No Peace Without Justice!

I was strolling down Star Street on my first day in Bethlehem. A young Palestinian man stepped forward and shook his finger in my face. "No peace without justice!" he shouted. "You Americans need to understand - no peace without justice!" I am not American, but he was convinced I could get a message through to those that are. "You tell President Clinton - no peace without justice!" It was September 11 2000.1

The theme was one that would echo through my mind many times as I came to know the politics and paradoxes of the Holy Land, and to understand why justice is such a compelling issue for people who live in the occupied territories of Israel/Palestine. Within four weeks of my arrival, the stone throwing and tear gas of the second intifada2 had begun, and over the past eighteen months the uprising has escalated into suicide bombs and helicopter gunships. All with this major quest in mind: how to find peace with justice?

In the mid twentieth century, a significant shift in Christian thinking came through believers in Latin America and Africa persuading churches round the world that justice and peace are at the heart of the gospel. The conjunction of 'peace' and 'justice', however, has become a cliché. The assumption is that peace is primary and that when it is achieved justice will follow. But the situation in twenty-first century Palestine - and the escalating international conflict of current times - declares that 'no peace without justice' is a heart cry that cannot be ignored.

Justice is in the very character of God; God is "perfect in works and just in all his ways".3 The Western legal categories of justice as 'retribution' and 'restitution', however, contrast with the Hebrew meanings: justice as right relationships, restoration, a comprehensive well being, wholeness, and peace. In Scripture God shows a special concern for the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. The Law, the Prophets and the ministry of Jesus all promise vindication for oppressed people.

But justice alone is not enough to describe the character and purposes of God. The gospels testify to Jesus as a person in whom mercy is inextricably linked with justice, peace and truth. Human beings were created to reflect this unity, but since 'the fall' our ability to do so has been spoiled. Only in solidarity with the cross of Jesus Christ is humanity again able to fully express its redemptive potential.4 This places a special responsibility on those of us who follow Christ, to exercise justice and establish righteousness: because God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.5


The Christians who live in the emerging state of Palestine, in the occupied territories of Israel, have taken the challenge of a ministry of reconciliation seriously. They have seen the spiral of violence6 leading up to the intifadas of 1987 and 2000, in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian Christians there, and in the state of Israel, have faced the challenge of developing an indigenous Liberation theology. Their response to the call for justice and peace is expressed in a non-violent ministry of truth telling, peace making and hope building.

The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was 'given' by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state (Israel). The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless.7

In 1948 the expulsion and displacement of 714,000 Palestinians (including 50 thousand Christians) was a major disaster for the indigenous Arab community.8 Over the last fifty years Israel's Defence Force, energetically supported by massive US aid (dollars, munitions, electronic equipment and political accommodation), has strived to assure its security. But peace is elusive, because a just solution for the Palestinians has yet to be found.

Clearly both peoples have suffered for centuries, and fear annihilation. The Israeli Jews have endured institutional persecution, the Nazi holocaust, wars and terrorism. Modern Israel sees itself as a "courageous little democracy struggling to survive in a sea of uncivilised bloodthirsty Arabs."9

But the Palestinians have also struggled, in the face of Israeli domination. Villages have been destroyed, land confiscated, orchards uprooted and water resources monopolised. Travel restrictions, unemployment and lack of medical and educational facilities apply to Arabs in both Palestine and Israel. Institutional violence - deportation, curfew, intimidation, interrogation and torture - is commonplace.

In 1987 the emerging nation staged a non-violent revolt - the first intifada - and then in 2000 a more aggressive response was provoked, by an Israeli politician's affront to Muslim sensibilities. That conflict started with stone throwing, but in recent times has escalated to an exchange of terror tactics on both sides.


Palestinian Christians distance themselves from these acts of violence - but speak out boldly on the five main issues that contribute to the quest for justice:

Jerusalem - who will govern the old city, once the Jewish capital, but now holy to the world's three major monotheistic religions?

Borders - how much of the land, awarded to the emerging state of Palestine by the United Nations, will be released from Israeli occupation?

Settlements - what will happen to the 150 illegal Jewish townships established on strategic sites around Jerusalem and the territories?

Refugees - when will Palestinians, living in refugee camps for generations, be granted the right of return to their homeland -a right enjoyed by people of Jewish descent from any nation in the world?

Water - how long will Israel continue to appropriate over 80% of the water in the West Bank, and to restrict the access of Israeli Arabs to this resource?

Religion and politics are inextricably woven together in the Holy Land. Since 1967 both Jews and Western Christians have argued theologically for Israeli supremacy. Zionism, which was originally secular, has become a Jewish religious fundamentalism, based on the 'title deed' of the Bible.

Zionists like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dream of control over the whole of greater Israel - from the Nile to the Euphrates - and rule with an increasingly oppressive and invasive political regime.

Alongside this, a burgeoning Christian fundamentalism looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ in association with a war at Megiddo (Armageddon). Holocaust Theology - the theme of Jewish empowerment - and the catchcry 'Never again' adds to the pressure. These religious vindications of Israel have brought a huge challenge to Palestinian Christians.


