By Shelley Neese
Replacement Theology—the belief that the Christian Church replaced Israel in God’s plan—has found a new home in the work of the Sabeel Center—the Jerusalem-based ecumenical organization for Palestinian Christians. After experiencing decades of decline and total rejection by many denominations, Replacement Theology has resurfaced in the form of Palestinian Liberation Theology (PLT)—a theological movement pushed by Sabeel. PLT rejects the eternalness of God’s promises to the Jewish people based on a dangerous manipulation of scripture. PLT’s goal is to radically reinterpret the Bible to make it more relevant to Palestinians and less partial to Jews.
PLT grew out of the Liberation Theology movement popularized in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, a faddy form of Christian socialism where Replacement Theology met Marxism. They emphasized oppression of the poor and encouraged political activism to abolish perpetual class struggle. The rich were against God by way of their wealth, and the poor were privileged by way of their poverty. The Bible was reduced to nothing more than stories about the poor and the persecuted.
The heyday of Liberation Theology was its inception. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of Marxist revolutionary movements in Latin America, Liberation Theology lost most of its justification and influence. The premise did appeal to Palestinians, because of its favor for the underdog and its potential to de-Zionize the Old Testament.
It’s no secret that Israel’s founding ignited a theological crisis in the Palestinian Christian community. The Abrahamic covenants and Old Testament prophecies justified Israel’s national rebirth. According to Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Center, the Torah was seen as a “Zionist text” and became “repugnant” to Palestinians. Palestinian Christians needed a new theology that would in Ateek’s words “liberate God from the Old Testament.”
Ateek revived Liberation Theology and related it to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. He switched focus from liberating the economically poor to the politically oppressed. As stated by Sabeel, the purpose of PLT was to theologically “address the day to day reality of Palestinians who have been living under an occupation that destroyed homes, confiscated lands, killed and jailed children, and closed institutions.” The Sabeel Center has been used to develop and implement this theology.
A central tenet of PLT is that the Bible cannot be taken literally. It needs continuous interpretation to ensure every passage matches PLT’s notion of God. Anything considered violent, racist, chauvinistic, or unjust is discarded. This means most of the Torah, including Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings are thrown out. In fact, according to Ateek, only the prophetic books of the Old Testament are accepted as Scripture for they alone present a “truly mature vision of God.”
Replacement Theology teaches that the Church superseded Jews as the benefactor of God’s covenants. PLT goes one step further saying that the Jews never had a place of favor in the first place. In some cases, they erase Israel from the Bible altogether. Many Palestinian Churches that teach PLT have changed the Psalms by removing every reference to “Israel” and “Zion.”
Palestinians are also inserted into Biblical narratives in the place of Israel. The narratives are read metaphorically where Israel assumes the role of oppressor. For example, in the story of David and Goliath, the powerless and humble David represents the Palestinians who bring down the bloodthirsty Goliath, represented by Israel. The centerpiece of PLT is the story of Exodus, where Palestinians are the Hebrew Egyptians bound in slavery, and Israel is the obstinate Pharaoh who refuses to grant them freedom and a state of their own. “If the Exodus is the story of any people,” writes Mitri Raheb (one of the most vocal PLT theologians), “it is actually the story of us Palestinians.”
PLT’s agenda is to nullify the whole concept of chosenness, thereby voiding all land promises that justify Israel’s rebirth. According to Raheb, God did kind acts for many peoples so Jews were not exceptional. Raheb points to Amos 9:7 to argue the Jews were not the only people to whom God showed kindness. As for God’s promise to “plant them in this land with all my heart and soul,” Ateek says Jewish and Christian Zionists need to move beyond their primitive notion of a nationalistic God to a more universal God. Indeed, Israel’s right to exist is something Ateek has never accepted. During a Jerusalem interfaith dialogue with Jewish leaders in 2005, Ateek said that if Israel had the right to exist it should have been created somewhere else.
From Ateek’s perspective, the Israeli occupation is the root of all evil. He makes no apology for Palestinian terrorism or its contribution toward the plight of Palestinian Christians. There is no recognition that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist government, is a far greater threat to Palestinian Christians than Zionism.
Ateek presents PLT as a theology based on justice, but he redefines Godly justice to fit a sociopolitical context. The result is more narrow than ever before, as God is only on the side of Palestinians. Sabeel says “Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors… God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.”
Sabeel enjoys the active support of many of the mainline liberal denominations (i.e. PC (USA) and the United Church of Christ). These church groups ignore the danger of Sabeel’s theology. But PLT is not just an ill-informed misguided teaching. It is a dangerous propaganda tool cleverly wielded by Sabeel to undermine Israel’s right to the land. All the while, this anti-Semitic politically-driven theology void of the Gospel hides behind a façade of peace, justice, and love. As Jesus Christ warned his followers, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”