The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb reads Matthew 25 as a ‘radical call to dismantle settler colonialism’
by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — As attendees prepared for the final morning of the Matthew 25 Summit at New Life Presbyterian Church in South Fulton, Georgia, members of The Many, the conference’s vocal instrumental group in residence, led those gathered Thursday in a time of centering, communal prayer.
After the lighting of candles, the gentle singing of “In This Quiet Place,” and a veritable litany of thanks for the many people responsible for planning, leading and hosting the historic Summit, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb entered the chancel.
It was perhaps the only quiet moment during a morning that was otherwise loud with vocal affirmations and frequent, thunderous applause.
In introducing the widely-published Palestinian theologian, who is also the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, which uniquely supports artists and creative enterprises in the region, Sara Lisherness, deputy executive director for Mission Program for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, reminded the gathering that “the greatest threat to the occupation are the prophets, the poets, the musicians and the artists.”
“Mitri had a dream that was bigger than the occupation, bigger than the oppression,” she said of Raheb’s immediate and bold actions to mobilize and to rebuild following the second intifada. “He wanted to revive the culture of Palestine.”
And as Raheb approached a complex subject with history, humor, skilled exegesis and a wealth of facts and figures at his command, the soft-spoken pastor easily lived up to Lisherness’s characterization.
“Sometimes Presbyterian groups come to visit us in Bethlehem and ask when we converted to Christianity,” he began. “Let me remind you that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine, not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania! The Bible didn’t originate in the Bible Belt, thank God; the Bible is a product that came out of Palestine.”
Similarly, Raheb’s own reading of Matthew 25 is grounded in a Palestinian context, “where Jesus actually spoke these words.”
But other contexts also contribute prominently to his broad understanding of both Israel-Palestine and the Matthew 25 scripture.
Locating himself simultaneously in Atlanta in the land of the Cherokee and the Muscogee, “two peoples who experienced and endured settler colonialism,” as well as the home and church of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Raheb lifted up what King identified as the three evils of society: poverty, racism and militarism.
“I feel that we find ourselves today in a similar context of that of King,” he said. “What is at stake is the moral standing of the U.S. in the world.”
And having come to the realization that the most important word in Matthew 25 is “see” — as in, “Lord, when did we ‘see’ you…?” — Raheb concluded that people can tour the entire U.S. and never “see” the Cherokee or “see” African Americans, or they can visit the Holy Land without meeting any Palestinians.
“Often when groups visit us, they run where Jesus walked, and they keep on walking from one ancient shrine to the other,” Raheb said. “But he is not there. He is risen. And if he is risen, he is to be found among his people. There you can find him: in the Native American reservations and the African American communities and in the Presbyterian churches. Our seeing is often very selective.”
With a staggering series of statistics of the death, destruction and displacement of Palestinians at the hands of Israel, Raheb painted a bleak portrait of the reality on the ground in Gaza.
“In the last 104 days since October 7, Israel has been targeting journalists, with over 80 murdered and almost 30 injured, because Israel didn’t want people and the world to see what is happening in Gaza,” said Raheb. “The world does not see. Remember what the Bible says, ‘they have eyes, but they do not see.’”
Then, quoting the late Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero, who famously said that there are things in this world that can only be seen by people whose eyes have cried, Raheb said that only a country like South Africa could have the courage to take the Palestinians’ case to the International Court of Justice.
“You know why South Africa,” he asked. “Because they have been crying for so long. They understand what is happening in Gaza today. The whole world right now is seeing what’s happening and yet not seeing.”
His observation led Raheb right back to the Matthew 25 passage.
“We don’t see, but we also don’t understand,” he insisted. “We think Jesus is talking about works of mercy — food, drink, old clothes. I was in D.C. last week and the only thing they were ready to talk about was humanitarian aid, no ceasefire, no end to this war, no justice. Jesus isn’t talking about humanitarian aid.”
He said that what he loves about what the Matthew 25 movement is doing is its “radical call to confront the three evils that Martin Luther King was talking about,” understanding that poverty, racism and militarism are interrelated and interconnected.
“Although King didn’t have a name for the three, for me, the one name for these three evils is ‘settler colonialism,’” he said. “What distinguishes classic colonialism from settler colonialism is that [with the latter], they go there to settle permanently with the aim of replacing the native people, not living ‘with’ the native people. The problem is they want to replace us; they want to displace us. That’s what’s happening in Gaza.”
“Matthew 25 is a radical call to dismantle settler colonialism,” said Raheb.
Observing that the four countries who stand with Israel — the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Canada — are all settler colonial states who represent “Empire” rather than the “Divine,” Raheb said that “the settler colonial state of the past can’t abandon the settler colonial state of the present.”
He explained that when Israel took over historic Palestine in 1948, many fled to a then-thriving Gaza, when suddenly 80% of them were displaced.
“We are not poor; we are made poor,” said Raheb. “Systemic poverty is manmade; not woman made. The Native Americans were not poor; they were made poor. African Americans were made poor. Matthew 25 doesn’t talk about poor people but about people who continue to be made poor.”
And because militarism, an intersectional priority of the Matthew 25 movement, is used as a tool to keep people poor, he said that jails in Israel and in the U.S. are filled with prisoners, “not criminals, but political prisoners.”
“That’s the evil of militarism,” he said, “and the Middle East as a whole is the most militarized region worldwide.”
Raheb concluded his presentation by giving his Matthew 25 audience several concrete action steps.
“The first thing I would like to highlight is we need to celebrate the resilience of the people,” he said to loud applause. “After 400 years of settler colonialism against the Native people, they’re still there fighting, trying to keep their culture. The African Americans are still fighting. And after 100 years of war against Palestine from the Balfour Declaration, we are still there fighting for our rights.”
But Raheb said there’s still more.
“The easiest thing is to pray, but prayer is not enough,” he said. “When Israel bombed the church in Gaza, I called my friend to see if he was still alive. After he handed the phone to a nun, the first thing I told her was, we are praying for you, and do you know what she said? She said, ‘Stop praying. We need you on the streets.’”
“I think this is the lesson we learned after the killing of George Floyd,” he continued. “We need to make our voice heard in the streets. We need to talk about Native Americans and African Americans and Palestinians. We need to keep exposing systemic injustice everywhere, and the Matthew 25 movement is the best place to do that. This is why I agreed to leave Bethlehem and come here. This movement is so important, I need to be here.”
As his listeners gathered themselves, Raheb reminded them of what keeps humanity sane in the face of relentless oppression, especially culture, creativity and a focus on the arts — the gospel songs, for example, that “kept the African American community sane over 400 years of slavery.”
“We also need to demand reparations for all of those who are enduring settler colonialism,” he said. “We need to make injustice costly. Otherwise, it will continue.”
Returning to Matthew 25, Raheb said that it’s not enough that oppressors will be judged in the hereafter.
“They need to be held accountable here and now,” he said, “and that is what we will do.”
Responding with immediacy to “the powerful nuggets of wisdom” in Raheb’s words, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, director of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Summit’s co-emcee, addressed the gathering.
“My Black joy is my resistance — my pleasure, my love, my rest is my resistance,” they said. “Let’s pray for [Dr. Raheb] and his work.”
As they invited the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of the PMA’s Compassion, Peace & Justice, forward to pray, Anderson’s prayer, in part, was that “God … use us. Move out of these pews and into the streets.”
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