Paul Lutton and CSBV Research Student Francis Mathew provide their summaries of our Annual Conference, this year entitled ‘Let Justice Roll: Scripture and Power in Palestine’.
Reflections on the CSBV Conference 2023
Written by our CSBV Research Student Francis Mathew.
It has been two months since the CSBV Conference 2023 was held. To be honest, I do not remember most of the arguments of the presenters in detail. But there were clusters of moments in the conference that remain etched into my memory and have gripped my heart and imagination to the point where my views on biblical hermeneutics, academic and ministerial engagement, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a biblical vision for justice continue to be shaped.
This was my very first experience attending an academic conference with a focus on the practical issues faced by real people. The conference aimed to engage with particular streams of interpretations of select texts from the Christian Scripture and the emerging theology that favoured one people group at the expense of the other in modern-day Israel. In this case, it was the systemic violence, hardships and injustice faced by Palestinians at the hands of the state of Israel. Each scholar, in their presentation, was fully aware that they were treading some difficult grounds both in the biblical text and its implications for the resolve of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, they did not shy away from their calling as both academicians and witnesses of Jesus to a hurting community. I could see a genuine concern in each of the presenters to be conscious and empathetic to the lived realities of people affected by Christian hermeneutical endeavours. This was particularly highlighted by John Barclay at the opening of his paper. He endorsed a basic principle of Christian hermeneutics as “listening to the Scriptures in the company of people who have suffered harm by the existing readings of the Bible.”
And the conference put this principle into action through the counter-stories of people who were first-hand victims and witnesses of the many crimes against the Palestinians. These counter-stories were the highlight of the conference for me. It was quite an emotional moment to hear these stories of violence and injustice meted out to the Palestinians by state-sponsored machinery. Such narratives continue to be censored by prominent media and news channels for various political and socio-economic reasons. But I was also challenged by these story-tellers, in that they were actively resilient and hopeful of peace in the land. That posture speaks volumes of their faith in Jesus Christ and his teachings of the Kingdom of God amidst the ongoing crisis. I was compelled to ask myself and maybe we all, as academicians and ministers in the body of Christ, should ask ourselves this question: Do I engage in the reading of the Bible with a holy compassion for fellow believers who are held captives as a consequence of certain interpretive traditions of the Scriptures in the church/society today?
In many ways, the conference was also a bold attempt in bringing theologians from Palestine and the UK on the same platform. Even more daring was to bring to the fore their stance on certain key texts (like Romans 9-11) and ideological minefields (such as defining Israel and its restoration). However, each of the contributors was mindful of the dynamics of power inherent in every interpretive task. This call to be conscious of the intersections of power and Scriptural interpretations came out passionately in the opening talk by Helen Paynter. Not only did every presenter unmask some of the oppressive authoritative ideologies widespread in churches today when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but some were also humble enough to admit the possibility of their interpretations being used to wrong ends when misconstrued.
In my opinion, there was a generous display of humility among the scholars in their engagement with each other’s work. I, particularly, was challenged by how they responded to each other in the panel discussion as they handled their agreements and disagreements. I was blown away by the respect and love they had for each other as they disagreed with each other on certain things. However, I believe they were able to showcase such respect and love towards each other primarily because they were united both as brothers and sisters in Christ and towards the Palestinian cause for justice. I was left with this question after witnessing their exchange: Will my academic and ministerial engagement demonstrate such love, respect and humility towards others?
Finally, the conference had a very clear and loud call for justice. Far from a simplistic understanding, every contributor understood the complex task of defining and championing justice for the oppressed and displaced Palestinians. They recognized that such an undertaking calls for caution by being sensitive to the dangers of bordering on anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, it stands as no excuse to expose the perils of settler colonialism that has justified and continues to justify so much violence against the Palestinians and injustice in the land. Such a stand for justice is a prerequisite to envisioning peace in the land. As Munther Isaac voiced, “Prophetic peace-making starts with holding the oppressor accountable and only then a hopeful vision of living and sharing the land may ensue.” Matters of injustice and oppression are intricate and multi-faceted in Israel and such complications are no different to many of us in our contexts. Consequently, I was challenged to introspect and question myself this: What does it look like for me to envision and practice a biblical model of justice in my context with and for those who suffer injustice?
I continue to revisit the prayer that Helen Paynter prayed during the Conference, which beautifully captures the messy and difficult wrestling within the hearts and minds of those called to a biblical vision of justice and peace-making in the world today. [Prayer written by Sister Ruth Marlene, 1985]
A Franciscan Blessing May God bless us with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships So that we may live from deep within our hearts. May God bless us with anger At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless us with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with just enough foolishness To believe that we can make a difference in the world, So that we can do what others claim cannot be done; To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbours who are poor. Amen!
The interpretation of Scripture and why it matters: a look back at “Let Justice Roll”
“The interpretation of Scripture matters.”
If a tagline were needed for this year’s CSBV conference, I can think of nothing better.
