IN THIS slim but remarkably well-written and insightful book, two writers approach an age-old question within the context of a century-old tragedy. Suzanne Watts Henderson is an American theologian, asking what it means to say that we are “saved” by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and in particular questioning theories of substitionary atonement which come perilously close to embracing religious violence rather than see the Cross as opening up a world where such violence is overcome.
Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, part of the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Together, they point us towards what the Cross may say, not as a piece of theoretical doctrine, but through the reality of the sufferings of the Palestinian people. In the words of René Girard, “All imprisonment in sacred violence is violence done to Christ. Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind.”
Henderson rightly says that, in the end, the Cross is a divine mystery, “amazing grace, not a concept to be mastered”. But she helpfully unfolds how scripture shows its threefold purpose: salvation from political and religious systems that subjugate and oppress, deliverance from self-concern, and the way in which God sets the world free from the grip of cosmic evil. Raheb tells stories of how people on the West Bank come together to demonstrate that new freedom, but only against the backcloth of daily humiliation and arbitrary arrest by Israeli soldiers.
The strength of the book is that it centres not on Israeli policies towards Palestinians, which can so easily if unfairly be dismissed as anti-Semitism, but, rather, on the common ground between those who have lived in this narrow contested passageway that is Palestine: the people of Israel through imperial conquest and exile, the early Christians, and the Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) today. In all of this history and tradition, it finds the God who can feel absent, but who is actually present in the sufferings of his people, and who sets them free into a non-violent future.
Such freedom should not be easily assumed by British readers of this book. In this centenary year of the Balfour Declaration, which made way for the creation of Israel but promised rights to the Palestinians on which we have constantly reneged, we in the UK remain guilty of betrayal and now indifference. If we really believed that the Cross challenged every kind of religious and political violence, we would not simply stand by.
The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn and a member of the Balfour Project.
The Cross in Contexts: Suffering and redemption in Palestine
Mitri Raheb and Suzanne Watts Henderson
Orbis Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30