Saturday, January 17, 2015

How Shall We Live in the Face of Empire? (Reading Mitri Raheb)

Mitri Raheb, Faith in the
Face of Empire: The Bible
Through Palestinian Eyes
I'm excited to be headed to Israel/Palestine in March, to participate in a study trip lead by Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

I preparation for the trip, I'm reading Pastor Raheb's book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. It's raised some challenging questions for me.

The obvious context is Empire and its power

Pastor Raheb emphasizes that people who are Christians, and people who care about Palestine, and people who fall into both categories, all need to care about the problem of Empire -- because that is the context in which Jesus found himself and because that is the context of Palestine.

"Just another day in [insert city name here]."
He emphasizes, moreover, due to geographic factors Empire is and has always been the context in Palestine.

As someone who became a full-time peace and justice activist in the context of Chicago's preparation for the 2012 NATO Summit, I would add that Empire is the context in the U.S., too. (We just do a better job of averting our eyes from it here, in the new Rome.)

That's not a reason to give up on confronting Empire. It's just one of the key facts with which we need to prepare ourselves.

But start where the power isn't

The rather startling thing that Pastor Raheb points out is the way Jesus dealt with that context. We are invited to notice that Jesus did not trek to Rome to take on the power holders. In fact, although he ended up in Jersusalem, the local capital of Empire, that's not where he spent most of his time.

Jesus spent the vast majority of his time in Galilee, and he spent it with a diverse array of ordinary people.  Galilee is not a fancy place.  It's not where you go if you want to hobnob with the rich and powerful set. The "social network" that you might be able to build in Galilee is . . . well . . . what is it, exactly?

Pastor Raheb challenges us to think about people on the "margins" -- which is simply a way of saying where the power isn't.

Members of the coalition to shut down 
Guantanamo  join hands in Chicago.
For somebody like me in who is part of the activist community in Chicago, this is a difficult challenge indeed.

One of Chicago's great traditions is "Alinsky-style" community organizing, that is, community organizing designed to get results, with a no-nonsense focus on power relations and achievable victories, based on the principles of pioneering activist Saul Alinsky.

("Alinsky-style" community organizing is great -- but some of us (for instance, members of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance) have been examining whether it is enough. We've been talking about a more "faith-rooted" kind of organizing, one that is less single-mindedly built around "power.")

Another of Chicago's other great traditions is pragmatism. The Chicago apostle of pragmatism, John Dewey, reminded us that we simply can't lose sight of the results we are trying to achieve. In fact, Dewey said, an idea is a function of action and results -- in effect, a "bet" that you place on what is going to work in the real world.

So . . . doesn't everything we do need to serve the struggle? Especially the relationships we build? Isn't it all about power? Isn't it all about results? How can it make sense to keep returning to the margins?

In other words, if the determinant of who you give attention to is not "those with a high likelihood of aiding the struggle," then how can we be confident or hopeful? How can we have faith?

(What's the true context, anyway?)

How is it be possible that we can confront Empire without being forever and always calculating about the potential impact of each and every one of our actions? Is it worth doing anything that isn't aimed at the heart of Empire?

I wonder if that is what Jesus was struggling with as he sought to wrestle control of the words like "kingdom" and phrases like "good news" away from those who had come to believe that the only context in which those words made sense was power and violence.

Certainly fidelity to a Creator God requires that we see that our true context extends much farther and much deeper than the bounds of any Empire (though it is inherent in the conduct of Empire that this truth be denied at every turn).

Listening and being heard
in a Chicago production of the play, The Predator.
Can we sense that the denseness of the field of human experience and of relationships between people, and the infinitude of possibilities raised thereby, is something we can only begin to plumb, and something that all too easily recedes from consciousness?

I think particularly of Jesus at the well in Samaria. Instead of living out the conventional wisdom, which would lead him to shun anyone he encountered there, Jesus spent the time to listen to the woman at the well. She was taken aback that he could see her, that he could hear her. (In fact, she was so shocked that he was hearing her that she couldn't stop telling others about it.)

I wonder if what Jesus believed was that God's wish for humankind is for us to dwell in this true context, in its entirety.

"Yes, free from the oppression of Empire; but a whole lot more, too."

I wonder if this invites us to undertake a different kind of work. Listening instead of speaking.

I wonder where our "well" is . . . !


(1) Is this analysis borne out in scripture? Really?

(2) If this understanding of Jesus is true, what might it lead you to do differently?

(3) Why, in the end, did Jesus go to Jerusalem?

(4) Where does this lead us relative to the conflicts in Israel/Palestine today?

Related posts

Make no mistake: the powers that be have know that they have cowed most of the public into being afraid to talk about Guantanamo, and that suits them just fine. Our power to act starts with talking widely -- beyond just our usual circles -- about the way in which we're being scared ... and why a government would possibly want to scare its own people.

(See Pentecost, Guantanamo, and the Moment When Talk Becomes Priceless)

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry)

"Tell people at your synod assembly: in the African context, what the Church does is so important, it has so much influence . . . . " he said.

(See What Happens When People Talk With Each Other (My Graeme Reid Moment) )

I've realized that when we ask ourselves, "What is it that we hope people will do?" we must include an element of recursivity: One of the things we want people to do is to involve more people in doing it. In a way, that element of recursivity -- dare I say "evangelism"? -- defines what it means for people to really become part of a movement.

(See Invite More People into Activism! (Pass It Along!) )


Faced with chorus of voices saying, "Isn't it time for you to tone it down? Can't you be more reasonable? What is it you want, anyway?" Jesus kept right on doing what he was doing. And that was a sign to us about how to live our lives . . . .

(See WWJD? Occupy! )

Every Christmas film revolves around the theme of finding the true meaning of Christmas, and of not settling for the world as we have let it become but instead reshaping the world be be what, in our deepest hearts, we want it to be. (Doesn't that sound like what Bethlehem needs?)

(See Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem)