The Common Good
August 2005

'I Never Lose Hope'

by Emily R. Hershberger, Elizabeth Green | August 2005

An interview with Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek

On Palm Sunday in Jerusalem,

On Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center shouted "Hosanna!" and invited the churches of the world to work for liberation anew—by thinking about their investments.

Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, is canon of St. George’s (Anglican) Cathedral in Jerusalem and is founder of Sabeel, which has produced a 15-page statement that, in Ateek’s words, will go out "to all hierarchies of churches everywhere in the world." It was inspired by the economic boycotts that helped end apartheid in South Africa. Its mandate: selective divestment by churches from corporations and companies profiting from the occupation.

The document, titled "A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation: A Call for Morally Responsible Investment," addresses the reality of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, the continued building of the separation wall, and illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

"We had the Contemporary Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa for Palestinians," Ateek, 68, told Sojourners, recalling programs at Sabeel before the start of the second intifada in 2000 dissuaded most internationals from coming. "This is a liturgy we created where we take [visitors] to the stations of the cross that Palestinians have, such as demolished homes, destroyed villages, checkpoints. Every one of those is a station of the cross, a station of suffering."

According to Ateek, Sabeel "strives to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, and love" among the Christians who make up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population. A workweek includes daily prayer, Bible study with staff, and an inclusive, fresh celebration of communion. "Every Thursday at noon we have communion service, that’s agreed," Ateek said. "And this is a wonderful, wonderful time. Not only of worship, but of the discussion that goes on. We do it in an informal way, although we are still liturgical. But it’s a very different example of the church."

Sabeel’s outreach efforts bridge traditional boundaries. "Everything we do is ecumenical," he said, describing programs for youth, women, clergy, and interfaith gatherings. "So the different types of Catholics, the different types of Orthodox, the different Protestants, they are all together. And that’s one of the beauties of the work." Most notably, Ateek’s nonviolent liberation theology requires reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians even as it demands "justice and only justice" for his people.

It makes sense, then, that Ateek has faith "in a God of love, justice, mercy, and peace," and that he believes that "God’s will for all people is to have life and to have it more abundantly."

"But we must all work with God with this type of commitment and this type of faith," Ateek said. "And I think we will get there."

SUCH IS THE LOGIC of Sabeel’s call for divestment: God at work through the actions of God’s ordinary, faithful people. "Take the Presbyterian Church [(USA)], for example: They were one of the first ones to come up with statements against the occupation," Ateek said. "And then every major denomination has done the same. Wonderful statements. And those statements at the general assemblies or conventions are sent to the president of the United States, sent to the prime minister of Israel, to the ambassador to Israel—everywhere. This has been going on for many, many years."

"But nothing has ever happened," he said. "No government is willing to put pressure on Israel. This means that the churches are saying, ‘We are going to do it. We are going to absorb the loss. We are going to take a stand. If the governments—our governments—are not going to act, we are going to act.’ It is a wonderful thing. It really brings it back to the church. We should have done this a long time ago."

Grounded in theological, political, and legal analysis, Sabeel’s statement presents a two-step plan. First, churches must "exert pressure on companies and corporations to divest from business activities" that fund the settlements and the separation wall, maintain the occupation, or support violence against civilians through products, services, or facilities. If this has no effect—if "companies and corporations...do not respond and comply with morally responsible divestment"—then the churches themselves must divest. They are directly responsible, as shareholders, for the actions of the corporations in which they invest.

Theologically speaking, Sabeel calls churches to divest not only as morally responsible shareholders but as the body of Christ bearing witness to the sufferings of brothers and sisters in Palestine and in Israel. "Churches, by moving from statements to direct action and adopting financial policies that are in line with their moral and theological stance, create an example for the international community, even if it means incurring and absorbing some financial loss," the statement reads. Emphasizing that the worldwide body of Christ must transcend national borders, ethnic identity, and religious fervor, it goes on to reference 1 Corinthians 12:26: "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

Sabeel brings this particularly Christian perspective into the broader divestment movement, joining secular and other religious groups. The U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, has called for divestment in years past. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in Jerusalem, a secular organization led by Jeff Halper, has called for selective trade sanctions, a boycott of settlement products, and an end to arms sales that perpetuate the occupation in addition to selective divestment. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has led the way among U.S. churches; its Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee began a "process of phased selective divestment" in line with the church’s social investment policy (see "Should Churches Divest?" page 22), earning the commendation of the World Council of Churches in February. The Episcopal Church launched a yearlong review of its corporate actions in the West Bank, and in July the United Church of Christ was scheduled to vote on whether to pursue divestment options.

As a veteran of interfaith work, Ateek knows how to move gracefully alongside these different groups, seeking common ground and shared language.

"If we are talking to secular people like Jeff Halper - we work very well together—our relationship is based on human rights, on international law," he explained. "They’re approaching it from that perspective. I’m approaching human rights and international law from my perspective of faith. There’s no conflict there. What it all amounts to at the end of the day, from my position of faith, is God’s activity in the world—God’s activity through human rights, through international law, through U.N. resolutions, through different communities of faith—while still retaining my very strong Christian commitment. It’s not like I’m trying to dilute the gospel, but I am also sensitive to where other people are coming from."

Divestment, of course, promises no immediate solutions. The Presbyterian Church (USA) notes that the "process of engagement [for divestment] can take months or years." With the occupation ongoing, thousands more people—Palestinians and Israelis alike—may die; many more miles of the wall may go up; and the United States, which gave Israel more than $2 billion in military aid this year, will continue to fund the occupation with U.S. tax dollars. Activists sobered by this grim situation, said Ateek, tend to say, "‘What can we do?’ ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ ‘It’s too late, the whole country has been taken over, the whole land has been devoured.’"

But for Ateek, hope must live, even if only a flicker remains. "I appreciate these insights," he said. "But I never lose hope. My hope is not built on changing, fluctuating circumstances. Ultimately my faith and hope is in a God who would see to it that the situation would change."

Elizabeth Green was public policy intern with Call to Renewal and Emily R. Hershberger was editorial assistant at Sojourners when this article appeared. They interviewed Naim Ateek in February 2005 at the "In Word and Deed" conference hosted by Friends of Sabeel North America (www.fosna.org) in Atlanta. Sabeel’s statement on divestment is available at www.sabeel.org.

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