In September 2000 I met Jerusalem minister Naim Ateek, whose pastoral response to this challenge has been to set up the Centre for Palestinian Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology was the term coined last century by Latin American theologians who sought to make the Gospel relevant to their own social, economic and political situation.

The Centre for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem is called Sabeel (an Arabic word meaning both 'the way' and 'spring of life giving water'), and has its own unique context.

Sabeel was established after an ecumenical conference in Jerusalem in 1990, and describes itself as having two main goals. First, Sabeel wants to deepen the roots of faith of Christians in Palestine and Israel. "Our people have become expert political analysts due to their constant exposure and subjection to the harsh realities of every day life . . . but there is a real shortage of theological anchoring."10 The Centre aims to provide opportunities for theological reflection and to encourage people to "do theology in their daily life".11

The second goal of Sabeel is a practical one - "to work with visitors and friends concerned about the life and witness of the Christian community, as well as a just political settlement . . . . We do our best to provide them with a picture of what is happening. We tell our story as Palestinian Christians."12

In recent years this practical goal has widened to have a more global context, and a sharper political edge. Members of Sabeel believe this ministry of justice, reconciliation and truth telling is part of their calling as Christians. Through its programmes, Sabeel plays a vital part in promoting the causes of justice and peace, in face of the occupation and oppression of Palestine by the state of Israel.


Doing theology in daily life means asking "What is God saying to us today?" Palestinian Christians often feel embarrassed by their faith, because it is so closely related to that of their oppressors. In fact many Palestinian Christians want to abandon the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, because it is used to justify conquest of their land and the extermination of their people.

Naim Ateek and others see that this demands a religious response, a rethinking and reappropriation of the Scriptures, and a rediscovery of the God of justice. Sabeel's Liberation Theology looks to provide a Christian perspective on the racial, political and emotional issues of Israeli imperialism. This means Palestinian Christians must agonise over issues like the character of God and the relevance of Scripture.

"Many of our people do not want to have anything to do with God", said Naim Ateek in a conference paper in 2001. "The god they see before them is a bigot, racist, land grabber, prejudiced, hateful killer."13

Unmasking this Old Testament tribal deity, who seems bent on vengeance and favouritism, is a challenge to both Christians and Jews. Palestinian Liberation Theologians look for more helpful images: Jesus as Prophet of Justice, as Paraclete, as Spirit of Truth, and the Upside Down Kingdom or Reign of God.

In Jesus they find "a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralised without being destroyed."14 By insisting that Jesus himself is the hermeneutical key15 they have been charged with Marcionism, an ancient heresy which divided off the god of the Old Testament from the Christ of the New. However Sabeel theologians are clear they want to retain the whole Bible.

This is the second 'agonising issue' for indigenous theologians. How can Palestinian Christians find Good News in the Bible?

In Jerusalem I came to understand how difficult it is for Arab Christians to reconcile their loyalty as Christians to the Hebrew Scriptures with their contemporary experience of Israel. Their spiritual ancestor is their modern political enemy, and they are perceived to be modern-day Amorites. A deeper analysis of Hebrew Scriptures, though, sees a yearning for people of all nations to worship together. There is plenty of inclusive material, declaring God's love for all.

Palestinian Christians have rediscovered the theme of the return from Exile, for them a paradigm for nations respectfully sharing the land. There are other relevant Scriptural motifs as well, not the least of which is the Easter event:

For present day Arab Christians Golgotha is not a sad memory of a distant past enshrined in encrustations of Byzantine and Crusader architecture. It is part of the every day indignity and oppression they share with all other disadvantaged people of the world. The Via Dolorosa is not a ritualistic procession through the streets of the Old City, but the fate of being subjugated and humiliated in their own land.16

Not surprisingly, Sabeel's Easter messages affirm the power of resurrection hope in the midst of confusion, injustice and death.


Sabeel's message is not only about theology, it is decidedly pragmatic as well. Ten years ago, the Centre saw the need for a practical response to the thousands of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

They come to learn about history, to visit the holy sites, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and to pray. They see many places and buildings but rarely do they meet with any local residents. They leave this place having encountered many 'old stones' of their faith and of history, but without having met any of the 'living stones' of the present day Christian community, who are descendants of the first Christians whose faith goes back to Apostolic times.17

Sabeel decided to provide speakers, guides and information packs about issues of justice and peace, so that visitors can gain a broader understanding. Dialogues with other Christians, and with Muslims and Jews, have challenged ignorance and misinformation.

Sabeel's view is that Israel's existence, albeit necessary, cannot be founded on the tragedy of another people. Fruitful communication has taken place as Jewish peace movements have crossed the borders, built relationships, and even acted in solidarity by challenging Israeli army actions.

In recent years Sabeel has become more intentional in political comment, and communication of a vision for the future. Christian peacemaking includes both the political voice speaking out for self-determination, and the human rights voice speaking out against violations.

