Black and Palestinian Christians' Struggle for Freedom | Sojourners

Black and Palestinian Christians' Struggle for Freedom

The first time that I visited Palestine was during my senior year at a Christian liberal arts college. It was one of those “Holy Land tours.” You know the type: visit the sacred sites, avoid political chatter, and return with photos of you or someone you know getting baptized in the Jordan River. Hashtag blessed.

One of my fellow classmates had family and friends in Palestine, so we made plans to visit one friend, Dareen, when our schedules aligned. On our way back to Jerusalem with Dareen, we stopped at a checkpoint. An Israeli Defense Forces soldier entered at the front of the bus, demanding everyone onboard exit so that the IDF soldiers outside could check our passports, IDs, and bags. It’s standard procedure, but Dareen asked us if we’d be willing stay on the bus with her. “Sometimes,” she told us, “I protest this humiliating treatment by refusing to get off.” So, there we were — a couple of Christian college students, engaged in an act of protest, with an IDF soldier shouting at us and warning us that he “will not tell us again.” As he stormed to the back of the bus, gripping his automatic weapon, we looked at one another and decided we’d fall in line like everyone else.

When I look back at that moment on the bus with Dareen, I was surprised by two specific things. First, Dareen’s life as a Palestinian under occupation wasn’t easy, so she decided to make it less easy for the soldier. Her small acts of resistance defied their system of coercion and efficiency. Second, Dareen didn’t just invite us to see her suffering; she invited us to participate in her resistance.

I am heartened by the resurgence of Black Christians participating in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid, including the Tied in a Single Garment of Destiny panel which was convened by Black Christians in 2020 as well as Rev. William Barber II’s 2021 Easter vigil service with Friends of Sabeel North America. The solidarity between Black Christians and Palestine is not new. Black prophetic witnesses have often stood in solidarity with Palestinians, even as other voices have insisted that the Black church should stand united for Israel.

In his 2018 book, Black Power and Palestine, Michael R. Fischbach recalls the controversy that erupted at the National Black Political Convention of 1972 when a Methodist preacher, Douglas Moore, offered a resolution denouncing Israel’s “clear violation of the Palestinians’ traditional rights to live in their own homeland.” After the first intifada, the original wave of a sustained uprising against the Israeli occupation, clergy, activists, and scholars met just outside Jerusalem for the First International Symposium on Palestinian Liberation Theology, sharing reflections on the meaning of the intifada in relationship to faith. Arthur Pressley offered a reflection on liberation theology and violence, connecting the histories of violence against Black people and Palestinians to the impetus behind liberation theologies.

Since the first group of enslaved Africans was brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, they dreamt of freedom. For those who identified as Christians, the dominant Christological image of Jesus was Liberator — the one who’d proclaimed freedom to the captives. In his 1975 book, God of the Oppressed, James Cone claims that Jesus “was God’s active presence in their lives, helping them to know that they were not created for bondage but for freedom.” One can discern the enduring thirst and struggle for freedom today in the crescendo demanding the abolition of prisons, police, and oligarchic rule. Black people, Christian and non-Christian alike, recognize that freedom is not a destination but a constant struggle that unites those seeking liberation against state violence from Ferguson to Palestine.

In Rashid Khalidi’s book, The Iron Cagehe explains that the modern context to the Palestinian freedom struggle begins in 1948, when, “[m]ore than half of the country’s Arab majority, probably over 750,000 people, were expelled from or forced to flee the areas that became part of the state of Israel.” After many of them were expelled from their homes or fled to preserve their lives, they were unable to return home because the State of Israel was established and new territorial borders, governments, and rights of citizenship were established. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has demonstrated that the Palestinians who remained within the new territorial borders (i.e., the ‘Arab-Israelis’) were concentrated in certain regions of the Galilee (such as Nazareth). Despite their growth in numbers and their supposed rights to Israeli citizenship, the Arab-Israelis have been unable to acquire more than 2.5 percent of the land.

This is why the prophetic traditions of Black and Palestinian theologies are concerned with undoing material oppression as well as emphasizing freedom in the Spirit. Christian theology is concerned with freedom. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1. For Black and Palestinian theologians, making sense of theological freedom in historical conditions of unfreedom has been a challenge that they have risen to, with the help of God’s Spirit. Indeed, every theologian’s task is a prophetic task, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “an exegesis of existence from a divine perspective.” Theologians that do the work of justifying historical unfreedom are creating ideologies, not Christian theologies.

Today, Black and Palestinian Christians are forming new alliances and making connections between our struggles that focus on liberation and reconciliation in profound ways. The Black Church Call to End Israeli Apartheid, spearheaded by Rev. Nyle Fort, acquired over 500 signatures from activists, organizers, and ministers in less than a year after it was published in 2019. Activist and theologian, Mitri Raheb’s June 2020 essay, “A Knee on the Neck and Other Experiences Palestinians Share,” connects the common repressive techniques shared by U.S. police against Black people and their uses against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. In the summer of 2020, Christian theologians met to discuss their common concerns of theological racism and strategies to resist them in churches and coalition building. Since this initial conversation, Palestinian and Black Christians formed a coalition and committed to virtually meeting once a month to learn from one another, encourage one another, and dream with one another of a world devoid of racism and state violence. As a member of this collective, I’ve come to understand that while our struggles are connected, it is the Spirit and not merely oppression that unites us in our concurrent struggles for freedom.

What these examples mirror is precisely what Dareen embodied on our way back to Jerusalem: We can all participate in the struggle for freedom. Her basic moral impulse to resist and invite others into that resistance made it easy for me to recognize that the Palestinian freedom struggle is our struggle. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Black Christian communities here in the United States we need to recognize that our humanity and safety is directly linked to the humanity and safety of Palestinians. We must continue to forge the alliances necessary and look for opportunities to bring their struggle to the forefront of conversations regarding liberation.