Mitri Raheb, “Creative Resistance to the Empire, a review of Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes” (reviewed by Harlow Clark, 2014)

Original Review Date: 2014


Title: Creative Resistance to the Empire, a review of Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes
Author: Mitri Raheb
Publisher: Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2014,
Genre: Religion/Christian Theology/Liberation
History/Middle East/Israel & Palestine
Year Published: 2014
Number of Pages: 166, includes bibliography of print and web sources, and index
Binding: Trade paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-62698-065-5
Price: $20

Reviewed by Harlow Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters
Review date: 2014

Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit.
—Isaiah 31:3

For eight of my father’s last nine years he wrote a weekly religion column for the Provo Daily Herald, a miscellany called “Matter Unorganized.” He enjoyed it and it may have prolonged his life. He didn’t live many months after it was canceled. My late brother-in-law Bruce Campbell asked him once or twice why not write a column looking at the phrase “created in the image of God” for its moral content, for what it means to be created with God’s moral intelligence, God’s capacity for moral judgment, if we are willing to develop the capacity.

It’s an attractive idea, but I find myself resisting it, because usually when I hear it it comes with a context that suggests it is a higher interpretation than considering the phrase as referring to an embodied God. Higher on the ladder of abstraction we learned about in high school and college English classes. The idea that the more abstract a reading is the better it is is widespread. I ran across it a lot in my studies, in things I read for classes, in phrases like, “That’s like saying Cry the Beloved Country/Native Son/Crime and Punishment is just a story about murder.”

I always hated the implied dismissal of readers who read because they want to know what happens next, who aren’t utterly captivated by the more abstract, symbolic, imagistic elements of a story. It occurred to me years ago that people choose a particular interpretation of literature or art or music or scripture because the interpretation allows them to live a certain way, or to exercise power in a particular way. I thought about this more when I was considering Mitri Raheb’s comments about the politics of interpretation in his new book Faith in the Face of Empire.

Let me take that last paragraph a rung or two down the ladder of abstraction. I’m writing this review partly because my first semester in graduate school we were supposed to do a report on a school of critical theory. I chose Marxist theory because I knew so little about it. I struggled through a highly abstract chapter on literary value from Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology. Later I revised my term paper and presented it at the Association of Mormon Letters annual meeting in 1991, which eventually led to AML-List and book reviews.

Somewhere in there I came across another book by Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. I approached it with trepidation, but it wasn’t highly abstract. The first chapter, The Rise of English, is very accessible, and made me want to read the rest. (Unfortunately, some professor had put the library’s only copy on reserve, that is 3-hour checkout, so I was never able to get it to myself long enough to read all of it. Maybe someday.)

Eagleton tells how English as an academic subject was created by a bunch of Professors in England who wanted a back door into the academy. For women. But they had to defuse literature first, to take away the power of words that could transform women’s lives, so they taught that literature is not about real life, but about the higher, more ethereal values—A Doll’s House notwithstanding, and a lot of other nineteenth-century literature.

The essay answered a question I had been puzzling over for years. Why, in all the times I had read Othello, in all the classroom discussions, in all my reading, had I never seen a discussion of the play as as exploring the dynamics of an abusive marriage? Abuse didn’t begin in the nineteenth century with the kind of marriages that inspired Henrik Ibsen and others to explore the destruction of marriage.

Here was Shakespeare—300 years earlier—writing about a man who kills his wife in a fit of jealousy on the flimsiest of evidence, and who was talking about The Winter’s Tale as a story of domestic abuse? Or Othello?

And not only was no one discussing it, but when I wrote my last term paper as an undergraduate, I acknowledged in the paper my sense from what I had been reading that term that most scholars would consider my reading shallow, no matter how perceptive it might (or might not) prove.

Eagleton provided an answer, a way to think about literature. Shakespeare was part of the curriculum, but not Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Thomas Hardy or Henrik Ibsen because literature was what had been written way back when. Matthew Arnold’s dictum about seeking out the best that has been thought and said is in the past perfect tense, not the present. Removing literature from the present, from everyday life, controls the meaning and power of literature.

Raheb’s book confirms for me that more than a hundred years after the rise of English people in power still use hermeneutics to control meaning, to control the lives of people who are not in power.

But control of meaning didn’t start in the late nineteenth century, or even nineteen centuries earlier, or thirty-nine.

It didn’t even start with the Tower of Babel, but the Tower is a lovely symbol of what empire wants, control through imposing a single language and culture on the world, in the same way the Russian empire deported our Estonian tour guide (New Year’s 1971) to Moscow and tried to destroy the Estonian language, in the same way the American empire set our to destroy native American languages and impose a single language.

The Virgin and the Tower, Ann Chamberlin’s retelling of Gilgamesh as tower builder, similarly sees the construction project as slave labor and the destruction as a slave revolt, by people who decide not to recognize the empire’s language any more. They are aided by a prophet (“My father is known as ‘the brother of Jared,’ but that is because his given name is so unwieldy. His given name also verges on the sacred and begs for substitution so as not to be overused and thereby profaned” (70)) who calls down fire from heaven on the Tower.

Raheb’s answer to empire is also faith, but he doesn’t draw on The Book of Mormon. His answer comes from the other end of the Bible, from the day of Pentecost, when all the languages of the empire are present, and the people who speak those languages are given the dignity of hearing the Gospel in their own language, not in the imposed language of the empire. That is, Raheb sees the empire as a continuous entity (just as the statue in Nebuchanezzar’s dream (Daniel 2) is one statue, despite differing elements—though Raheb doesn’t invoke that image), stretching from Babel to Rome to Israel.

