Sabeel Conference Overview

Most of you know I spent the past weekend down at Columbia Theological Seminary at a SABEEL Conference. Sabeel is an ecumenical group based in Jerusalem to help work towards the liberation of the Palestinians, the end of Israeli occupation and towards a just peace in Palestine-Israel for all people. It is a group that is both ecumenical and interfaith and seeks to follow the footsteps of Christ and work in the way of nonviolence. The conference this weekend was a great chance for me to begin to learn more about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. This has always been a topic that I’ve know I should know and care deeply about, but I’ve always felt awkward when it was brought up because I really didn’t know anything about it; and that always upset me. Now that my project is going to take me to Palestine-Israel this summer, I felt it was time to begin learning more about the issues involved.

It was a great opportunity to meet people who are actively seeking for a just peace for the Palestinians and Israelis; many people were from the states, but even more had either done work in Palestine-Israel or were currently living, working and teaching there. I got a chance to meet Rachel Corrie’s parents. For those of you who don’t remember this, Rachel was working with International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, where she was standing between a home and a bulldozer one day, when she was run over by the Caterpillar bulldozer and crushed to death. She was from Olympia, WA and her parents (who still live there now) were at the conference. To learn more, go to the Rachel Corrie Memorial Web Site.

There is too much to write about here, but let me just touch on a few things that have stayed with me since the conference…

“There is a conspiracy of silence around this issue.”
Rev. Dick Toll, President of Friends of Sabeel – North America, said this as he introduced Naim Ateek for the opening comments. And it’s so true. While the issue is always in the news, it appears to always be from the same perspective. It is not politically correct to be critical of Israel, but how does one discuss this issue without being horribly critical of the way in which Israel is treating the Palestinians. One can’t – Israel must be critiqued…severely. It’s interesting how much the Holocaust continues to play a role: no one wants to be critical of Israel because in many ways, people are still uncomfortable with talking about the Holocaust; many still “feel sorry” for Israel because of the tragic loss of lives. And we should – it was an unspeakably tragic moment in world history. However, this leads me to another quote that I heard this weekend…

“Jews were innocent in their suffering; they are not innocent in their power.”
Marc Ellis, professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University, and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies, spoke a few times at the conference. Ellis speaks and writes come his own Jewish perspective. This was one of his big points throughout his lecture, as he is a radical critic of Israel. Yes, the Jews were innocent as the oppressed, as the tragic victims of genocide. However, they are not the oppressed anymore; they are not a weak nation. They are heavily supported by the United States (he listed off a variety of compelling statistics, but I can’t remember them). At any rate, it is not helpful to view Israel as the innocent anymore. They are not suffering – they are the powerful – and now, they are oppressing the Palestinians.

“What we need is a greater inclusive theology of land.”
Rev. Naim Ateek, author of “Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation,” is also the founder and Director of Sabeel in Jerusalem. A beautifully humble, wise and peaceful man, it was a joy to be able to meet and speak with Naim a bit while I was there. I am looking forward to being able to connect with him in Jerusalem this summer. This was one quote that stuck with me. A greater inclusive theology of land…obviously, this crisis is over the land that Israel believes (according to the Torah) belongs strictly to them and that Palestinians are living on. But whose land is it? That is the question. Does it belong unconditionally to Israel? Or rather, does the LORD at times even tell Israel that the land does not belong to them, but that, rather, even they are aliens and foreigners on the land which belongs to the LORD…this is the direction that Naim and others would like to see the conversation going. Listen to Naim Ateek’s closing comments from the conference.

“We are called to live out our deepest questions.” // “We need to tell the stories that haven’t been told.”
Artist and activist Ellen O’Grady was at the conference and I got a chance to talk with her some. She has lived in the Gaza Strip and West Bank for over 6 years and has recently published a book of her artwork entitled Outside the Ark: An Artist’s Journey in Occupied Palestine. I just thought that was a beautiful reason for desiring to live in solidarity with the Palestinian people – to be able to tell their stories; stories which need to be heard but aren’t.