The phrase belongs to Helen Paynter, who employed it as a refrain throughout her compelling paper on power and interpretation. But it resonated far beyond her talk to emerge as a melody to unite the choir of contributors who harmonised around this year’s theme, “Let Justice Roll”. Whether from a British or a Palestinian perspective, each speaker elaborated on the importance of handling Scripture responsibly. Listening to their diverse voices, I was more alert than ever to the tragedy that can ensue when the Bible is abused, and the good that can be garnered when it is approached with fear and trembling.
As Paynter concluded:
“The interpretation of Scripture matters. When it goes bad, lives are destroyed. When it is performed in humility before the divine author, and in the company of his children, life and truth will break out. And justice will roll.”
If Paynter’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the pulpit, that’s because she is a pastor as well as an academic. This dual calling leaves her well placed to bridge the academy and the church, something that CSBV was set up to do. A banner on the conference stage declared its twofold purpose: “cutting edge scholarship; resources for the church.” A look at their website confirms the seriousness of this endeavour. Church leaders will find a plethora of useful resources to promote better Bible reading among the faithful, including a brilliantly named podcast, “Was it something I read?”
This concern to resource the church was reflected, too, in the carefully curated conference programme. Alongside academic papers we heard “counter stories” from those who have experienced life on the other side of the separation wall. The stereophonic output allowed “Let Justice Roll” to be something other than just another Bible conference. It became a space for incarnational theology; that is, for theology rooted in place, where the word is made flesh in the lived experience of the oppressed. In this space, the interpretation of Scripture is made to matter, as readers are compelled to raise a Biblical lens to the injustices of the world and ask what God might have to say.
The Palestinian scholar who shared the stage with Paynter in the opening session was Jack Sara. He is the President of Bethlehem Bible College and a long-time advocate of peace and reconciliation in Israel-Palestine. Like Paynter, he is also a pastor, which perhaps explains his sermonic title: “Let us be ambassadors of justice”. In one sense, this rallying cry is nothing unique; a similar appeal might be heard from the pulpit on any given Sunday. But differentiating this imperative is the speaker’s history, because Sara is one acquainted with injustice. As a Palestinian Christian, he knows full well the harms of bad theology. Indeed, his talk included a warning that anticipated Paynter’s refrain: “Those in positions of power and privilege,” he said, “may be tempted to use their interpretation of Scripture to justify and maintain their status quo or advance their own agenda.”
It is not difficult to decipher what Sara alludes to here. It is a great sadness to Palestinian Christians that the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory enjoys financial and practical support from Evangelical Christians, most of whom, it should be said, are from the United States. This enthusiasm is fuelled in part by a reading of Scripture that understands the establishment of the state of Israel to be a prerequisite to the second coming of Christ. (For more on this subject, I recommend the documentary film by Israeli journalist Maya Zinshtein, ‘Til Kingdom Come, or Munther Isaac’s The Other Side of the Wall.)
It is a reality that was elaborated by Sara’s colleagues, Munther Isaac and Mitri Raheb. Both men used a computing analogy to describe the appropriation of Scripture for political ends. The military, they said, is the hardware of the occupation, but theology is the software.
And this is the point: the interpretation of Scripture matters. When it goes bad, lives are destroyed.
It is worth noting that Bristol itself is a testament to this reality. The city continues to reckon with its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. This, of course, made headline news in 2020 when the statue of prominent citizen and slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol harbour. But fallen statues cannot erase the city’s unhappy history. When the conference ended, I took the opportunity to do some exploring before heading back to Belfast. As I undulated the contours of Bristol’s hilly streets, I found myself wondering how many of the pastel pennant buildings and the stained-glass windows owed their existence to the half-million enslaved Africans traded by the city’s merchants. I wondered, too, how many of these slave traders dropped coins into the parish plate each Sunday.
Whatever the number, it is too many.
But Edward Colston and company aside, the weaponization of Scripture is not to take away from the power of God’s word to liberate the oppressed. Sara, Raheb and Isaac are alive to this potential, just as are the descendants of those poor souls traded like cattle in Bristol’s port. The liberating power of Scripture for enslaved Africans has been noted by the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese in his landmark study, Roll, Jordan, Roll. Interestingly, Genovese converted to Christianity after discovering how enslaved Africans paradoxically took up the Book of their oppressors to voice their resistance.
Once again, the interpretation of Scripture matters. When it goes well, life and truth will break out. And justice will roll.
It can be difficult for Western eyes to perceive this dynamic. But read the Bible with the oppressed and it becomes unmissable. At Christ at the Checkpoint, which I attended last year, I heard first-hand what it is like to be a Christian on the other side of the wall. (For more on my experience read here and watch here.) It was these same voices I got to hear at “Let Justice Roll”, allowing me something of a refresher course in hermeneutical humility.