Raheb’s criticism of The State of Israel as empire is quite sharp, as is his demonstration of how Israel uses the tactics the empire has used since Babylon. Two things are worth mentioning here.

First, Faith in the Face of Empire contains no echo of “Death to Israel.” Raheb says repeatedly that the response to empire is faith, not violence or violent slogans.

Second, if Raheb criticizes Israel sharply so did Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve others in the Nevi’im. The Palestinians have existed as long as the empire, including those Palestinians who heard or burned or scribed the words of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve other Palestinians. Raheb challenges the notion that modern-day Palestinians are the descendants of the Canaanites Israel was commanded to drive out of the promised land. He quotes Ber Borochov, “one of the leaders of the Zionist Left” that “it is quite probable that the fellahin in Palestine are direct descendants of the Jewish and Canaanite rural population” (13).

Raheb restates the tie between Israelis and Palestinians differently on the previous page. Listen to this passage:

“They changed their language from Aramaic to Greek to Arabic, while their identity shifted from Canaanite, to Hittite, to Hivite, to Perizzite, to Girgashite, to Amorite, to Jebusite, to Philistine, Israelite, Judaic/Samaritan, to Hasmonaic, to Jewish, to Byzantine, to Arab, to Ottoman, and to Palestinian, to mention some” (12).

Do you hear the echoes of Joshua 24:11 and other passages we studied recently in the Gospel Doctrine lesson about entering Canaan? “And ye went over Jordan, and came unto Jericho: and the men of Jericho fought against you, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I delivered them into your hand.”

Raheb is arguing implicitly that the Children of Israel were not told to drive out the native population, but the empire. He is inviting the people who came into the promised land to take up common cause with the Palestinians against the empire. Through faith, though, not force.

The continuity of the land, and the people and their ties to the land, is an important theme throughout the book. It reminded me of a statement at the beginning of Biblica: The Bible Atlas about how deeply the people in the Old Testament and the stories they told are tied to the land. (It’s a lovely little book, and considering all the expense that must have gone into its eleven pounds I’m surprised Viking let it go out of print so quickly. If you can find it it will deepen your understanding of Raheb’s book, and vice-versa.)

Both books impress me for how seriously they take the scriptures as stories and records of people in particular times and a particular place. I read Faith in the Face of Empire shortly after listening to Reza Aslan’s narration of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I found the book engaging but Aslan is so intent on separating the historical Jesus from the legendary Messiah that he doesn’t consider the parts about the Messiah as anything but stories grafted onto the historical person to make him into a God. For example, because he doesn’t see the Nativity as a historical story he sees no continuity between the way Herod controlled Palestine’s borders and dragged the Magi in for interrogation and the way the present empire controls the borders and interrogates visiting scholars and other visitors (56-57).

Aslan says that once you accept Jesus as someone born in a particular time and place, and killed in a particular manner reserved for insurrectionists all the other stuff falls away and you get the only picture possible, a zealot, an insurrectionist, an ultra-nationalist determined to drive Rome out through violence.

As a Lutheran pastor you would expect Raheb to have a different perspective, and he does, not only a Lutheran perspective, but the perspective of a man born across the street from the traditional site of the Nativity, a man who can say, “I am just fifty years old and have already lived through nine wars” (51), and can see those wars as part of a continuous three thousand year history, indeed, a man whose father was born Ottoman, became a British subject as part of Mandate Palestine, then was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. and died under Israeli occupation—all in one place, Bethlehem, all in one span of three score years and ten.

And as part of that continuous history Raheb has no difficulty in both seeing Jesus as both the Prince of Peace and as someone Rome would kill in a manner reserved for violent insurrectionists. The empire always brands those it wants to kill as terrorists, insurrectionists, threats to peace and stability. The empire uses abstraction to make what it doesn’t like seem less than human, less than civilized and therefore less deserving of civil rights.

I’m not suggesting that abstract interpretation is the devil’s work, or the empire’s—both can appropriate whatever tools they find appropriate—but I was delighted to come across Raheb’s comment on Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” In wondering why he rarely hears it preached, he says, “But I think we don’t talk about meekness because it’s very difficult to spiritualize this verse. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ can be easily spiritualized. Not so with the meek who are to inherit the earth, which refers to something concrete” (96).

Raheb says “inherit the land” is a better translation, the land being Palestine, the land discussed in Psalm 37 (Jesus is quoting verse 11). Empires rise and fall and rise and fall like three thousand years of tides, but the land is still there and the meek are still there. Herod’s fortress made to look like a mountain is empty, no threat, and the meek are still cultivating their mustard seeds.

Raheb would agree with Aslan that when Jesus told his disciples about restoring the Kingdom he was not talking about some hazy kingdom in the skies, but the kingdom is so much larger than Palestine, and the meek so much more powerful than Rome, even if Rome controls the discourse.

The emperor may call himself The Seizer, but his seizures are just the extended fit of sneezing that gives the world a cold. The sneezer’s statue may “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” (Julius Sneezer I:ii), but the world is only narrow to the Colossus(or the New Colossus?). Long after the statue is ground down by generations of mustard roots wrapping around it and working holes into it, holes that can hold new seeds, new roots, long after the statue’s minerals have crumbled into soil to nourish the mustard roots the sowers will continue forth sowing the words of meekness and peace.

But I won’t continue in my sowing, not this sowing, anyway. It sufficeth me to say that while Faith in the Face of Empire may present The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes it brought together a whole group of texts that have passed before these Mormon eyes. What kind of texts the book will harvest from the seeds of your reading I know not, but if you have any interest in the Middle East or the Bible or a host of other subjects, it would be well worth your time to find out.

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