The Occupation of the Bible

Wednesday, 20 November, 1100–1230

Text for an introductory presentation to a panel at the Ninth International Sabeel Conference, Jerusalem on Wednesday, 20  November 2013. [video]

The conference organisers indicated as follows:

What are some of the common ways to misinterpret the Bible and how can Christians avoid them? Since we are all ‘prisoners’ of our own epoch, culture, national identity, gender, experiences, etc., how is it possible “to hear the word of the Lord” without bias? Give examples of mistaken hermeneutics and also helpful hermeneutics. Why do biblical hermeneutics matter? Is the Palestinian experience of biblical interpretation unique, and if so, in what sense? And does this mean Palestine must have unique hermeneutics, too? What can non-Palestinians learn from the Palestinian experience for their own interpretation of Scripture? Does the Palestinian Christian experience of scriptural interpretation in its particular socio-political context have something of value to offer to the oppressed Buddhists of Tibet; the Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Turkey; and the Uighurs of China?

In terms of the place that I come from, one of the things that I have learned to do when speaking in Australia is always to bring greetings from the church—and from the Christian communities—in Palestine. But when I am somewhere else, like other Australians—and especially indigenous Australians—I find myself discovering a deeper sense of our own country, or unique place in the world. I am learning—as someone who has been out of my own ‘country’ for most of my adult life—really to appreciate how the Christian Scriptures, are used (and also misused in may ways) in terms of Palestine, Israel, and the conflict.

I begin from the assumption, of course, that the Bible has immense authority for this conversation. We have already begun to explore that with the earlier panel this morning.

Because of the authority that the Scriptures have—however we understand that authority—the Bible will inform and will shape the ways that we address issues of justice, peace, and reconciliation for all the communities that live in this land.

So far as process is concerned, my working assumption is that this will require an active and open-ended engagement with the sacred texts. It will also require us to be involved with the historical processes that have led to the present situation in this land and, of course, as we have already heard—I think from each of the speakers in the previous panel—we need to be paying attention to our own perspectives, our own locations, and our own point of view.

I actually think we had a fine example of that in the sermon that Azziz Naim gave yesterday in the Melkite church. However, I want to go out on a limb a little bit and indicate one of the places where I would probably differ significantly from some of the other members of the panel, and particularly the previous panel. I am one of those liberal or progressive scholars who look at the way Scripture functions in terms of the Palestinian/Israel conflict. This is one way of working around the issue of how the Scripture impacts on the claims made for land by both Jewish and Palestinian communities.

So as the sermon began I made a note to myself: This could be hard. While I love Azziz very much, I could see that he was going to take the story very literally. And that is not what I would do. As the sermon unfolded I was delighted, then more delighted, and more pleased. I found myself drawn along. I loved it and entirely agreed with the way that the text was unfolded. I mention that because saying that I do not begin with the assumption that the Bible is simply a record of something that happened can frighten the camels; it can scare the horses. Choose whichever metaphor works for your culture!  I could be putting myself out on the end of a plank with the pirates about to saw through at the end closer to the ship.

But even if we start from different positions as we engage with Scripture, my experience has been—and this perhaps goes to the question of the role of the Spirit in this whole process—no matter what position we are starting from, if we are engaging the Scriptures with hearts and minds that are open, then God is able to speak to us.

So what I saw yesterday was someone taking the Gospel story at face value in a way that I would have difficulty doing, and yet someone who was deftly avoiding some of the traps that I might imagine to be there when people say they are taking the Bible literally, at face value.

What I saw yesterday, and what I am committed to myself, is a way of engaging with Scripture that offer the Bible the best of our critical engagement. We are called to love God not only with heart and might and strength, but also with our minds. I believe we are called to engage with Scripture in that same diverse way: with the best of our mind, the best of our soul, the best of our heart, and the best of our strength.

The Bible, I suggest, deserves and requires the best of our critical engagement, rather than naive readings which perhaps are predicated on the assumption that we should defer to Scripture. I think Scripture—like God in the book of Job—is strong enough, powerful enough, and robust enough, to take our questions, to take our confrontation, and then to take us further into the journey that God has for us to make.

