Unmasking False Religion

The Pharisees asked Jesus, "When will the kingdom of God come?" He said to them, "The kingdom of God is among you (and within you)" (Luke 17:21). When he said this, the land and people were not experiencing paradise on earth. Most were under occupation. Violence and terrorism were everywhere. Yet Jesus could announce the fact that God's kingdom is breaking in.

In the midst of domination structures, we must follow the example of Jesus when he was living in our country. He had a radical obedience to God's reign. We must continuously declare the ultimate sovereignty of God over every sphere of life.

I am aware that this is exactly what the Jewish religious settlers are saying. They are in those settlements because they believe they are obeying God. In fact, they are ready to disobey their own government if need be in order to remain faithful to God.

The litmus test that we must use in such cases is based on what it means to love our neighbor. The Hebrew scripture, our Old Testament, mentions the dictum "love your neighbor as yourself." To live under the reign of God is to have full loyalty and obedience to God, tested, judged, and defined by our love and concern for the well-being of the neighbors, even if they are our enemies.

Such loyalty to God alone forces us to unmask the powers that oppress us. One is the evil of racism. Arab-Palestinian Israeli citizens have been suffering as a result of this since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Closely connected with race is the mask of nationalism. There is a place for a healthy patriotism so long as it does not undermine or infringe on the rights and feelings of others. But extreme forms of nationalism threaten Palestinians as well as Israelis.

Another form of the powers that oppress us is security. We all cherish and need security. But in Israel it has become an idol. In the name of the god of security, the Palestinians are today humiliated, dehumanized, and oppressed.

We also need to unmask the ideology of religion. Religion must set God free. This is, unfortunately, one of the worst masks that we have in the Middle East. We are all guilty of it. Jewish religion sees non-Jews as the strangers in the land, without rights. Islam's term for non-Muslims is Ahl-Adhimma. Similarly, Christians have narrowed and limited God's activity outside their own tradition. I cannot adequately express to you how important it is to unmask the ideology of false religion and religiosity everywhere, beginning with Christianity here in Palestine. We must unmask it and move from religion to genuine faith.

The most radical political action we can take is when we speak and testify to the truth. The full armor of God that the writer of Ephesians talks about begins with truth, then includes justice, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. These are our nonviolent means of resisting and struggling against the domination system of the state of Israel and the powers behind it. Jesus Christ, living in our country as a Palestinian under occupation, offers us a different model of power.

Naim Ateek is director of the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. This is excerpted from an address he delivered in February 2001 to Sabeel's international conference on peacemaking.

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