This conjunction of peace and justice is crucial. Since peace with one's neighbours is the best security, and a Palestinian state would guarantee safety, Sabeel unashamedly stands for a peace based on justice. Centre publications address the five major issues in a clear formulation of theological, moral, and legal reasoning for Sabeel's vision - two sovereign and fully democratic states, a righteous and viable solution that includes an equal measure of justice and security for both sides.18


The September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, says documentary maker John Pilger, were shocking, horrifying and tragic - but not surprising.19 The long history of grievances by Arab peoples against the US goes back nearly a century, and today's Middle East crises contribute to the climate of fanaticism and the willingness of people to blow themselves up.

Although Israel was quick to use the tragedy to score points and demonise the Arab people, the irony is that the attacks were apparently acts of vengeance for American foreign policy. Renowned historian Arnold Toynbee wrote:

If it is true that an unbroken series of victorious wars makes a nation dangerous to the rest of the world and itself, the US and Israel must be today the two most dangerous of the sovereign states.20

Palestinians know this; they know too that because Israel's military and economic power depends on US finance, their future lies in the hands of American Jews.

US military strategic and economic power in the Middle East has created a vortex of violence, human misery and economic distress. The Middle East Christian Churches' warning in 1979 - "the scale of the conflagration may well become global"21 - is chillingly accurate in 2002.

George W Bush has a choice. He could "go down in history as a notable US president [who] ordered the deaths of thousands . . . [or,] if he uses his position to bring the world to a new understanding of peace, tolerance and self-examination, he will go down as one of the greatest men in world history."22


Bringing a new understanding of peace, tolerance and self-examination to the twisted world of the 'holy' land is just what Sabeel aims to do as it endeavours to deal with hatred, bitterness and spiralling violence - not through silence and surrender, but through truth and justice, forgiveness and love. Using the model of Jesus Christ, who was himself a Palestinian under occupation, a different paradigm of power is proposed - the power of love, the power of non-violence, the power of truth, the power to stand with courage and confront evil. These are the values drawn from the Scriptures, to empower Palestinian Christians as they seek peace through the justice of God.

"Get your hands dirty with the leaven of justice", says Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian pastor who works closely with Sabeel. "Build a human society that reflects God's presence and provides hope to hopeless people, security to threatened people."23 The leaven of justice - that is the source of peace and hope for Palestine.



1 Vivian Coleman, personal recollection, 11 September 2000.

2 Intifada is an Arabic word for 'shaking off something troublesome'; in the Palestinian context a popular uprising against Israeli occupation.

3 Deuteronomy 32:4

4 See N S Ateek: Justice and Only Justice; A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Orbis, New York, 1989, pp 139-150. See also C D Marshall: Beyond Retribution; A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment, Eerdmans/Lime Grove House, Auckland, 2001, pp 67, 68.

5 2 Corinthians 5:18

6 This term was coined by Dom Helder Camara to describe how injustice and structural violence lead to protest and resistance, then a response of retaliation and repression, followed by further violence and revolt. Cited in R Horsley: Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Resistance in Roman Palestine. Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987, p 23.

7 Bertrand Russell, 1970, cited in Glubb, 1971, Appendix 1, p 363.

8 M Prior and W Taylor (eds): Christianity in the Holy Land, World of Islam Festival Trust, London, 1994, p 2. The estimate is conservative; others claim it was 1.2 million non-Jews.

9 David Nes, 1971, in J B Glubb, A Short History of the Arab Peoples, 1971, pp 365.

10 From the editorial of Cornerstone Issue 1, Spring 1994, p1; see

11 Ibid Cornerstone.

12 Ibid Cornerstone.

13 p 6.

14 Wink, 1998, cited on p 7.

15 Hermeneutics is concerned with developing criteria for ancient text interpretation. Determining the original meaning of a text sheds light on its sense for modern readers. Using a 'hermeneutical key' means that some biblical texts would be interpreted in the light of others, in this case the teaching, ministry and saving work of Jesus Christ.

16 Prior and Taylor, op cit, p 196.

17 Cornerstone op cit, p 3.

18 especially p 5.

19 Jo McCarrol, Unmasking the Not so Surprising, New Zealand Herald, October 6 2001.

20 Toynbee cited in Glubb, op cit, p 355.

21 Middle East Council of Churches: Unity in Service with the Palestinians, MECC, Nicosia, 1979 p 18.

22 Easterbrook, Babylon is Burning, "Craccum", Issue 20, September 2001. The next sentence reads "But I can't see it happening."

23 Chacour, A Palestinian Christian Challenge to the West, in N Ateek, M Ellis, R R Reuther, (eds), Faith and the Intifada; Palestinian Christian Voices, Orbis, New York, 1992, p 90.


Recommended reading

N S Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Orbis, New York, 1989.

W Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain, Flamingo, London 1998

Halsell G, Forcing God's Hand; Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture ­ and Destruction of Planet Earth, Crossroads International, Washington, 1999

C D Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment, Eerdmans/Lime Grove House, Auckland, 2001

H Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, Herald Press, Scottdale, 1995

Website: (Sabeel and all its publications)