anti-Israel church activists in the West, who eagerly promote Sabeel.

This brand of Palestinian-focused Liberation Theology is obliquely described in Sabeel’s recent Christmas greetings to its supporters, which portrays the Christmas story as liberation struggle against the Roman Empire. “Rome” for Sabeel is implicitly the U.S. and its Israeli ally. Entitled “Bethlehem not Annapolis,” the holiday greeting from Sabeel began: “During this Christmas season as we reflect on the message of the angels, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace...’ we can only understand it against the peace which Caesar gives.” The Sabeel Christmas message inveighed against the “might” of Caesar’s empire, where “occupied people” are forced to honor Caesar, pay Roman taxes, and accept the empire’s “unquestioned domination.” For people “living under occupation or oppression, Caesar has become a symbol of the evil that crushes and enslaves.”

Sabeel described the angels who heralded the birth of Baby Jesus as standing for God’s Kingdom, which contrasts with Caesar’s “violence and military might,” and whose empire “enslaves and humiliates.” While God’s empire “liberates and restores dignity to the oppressed,” Caesar “builds walls to separate people” and establishes a peace “exclusive for a chosen few.” God's message of peace comes “not from Annapolis [which] represents empire, but from the small town of Bethlehem, Palestine that still suffers under occupation.” Caesar’s peace is “largely false and deceptive,” while God’s peace is based on “justice and truth.” Sabeel concluded its Christmas card by exhorting, “let us continue the struggle together for the achievement of God's peace for all the people of Palestine-Israel.”

This liberationist version of Christmas from Sabeel, like most versions of Liberation Theology, seeks to reduce Christianity to a political creed, in which Western powers are “Caesar” and Third World opposition to Western “domination” is somehow “God’s Kingdom” of justice. In fact, orthodox Christianity rejects this political reductionism. For most Christians across the centuries, the Baby Jesus was God Incarnate offering salvation and hope to a fallen world. The adult Jesus would not directly challenge Caesar, instead pointing to a transcendent, eternal Kingdom of God. This Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed made claims on human souls that would trouble tyrants of every stripe, not just “Caesar,” but also the faux, usually Marxist heroes of Liberation Theology. The current Palestinian factions, whether the “moderate” Fatah, or the radical Islamist Hamas, hardly model Christian justice and mercy. But Sabeel somehow believes that the angels who announced the birth of Baby Jesus are also heralding the urgency of a Palestinian state.

Far less oblique than Sabeel’s parody of a Christmas card was a conference earlier this Fall that Friends of Sabeel hosted in Boston, where Israel was repeatedly likened not to “Caeser” but to apartheid South Africa. “Today the government of Israel is obsessed with domination and by a deep desire to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and force them to leave their territory,” insisted Sabeel President he Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, as reported by my colleague Jeff Walton. “This [Israeli] racism is a crime against God and our fellow human beings,” Ateek asserted.

Echoing Ateek, Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation Director Imam Madhi Bray insisted that he understood Israel’s supposed brand of apartheid, having himself survived a racist firebombing in the 1950’s era segregated U.S. South. Author Leila Farsakh of the University of Massachusetts alleged, “Israel did not intend to be an apartheid state, but in de facto created one,” by creating Palestinian territories similar to old South African “bantustans” that corralled blacks into dependent enclaves. Like other speakers at the Friends of Sabeel event in Boston, she endorsed a one-state solution that would effectively dissolve Israel as a Jewish nation.

Also like other speakers in Boston, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions denied any “false equivalency” between Israel and the Palestinians, since “Israel in fact is the strong party in this occupation” and “more culpable than the groups we call the terrorists.” Halper dismissed Palestiniain suicide attacks as a “symptom” of Israel’s occupation. “There is a correlation between violence and resistance and what we call terrorism [and the policies of Israel],” he claimed. “People have a right to resist oppression and occupation.”

Joining in the anti-Israel rally in Boston, John Dugard, a Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, reiterated the Israel equals old racist South Africa theme. “Israel is practicing apartheid in a very dishonest, concealed manner,” he claimed, surmising that Israel might even be worse. “At least South Africa was honest about apartheid.”

Probably modern Israel is also worse than the ancient Roman Empire, in Sabeel’s eyes. Sabeel claims to champion the cause of Palestinian Christians, of whom there are only 60,000 remaining, comprising less than two percent of Palestinians. Like Christian populations nearly everywhere in the Middle East, the Palestinian Christians are dwindling, often understandably preferring refuge in the West to their ancient homelands. Sabeel and its friends would like to fault Israel exclusively for the exodus of Christians. But Christian populations in the Middle East have been shrinking for the last century, thanks more to radical Islam than Zionism. Unmentioned by Sabeel is that there are now twice as many Christians now living within Israel as live on the Palestinian controlled West Bank.

Unlike the truncated Christmas story of Sabeel and other Liberation Theologists, the Baby Jesus to whom most Christians look came to save a lost world, not create a political liberation movement. The angels announcing His birth presumably envisioned a far loftier Kingdom than a Palestine governed by Fatah or Hamas.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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