So with all that in mind, I am taking this panel to be an invitation to explore some of the ways that the Bible has been exploited to justify the occupation of Palestine to the benefit of some people and the simultaneous detriment of other people, rather than serving—as I think it could and should—as a prophetic text that might challenge both the occupiers and the dispossessed.

This gets me thinking about the significance of the location and agenda of the reader when using Scripture in the context of occupation. Clearly a Jewish settler would read the Bible differently than a displaced Palestinian, and neither would read the Bible from the same perspective as me. I am a white, male, Anglican, academic, priest—and a colonialist, or at least a descendant of colonialists and someone one who benefits from the dislocation and displacement of the indigenous peoples of my own country.

There other variables as well, including those between someone like myself who reads the Bible from a consciously critical and humanistic perspective, and others who may read the same Bible from different perspectives—some of which we have heard this morning. Again, my experience has been that beginning with different perspectives does not prevent us from discovering common ground and hearing common wisdom.

I would lead into our discussion this morning, by thinking about how the Bible’s three different ‘worlds’ are captured in this occupation of the Bible. The worlds I am thinking of are: the world behind the text (the historical realities that presume to be behind the text, how we imagine the ancient past), the world within the text (the stories, the context of the Bible as it is), and the world in front of the text (those places where we are as we engage with Scripture).

The World Behind the Text

I think of the historical dynamics of ancient Palestine that witnessed the emergence of ancient Israel and Judah, and—at some point in that process—the suppression of non-Yahwistic Canaanite communities with their rich human cultural fabric. As an academic, and as a person of Christian faith and a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering how much of those ghastly stories of ethnic cleansing and religious violence reflect events that actually happened. To what extent, on the other hand, do they represent the imagination of later religious scribes—the Taliban of ancient Jerusalem—who were expressing how they felt about their experience of marginalization and their threatened fragile existence, and found comfort in fantasies about total conquest, excluding the other, ethnic cleansing, and the belief that God gave this land to me and my own kind (and no-one else).

So there is a whole set of issues about claims that are made and assumptions that are embraced in terms of the historical veracity of the biblical narrative. You might have already picked up, in case I have not made it clear enough, that I am actually a minimalist and I think there is very little historical value to the biblical narratives. (So get the tar and feathers ready!)

The World Within the Text

The second world is, of course, the world within the text. This is the story world that Naim and I both find in Luke chapter 4. Whether or not there was a synagogue in Nazareth for Jesus to attend during the first three decades of the first century, and whether Jesus was literate or not, is beside the point. These are narratives by first and second-century Christians, and the sermon created for Jesus by Luke now serves as a sacred text that calls us to faithfulness.

Real or imagined, the ethnic violence of the Bible—whether we think of the Old Testament or the apocalyptic fantasies of the NT—inscribes and reinforces patterns of fear, suspicion, and violence that are presumed to have divine legitimisation. The Bible drips with blood, whether that be the blood of Jesus (whose death is often understood in Christian tradition as expiating an angry—and potentially violent and dangerous—God), the blood of the little ones who are crushed by empire, or the blood of those whose religion is different from ours and are thus doomed to destruction by our God. The book of Revelation is certainly a classic text in that respect.

The World Before (in front of) the Text

Then, of course, there is the world in front of the text. This is the world in which we live, the world in which we attempt to shape lives that are holy and true.

Looking at the text from where I stand and from among the communities to which I belong, I discover that I am in a very ambiguous space. I belong to a religion that has incarcerated, tortured and killed its opponents, whether they be internal dissidents or external infidels. My religious community has drunk deeply from the well of violence. I am a citizen of a nation that has dispossessed and literally hunted down the indigenous people of my own land. I benefit from an economic system that continues to use violence to sustain itself.

So neither the text nor this reader of the text is innocent. Yet both are open, all the same, to be used by God, and to serve God’s purposes of justice and peace. The occupation of Bible can come to an end, just as the Bible can encourage us to resist the occupation of Palestine until it also comes to an end.

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