In October of this year, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, United Church of Canada and other churches sponsored conferences in North America promoting Jerusalem's Sabeel Center for Liberation Theology. This is an ominous development for interfaith relations and Middle East peace.
During the past 50 years, Christians and Jews have achieved a historic reconciliation. The Holocaust compelled honest Christians to see the tragic results of 1,500 years of Christian teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism. All major churches – Protestant and Catholic alike – have gone through spiritual examinations to cleanse their theologies of old anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic teachings responsible for so much death and suffering over the ages.
This new era of positive Christian-Jewish relations is built on four pillars: (1) the repudiation of anti-Semitic characterizations and the idea that Jews are guilty of deicide; (2) mutual respect for each faith, including Christian affirmation of Judaism as a living religion, and the rejection of the idea that God's covenant with the Jewish people has been superseded; (3) recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in safety and securit; and (4) a commitment to mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue.
Virtually every church officially subscribes to these principles, yet Palestinian liberation theology is systematically cutting each down. It portrays itself as new theology, but is really toxic old wine in new bottles – a reversion to the outdated hateful teachings about Jews and Judaism.
Much of Palestinian liberation theology emanates from Sabeel and its director, Rev. Naim Ateek.
Ateek's writings and speeches are saturated with crucifixion language. The Palestinians, he maintains, are being "crucified" daily. This is not merely an account of Palestinian suffering, but more pointedly a relentless accusation of Israeli (i.e., Jewish) sin.
In Christianity's name, he is teaching people to see Jews as baby-killers and murderers who block humanity's salvation. During recent Sabeel conferences in Chicago and Iowa, Ateek and others repeatedly described Israelis as immoral and demonic. By resurrecting deicide images and age-old anti-Semitic caricatures, Ateek plays to extremists and anti-Semites everywhere.
Liberation theology also assaults Judaism and Jewish identity by erasing the Jewish people from the Bible: "If the Exodus is the story of any people, it is actually the story of us Palestinians," writes Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran minister.
Judaism is superseded, and Jews replaced by Palestinians in this tendentious political reading of Scripture Judaism. The Jewish people have no positive value in this old-new theology. Worse, they are again portrayed as the anti-Christ.
Of course, when Jews are erased from the Bible, they forfeit any right to their historic homeland. Ateek says this explicitly in his books: "I accept the establishment of the state of Israel, although not its right to exist."
During a discussion I had with Ateek last month in Jerusalem, he repeatedly denied Israel's right to exist, claiming that Jews should set up a homeland in Europe. Ateek accepts Israel tactically "for now" – until the Jewish state can be liquidated by a one-state solution. Michael Tarazi, yet another speaker in Chicago, insisted that "the time for a two-state solution has passed, so the obvious solution is one-state."
Some Protestant churches are hesitant to criticize Ateek, Rahib and liberation theologians since they are church members. Yet some issues cannot be finessed.
There is no way to harmonize the interfaith principles of these churches with the teachings of Palestinian liberation theology. That theology is deeply hurtful to Jews, tears at the foundations of Christian-Jewish relations, and is harmful to peace. Relying on old teachings that fostered hatred of Jews and Judaism, Ateek and his colleagues are 50 years behind the theological developments that have done so much to promote healing and mutual respect.
The sooner churches recognize this and withdraw their support from these noxious teachings, the easier it will be for Jews and Christians to sit around a secure table of interfaith understanding.
Rabbi Eugene Korn is director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress.