NORTH NEWTON, KAN. Naim Ateek is a man profoundly affected by history. On May 12, 1948, when he was 11, he stood in the yard of his family’s home in Beisan (Bet Shean), Palestine, as the Israeli army marched in and occupied the town. The state of Israel was proclaimed two days later. Ateek’s family lost almost everything. They were forced to relocate and start over in Nazareth. Almost 20 years later, Ateek was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church two weeks before the 1967 war, when Israel began occupying the West Bank and Gaza.
At Bethel College Feb. 15 and 16, Naim Ateek spoke on "Reading the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes" for the 2004 Bethel College Bible Lectures. He served 30 years in parish ministry in Israel/Palestine and, in the early 1990s, was a founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, based in Jerusalem. Ateek was the first to articulate a Palestinian theology of liberation in his book "Justice and Only Justice," published in 1989.
Throughout his lectures and informal meetings with college students, faculty and staff as well as area pastors and community members, Ateek emphasized his belief that Christians cannot justify "a narrow reading" of Old Testament Scripture that seems to sanction the exclusive right of the Jews to the land of Israel/Palestine.
"Christians must read the Bible using the lens of the New Testament and the revelation of God in Christ, who tried at every turn to shatter narrow theology," he said. "God’s fidelity is not to a particular people in a particular land. God demands an equal inheritance for all people in the land, regardless of racial or ethnic background."
Ateek critiqued Christian Zionism, also called premillennialism or dispensationalism-a belief dating from the first half of the 19th century, beginning in Europe and spreading rapidly to the United States. Christian Zionists believe that Christians have a responsibility to help bring about the second coming of Christ, with one requirement being the restoration of the Jews to the historic land of Israel.
Despite his experiences with Israeli domination as a boy, Ateek said it was not until he became canon (pastor) of St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, at the time of "the first Intifada," that "God took hold of me, shook me and turned me around in a new direction. God gave me a new set of glasses and I began to read the Bible differently and to preach differently."
Ateek began to see, he said, that "justice could not be separated from peace," and neither could be separated from faith, discipleship or reading the Bible. "I found all reading of Scripture pregnant with peace, justice, nonviolence, love of others and love of enemies. I felt I had been preaching only half the gospel, and now it was time to preach a comprehensive gospel."
Because of his experiences at St. George’s, ministering to a people living under occupation, Ateek began to understand the pain that many Old Testament texts caused-it seemed as if "God was sanctioning the current tragedy of their lives." So began Ateek’s quest to understand God’s purpose in light of Christ.
"It was important to realize the impartiality of God," Ateek said. "God is not partial to specific people-God is partial to justice and peace. The Bible remains central to faith when its message of justice and liberation is clear."
Sidebar: The first Palestinian liberation theologian
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. Some say Naim Ateek was the first Palestinian to articulate a theology of liberation for his people. But he claims that honor goes much further back.
"Jonah is the greatest book of the Old Testament to me," Ateek said in his second presentation of the 2004 Bethel College Bible Lectures, given Feb. 15-16. "Jonah was the first Palestinian liberation theologian."
Many miss Jonah’s impact "because of its humor and simplicity," Ateek said. Scholars believe that Jonah was not actually written by a prophet of that name, but was set down several hundred years later from oral tradition "to make a point and teach a lesson."
Jonah was "a nationalist and a bigot," Ateek said, "and the writer used Jonah’s story to speak to the nationalism, bigotry and exclusion in his own society."
The book of Jonah addresses three important theological issues: Who is God? Who are the people of God? Whose is the land?
The book shows that God shows no preference for one people, which "critiques any narrow or nationalist understanding of God," Ateek said. "God’s love, care and compassion extend to the deadliest enemies of Israel. The book of Jonah liberates God from a tribal mentality."
Furthermore, "God can’t be confined to one small geographic location. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,’ the Psalmist wrote.
"Jonah provides a comprehensive critique of narrow theology," Ateek concluded. "The challenge is clear: Jonah’s message still has relevance for the conflict in Israel/Palestine. We are still facing today the problems Jonah was addressing.
"The theology of Jonah is the bridge between Old Testament and New Testament theology. Jonah refutes narrow theology, and Jesus tried at every turn to shatter narrow theology," Ateek said.