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How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better try.


It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.

It was a tiny little Lutheran church where we gathered in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was a mixture of Palestinian Christians and foreigners who happened to be lingering around the town of Jesus’ birth. The liturgical forms in the service were familiar enough, even if the language wasn’t. But they had transliterated the readings and prayers and it was possible, with a bit of effort, to follow along. The Scripture readings were done in both Arabic and English. And given what we had seen and heard in the previous week about how the Israeli occupation was affecting our Palestinian sisters and brothers, the readings sounded, well, different.

Psalm 35:1-10

We began the service by responsively reading from this Psalm. I am used to reading psalms like this through the lens of either the ancient Israelites or the suffering church. But it was impossible, in this place, to not hear through the ears of those who presently find themselves on the wrong end of the score in the Holy Land—those who are harassed and harried by teenage soldiers wielding automatic weapons, those who endure endless checkpoints and discriminatory policies restricting where they can go and when and how, those who are increasingly sequestered into urban ghettos by legislation that seems cruelly crafted to drive them from their farms and their land.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!

Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!

[S]ay to my soul, “I am your salvation…”

For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.

Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

I don’t really have anyone contending with me in Canada, no real need for a shield or buckler. But my sisters and brothers from Beit Sahour do. They long for a strong arm of deliverance from those too powerful for them.

It is grimly ironic that those who see themselves as descended from the same David who penned this Psalm, those who were once the weak that needed rescue from those who despoiled them, are now the ones that Palestinian Christians are praying for deliverance from.

Luke 16:19-31

The rich man and Lazarus… One enjoyed the best things in life while the other experienced only suffering and deprivation. Both die. The rich man ends up in torment in Hades and cries out to Father Abraham, with Lazarus by his side, saying, “Please, just a drop of water for my agony!” Father Abraham says, “Well, you’ve had your good things, haven’t you? You’ve been on the right end of the score for quite some time, and now the tables are turned.”

Father Abraham.

It must be such a complicated thing for Palestinian Christians to reckon with the word “Israel” in their Scriptures. But here, Father Abraham, patriarch of the nation, speaks a word of hope to them, to those who endure water shortages and intermittent electricity in the blistering heat of summer, to those who look over the (large and imposing) fence and see their Israeli neighbours with unlimited access to water and gleaming shopping malls and newly paved freeways (that Palestinians can’t use)…

Father Abraham says, “Comfort is coming, even across this vast chasm.”

1 John 4:15-21

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

This land is often called “holy.” Everywhere you go, it seems, something holy happened once upon a time. This is the place where Abraham died or where David did this or that or where Rachel is buried or where Jesus was born or where Muhammad went on his night journey. This is where God has apparently done a great many special things for a great many special people in a great many holy books. But what makes a land “holy?” What makes it matter to God? How would we ever know?

According to 1 John, it seems rather simple. A land is “holy” because of the presence of love and unholy where this love is absent. God abides in those who love. And, presumably, takes his leave of those who persist in enmity and strife and all manner of unlove. God has little interest in this or that chunk of dirt where this or that thing happened in this or that holy book—at least not when it isn’t accompanied by love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Like I said, the bible sounds different in occupied territory.


I took the picture above at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The man in this picture is the father of the boy in the poster below the UN sign. It is his thirteen year old son who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in that exact location. The father now spends most of his days volunteering at the UN center for his refugee camp.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. A Velthuizen #

    Thank you, Ryan, for blogging on your sabbatical. I need to hear this.

    June 6, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps it is time to prioritze Christian political efforts around relocating Christian people suffering from persecution, particularly in the Holy Land.

    Whatever one thinks about the abortion or same sex marriage issues, their cases have been settled in western secular cultures.

    June 7, 2018
    • That’s not what our sisters and brothers in Palestine say. They want to stay and preserve a Christian presence in the land of Christ’s birth. They just want the global church to support them instead of those who are oppressing them.

      June 7, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        I respect and admire the resolve to stay but the, “oppressors” come from all sides. Jewish, American and Islamic interests have made a pawn of the Palestinian people. How ever difficult it will be, people of Christ are attached to His person, not the culture or locals of their ancestors.

        50 years of psuedo negotiations have won precious little peace. Israel seems determined to impose a military solution and the universal church can only offer refuge. “Just war” is only the prérogative of nation states. Christianity has no military forces.

        June 8, 2018
      • I largely agree with what you say here, Paul. It certainly looks bleak for the church in Palestine (and for Palestinians more broadly). And yet I cannot help but admire their resolve to stay and, in some cases, their willingness to enter into the sufferings of Christ in this way. It seems to me that they have an understanding of what this might mean that many of simply cannot comprehend because our experience is one of relative comfort.

        June 9, 2018
  3. Thanks, Ryan. What a difference our context makes in the way the Bible speaks to us! White privilege and Empire produces one kind of hermeneutic. Oppression produces another. Those of us in the first camp must always try to read with the eyes of people being persecuted and oppressed–which, incidentally, is how the early church read it. Another reason why learning tours are so important.

    June 7, 2018
  4. Kevin K #

    Re: One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better try.

    The words(ish) of Jesus come to mind… “The sabbatical was made for the blogger not the blogger for the sabbatical…” enjoy the break (and occasionally surprising us with a post when it makes sense for you!)


    June 8, 2018

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