Where are those who will be challenging our government’s non-questioning total support of Israel. When will we see the dangers of Christian Zionism and especially of the vast influence that books like the Left Behind series has on our eschatology, which dramatically affects the way in which we approach the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. When will more people travel to Gaza and the West Bank and experience how the Israeli-occupation is affecting the lives of millions of Palestinians. On the way down to the conference, I finished “Blood Brothers” by Father Elias Chacour. It is a quick read and one that I think is a great primer into this whole discussion; I encourage you to take a look at it and let me know what you think. I plan to spend some time with Fr Chacour this summer out in Ibillin in Galilee.

If you are interested in looking through the notes I took at the conference, you can download them here.

I will be posting more about this in the future, so I will leave it at that for now. At any rate, my question for us now is: Where is the emerging church discussion on Palestine & Israel?


  1. says

    nice summary adam..for those interested, the seminary taped the event and all the speakers’ (except Marc Ellis who didn’t sign a release) presentations can be ordered on DVD, CD, tape, etc…

    The weekend was quite provacative and stimulating. I was impressed by how articulate all the speakers were and I must say that their cases were compelling. I would be interested in a well presented view from the “other side” if there’s one out there..

    Marc Ellis, from Baylor of all places, was quite impressive. Not afraid to call out individuals, he even took a shot at the CTS OT faculty of which one was in attendance. He didnt have much love for Xn OT academia as a whole and declared that they loved their prophetic Jews of the OT but didn’t want to have anything to do with prophetic Jews of today…

    Ellis brought up a fascinating dynamic. In light of the holocaust and historical persecution of Jews by Christians, Christians are hesistant to criticize Jews Any critique is often quickly labeled as anti-Semitism. Thus, Israel has been given uncritical support not only by the US government but by most Christians, conservative and liberal. He calls Christians to step forward and judge Israel as any other nation and take the risk of being labeled anti-Semitic for the cause of justice. It is interesting that Ellis, a Jew, is sometimes labeled as anti-Semitic..

    As for the emerging church, I think we first need to listen to both our Jewish and Palenstenian brothers and sisters who are in the middle of the conflict. I wonder if a future Emergent Convention seminar could be centered around this topic. We also must distinguish ourselves from the Christian Zionist movement who is giving uncritical support to the Jews in hopes to speed Christ’s return. This gets into issues of eschatology that the EC will hopefully rethink anyway. McLaren has a good start in “The Story we Find Ourselves In.” While we need to distinguish ourselves, we need to try as much as possible, to keep the dialouge lines open with our Zionist brothers and sisters as well..Will we give them room at the EC table? Perhaps that may be how an EC take on this will be a little different than the conference this weekend. While there were 8 panelists during one session, there were no representatives of the contrarian view…

    A good conference for sure..The rumoured protestors never showed and everything went quite smoothly…I encourage those interested to get a couple of these tapes…


  2. says

    Perhaps that conversation is here?

    Thanks for calling attention to the seminar. I admit that this issue isn’t often on the radar for most people I know, and I don’t think it’s a matter of dispensationalist theology (few of my friends are into that) but rather the overwhelming and seemingly monolithic “moral” support Israel gets from our society and its leaders.

    How to win hearts and minds? Keep talking about it, perhaps…

  3. says

    The Episcopal Church has been very heavily involved with the Palestinian Christians. My own Diocesan Bishop, Vincent Warner, has been on many peacemaking trips out there. He and others are often accused of anti-semitism, as noted because anything short of unquestioned support of Israel is seen as being “terrorist friendly”.

    As he’s here in Seattle you could probably talk to him sometime you’re back out here… Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll introduce you.

  4. Keith says

    Since you fished for discussion…

    Was the topic of Palestinian terrorism against Israel (suicide bombers and the like) brought up, and if so, what was said about it? I know Ellis from my days at Baylor, and his thoughts on Israel’s violent acts opened my eyes to the one-sidedness of our view of this conflict. I agree with him that Israel is no longer powerless, but I also tend to think that they are also still victims: they experience fear, violence, and hatred every day. It seems that there are victims and terrorists on both sides of this struggle, and that broad labels either way (Palestinians are victims, Israelis are terrorizers, or vice versa) misrepresent the conflict.

    To put it another way: how do we respond to someone who says, “As long as suicide bombers keep killing innocent Israelis on buses and in nightclubs, and as long as the countries of the middle east teach their children to hate Jews, then Israel is justified in her attempts to protect herself. After all, the United States invaded two countries–one of them pre-emptively–in the name of “security” after 9/11. Why can’t Israel do the same thing? Wh can’t Israel do the same thing and protect the security of her citizens in response to the constant threats and the dozens murdered?”

  5. says

    i agree with keith. our view of the conflict is very slanted, and much of my opened eyes is due to Ellis, who i had a class with, but it’s not a complete case of the righteous/unrighteous. both sides use terrorism, both sides blow up children and civilians and use despicable means in the name of a righteous cause.

  6. says

    I think Myles has got it — the Emergent Church is much more likely to say it’s not OK to tell either side they are singularly wrong for this. Both sides are carrying responsibility for the escalation of violence.

    I think that for progress to be made, both Israel and Palestine are going to have to make concessions, and I believe there are many voices willing to do that, but those voices are being suppressed by the extremists. Even worse, Western Christians are only exploiting the controversy by trying to get as many Jews a) to Israel and b) converted in an effort to “bring Jesus back”. *sigh* The theology of the land and the theology of apocalypse. You certainly know how to choose good topics, Adam. They’ve claimed you now. Don’t expect to go back to the easy stuff. :)

  7. says

    Thanks for joining the discussion. Yes, there was a mention of Palestinian suicide bombers…but the suicide bombers is a relatively recent thing, compared to the occupation of Israel that has been going on since 1948. Just a thought.

    I was reading James Cone’s God of the Oppressed tonight and ran across this section:

    “If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to YHWH’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly, it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that YHWH has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for YHWH who is the God of the poor.


  8. says

    for a long time, i wrestled with statements like those of cone and gutierrez and reuther and the like, and then one day, i realized that what they are proposing is not a God of all people, but a tribal god that hedges loyalties based on things prior to faith, like ephemeral economic categories. are the poor less in need of grace? are the rich more oppressors who were born on 3rd base? truth be told, what is advocated in LT so often is a reversal, not based in justice, where all have what they need, but a reversal that is vengance, so that the poor become the strong and the rich become the weak.

    me? i live in a poor neighborhood and pay nearly no income tax, and yet am finished with a master’s degree. where do i fall? rich because of opportunity or poor because of economics? this is where LT fails: it categorizes and contradicts not only the activity of God, but its own categories as well. its intent as a corrective is excellent, but not as a normalizing theology for the church.

  9. Keith says

    Good thoughts, Adam–I would probably fall into what Cone calls the “side of neutrality” on this issue, because I can’t finally make a judgment about which side is the oppressor and which is the victim. I guess Cone would say that my neutrality would ultimately place me on the side of the “oppressors”–but I really can’t figure out who the oppressors are, because I think both sides oppress and both are victims. To play devil’s advocate anyway (for discussion’s sake)…

    On the recent nature of suicide bombers: On the one hand, I think a good argument could be made that suicide bombings are a sign of frustration and the build-up of resentment after decades of mistreatment, i.e., the Palestianian teapot is finally blowing its pent up steam. But, on the other hand, whether recent or long-standing, I can’t justify the violence against innocent Israelis, and I think it marks the Palestians as oppressors (while not taking away their status as victims either). Questions that must be raised: Can a Palestianian Christian justify protesting against Israel’s violence while also being silent about the terrorists on his own side? Can they justify protesting Israel’s policies while not protesting the policies of their own state which indoctrinates Palestianian children with hatred and the desire to kill Jews (see here for info and videos about what I mean: Shouldn’t they be protesting BOTH the violence of Israel AND the violence of their fellow Palestinians? And does that mean that they can’t really be on one side or the other in this debate, but above and beyond it? Those aren’t rhetocial questions–I really don’t pretent to know the answers.

    On Cone: I think Cone’s interpretation of the OT is a little one-sided, because the same God who “sided with the weak” also exterminated innocents on behalf of Israel when they took over the land (ask the Canaanites or a menstrating woman if Yahweh sides with the poor and victimized or not!). His interpretation might be viable in some sense, but it’s not the only one possible interpretation that can be made. However, if we grant his point that theology has to side with the poor, can we really take sides in this instance? Are there not oppressed victims on both sides? And poor on both sides? It depends on how you look at it. From one perspective, Israel is the rich dominant power bullying the region. From another perspective, it’s the poor victim struggling to survive with the threat of people who teach their children that it’s their religious duty kill Jews (while also dealing with the threats from the surrounding nations who want to drive it into the sea).