Listening to Mitri Raheb, for example, I was struck at how much my understanding is impoverished when I shut myself off from these voices. In his presentation he pointed out a fact about Scripture that I had never before noticed. The Bible, he observed, was written in the context of empire. Of course! How could I not have seen it before? Whether it was the face of the Egyptians or the Babylonians, the Persians or the Romans, God’s word was spoken to a people either under occupation or facing the threat of occupation. My Western eyes were blind to this reality, but Raheb’s Palestinian eyes enabled him to see the books of the Bible as something I could not – as a direct response to empire. “Texts of creative resistance,” he called them. Counter-stories that break open hegemonies of the powerful.
And it is here that we see the power of Scripture for Raheb and his colleagues today. In the face of oppression, they look to the Bible to resist injustice and oppression. With Palestinian eyes they confront the harmful theology that is assumed (often unconsciously) by many Christians in the West; that is, Christian Zionism. It is worth noting that this ideology is relatively novel, emerging as it did in the late nineteenth century. Although it is used to legitimate the territorial claims of the state of Israel, Christian Zionism is in fact inherently antisemitic (a fact not lost on many Jewish Israelis). It is a sad indictment of the church that we are not surprised at such a misappropriation of Scripture. History is redolent with examples of Christians weaponising the Bible against the Jews. And here we must acknowledge that Christian Zionism is not the only harmful theology in town. Just as alarming is the prevalence of supersessionist readings of Scripture. There can be no getting away from it. There remains an urgent need to repair the Christian tradition, which has been so complicit in centuries of antisemitism and hatred against the Jews, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.
To state it again, the interpretation of Scripture matters. When it goes bad, lives are destroyed.
And so, Bible readers today must be alert to two dangers: Zionism on the one hand and supersessionism on the other. This word of caution is especially apt when it comes to the text that took centre stage at the conference. John Barclay described Romans 9-11 as a hermeneutical minefield. Aware of the potential for grave missteps, Barclay and his Palestinian counterpart, Munther Isaac, traversed Saint Paul’s text with special care. They proved responsible guides, walking us through this challenging terrain fully alert to the pitfalls already mentioned, as well as those brought to light by the complex situation in Israel-Palestine.
Both treatments were detailed and nuanced, and far too intricate to summarise here. But it is enough, perhaps, to stress again the care with which each scholar handled the text. This care in itself was enough to affirm Paynter’s words set out at the beginning: for life and truth to break out, interpretation must be performed in humility before the divine author, and in the company of his children. For Barclay, this means adopting what he described as “a basic Christian hermeneutical principle”, that we interpret the Bible listening to those who have been harmed by the use of it.
It’s a point that was reiterated in different terms by Sara Deik. Responding to Barclay and Isaac, she evoked Derrida’s assertion that there can be no ethics without the presence of the other, extrapolating from this that there can likewise be no interpretation without the presence of the other.
And this is the challenge I take from “Let Justice Roll”: the interpretation of Scripture matters, and therefore it matters that Scripture is read in the company of others.
But how do we do this? How do we broaden the company of God’s people as we sit in humility before the divine author? Opportunities like CSBV and Christ at the Checkpoint are invaluable, but they are rare. Something else is required if we are to keep attending to the voices of the oppressed. Without doubt, this must include engagement with those in our own communities who have been displaced. As we look at those who seek refuge in our towns and cities, we might ask how our Bible reading might be enriched (corrected, even) if we were to sit in fellowship with them. What might God have to teach us from our Somalian sister, or our Ukrainian brother? What life and freedom might issue as a result?
And then, of course, there are books. As two former English teachers, my wife and I are passionate about the power of stories to broaden our engagement with the world, to enable us to climb into another’s skin and walk around in it. Recently we started a blog to help us do this. We call it Attention Seekers, a tongue-in-cheek title that reflects our desire to pay better attention to the world around us. Books have become an important locus of this attention seeking. As we have looked on the written word, we have learned again the truth of what we always told our students, that (as C.S. Lewis observed) the written word invites us to “see with a myriad of eyes.”
So, if we are to get better at reading the Bible in the company of the other, then our bookshelves need to diversify as much as our friendships. I have made some moves in this direction in recent years. I have been deliberate in seeking out Bible teachers from other places. I have looked on Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, navigated Luke with a Jewish and a Christian guide. I have journeyed Acts alert to the insights of Black theology, and I have asked what it might mean to read from a particular place. And I have left room on the shelf for more voices to be brought into the conversation: The Gospel of John Through Palestinian Eyes; African Commentary on the Bible; Reading the Bible with the Damned.
Other recommendations are gratefully received.
For too long Western readers have neglected other voices, thinking that we have everything to teach and little to learn. How impoverished we have been.
The interpretation of Scripture matters. So perhaps let us be more alert and attentive to the counter-stories. Because only when we give ear to these voices are we able to break free from the hegemony of our narrow theology. Scripture is bigger and more capacious than our theological adjectives will sometimes allow.
It takes humility to admit this. But if justice is truly to roll, then humility is exactly what is needed.
Paul Lutton is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, currently serving in Belfast. He blogs regularly with his wife at www.attentionseekers.org.
Slightly edited from its original form on Paul’s blog and used at the kind permission of the author (photos also provided by Paul).