    How do you pick sides in that battle? And which side is right?

  10. Keith says

    “Where are those who will be challenging our government’s non-questioning total support of Israel. When will we see the dangers of Christian Zionism and especially of the vast influence that books like the Left Behind series has on our eschatology, which dramatically affects the way in which we approach the Palestinian-Israeli crisis?”

    By the way, I think these are great questions to be asking ourselves. (Three comments in one day! I’ve hit my yearly quota–it’s back to silence for me).

  11. says

    I think Keith and Myles make helpful points here: one surely cannot apply a “subjective” set of standards by which one decides that one group is “poor and oppressed” and the other consists of “oppressors.”

    Oppression is not good ground for holiness, but rather the growth of bitterness. And unfortunately, the “teapot” analogy is doesn’t go far enough: steam is a neutral phenomenon.

    My answer? Criticize everyone. Loudly. Support righteousness, but reveal evil for what it is, “understandable” though it may sometimes be. One can’t buy into the land theology and support Israel “unconditionally,” but neither can one completely adopt the “oppressed Palestinian” narrative just because their lives suck the most.

    Even though it is a big deal when your life sucks the most, I don’t want to undercut the seriousness of that. Although saying “occupation sucks” might be too flippant already…

  12. says

    i recorded an album of songs telling the story of the palestinians after a visit in 98 – backbone – will send you a copy if you e-mail me your address

  13. Holly says

    You refer to Palestine as victims of Israel, and people who support Israel as Christian Zionist. Israel has been willing to give up land for the sake of peace, but each time they give something up more innocent Israeli people are killed by Palestinian terrorists. How are they not victims? What about the Israeli children going to school and their bus is bombed, how are they not victims? I am all for peace, and a palestinian state, but to refer to them as victims? They are victims of their own rulers. And to refer to supporters of Israel as Christian Zionist? Where is the love, compassion and understanding for both sides?

  14. Realistic says

    Are you kidding me?
    I have no time to comment about the whole BS article you wrote, but I will comment about Rachel Cory.
    Rachel Cory is soley responsible for her death. By putting herself in an unpleasent situation, and by sheltering and supporting terrorists, Rachel Cory brought her own death. She had no reason to be standing in front of a house with weapons that are used to kill INNOCENT israelis. ISM My ass!!! Burning Israeli flags and promoting hate makes her as bad as any other terrorist.

    Lastly, she was crushed since the Israeli driver did not see the idiot that was trying to save another harbor for terrorists.

    Be reasonable and cut the crap…
    Israel has every right to defend itself and it will continue to do so as long as it needs.

  15. Sweet Melissa says

    “the suicide bombings are a recent thing” I quote Adam from his statement above “and the “occupation” ( Jews in Isreal ) longer.

    That means. for you novices that its ok for Arabs to murder Jews. They live in Isreal and have it coming to them.

    Read closely the above comments form this guy.

    Don’t be fooled.

    Send your money to Danfur amd folks that need it, not to Adams friends in Hamas.

  16. Mark says

    Would it make any difference to anybody if you knew that an objective body, a college department that sponsored a recent Sabeel Conference, acknowledged the presence of anti-Semitism?

    “The Dept. of Philosophy and Religion at Coe is aware that some anti-Semitic remarks were made at the recent Sabeel Conference held on our campus and which our department sponsored. We are also aware that here were other breaches of civility during the conference.

    Let it be known that the members of our department find anti-Semitism of any kind to be deplorable and inexcusable, and that we also object to uncivil behavior.”


  17. says

    I really appreciate this whole discussion and basically agree with your take on everything, but your statement that Jews “are not suffering” is pretty unfair. Everyone is suffering. Jews may have more power in this siutation, and that needs to be dealt with, but they are still suffering immensely.

    I also recommend that people check out (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace). They are doing some very good work on this.


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