Suffering and Redemption in Palestine

As we begin the season of Lent, we welcome Dr. Suzanne Watts Henderson as guest contributor to the “Peace Doers” blog.  Dr. Henderson is an Associate Professor of Religion at Queens University; a member of the Board of Bright Stars of Bethlehem; and co-author of The Cross in Contexts: Suffering and Redemption in Palestine with Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb.


Lent. The church’s protracted Easter “pre-game.” Except this pre-game is about less rather than more, giving up instead of indulging, somber reflection more than raucous celebration.

After all, to observe Lent is to follow in the “way of the cross,” the costly life of sacrifice and humble servanthood. Lent is Christian faith in minor key, and in muffled tones.

Or is it?

Last September, our Bright Stars board gathered at Dar al-Kalima University for two days of meetings and the dedication of a new state-of-the-art library. Even more, we walked the halls, met with students, and spotted the way of the cross in palpable expressions of resolute hope, abundant life, and at times, breath-catching joy. May I share a few glimpses?

We spent one afternoon with an art student named Haneen, whose journey to school from her remote village in the Judean hills a few miles outside Bethlehem can take hours because of the Israeli occupation. Haneen had “planted” her paintings in the heart of her community, pushing back on the intimidation of settlers and soldiers by capturing a vision of green grass and plentiful water. When the Israelis seized their solar panels and their new school’s mobile classrooms, the seeds of creative resistance Haneen had sown took root and flourished, as a women’s committee mobilized to regain both.

Back on campus, we peeked in on a pair of documentary film students huddled in a small editing room, clearly pressed to meet a submission deadline. Kind enough to break for their American visitors, they screened a clip from their piece on Bethlehem’s own version of Lollapalooza (who knew, right?). You should have seen them beam with pride over their work, as their heads bobbed to the beat. If the occupation rages outside the campus—and it does—it doesn’t stand a chance in that editing room.

After lunch, our group headed upstairs for our board meeting when we came across a half dozen music students in the stairwell, leaning in to tune their pitch as they began an impromptu acapella concert. Tight harmonies echoing upward. Eyes closed as they savored the sublime. Bodies swaying together as the spirit took flight. We turned aside, just long enough to see the very faces of God—some of them in hijab.

But wait, you say. What do a bunch of Palestinian university students have to do with this somber thing called Lent? How have these encounters forever altered how I view the “way of the cross”? Here’s what happened: the way of the cross has become deeply personal, incarnate even—evident most clearly in those who, like Jesus himself, dare to stand for human dignity and wholeness wherever “peace and security” are predicated on dehumanizing violence. This “way of the cross,” my friends in Bethlehem have taught me, isn’t about meeting evil with evil; it’s about the kind of vulnerable solidarity with the weak that shows the way—for them and for me—to life that’s really life.

Now for an invitation. Perhaps you long to see the “way of the cross” as a way of authentic, joy-filled life. Perhaps you’re wary of the notion that God used redemptive violence to reconcile a sort of divine Excel spreadsheet. Perhaps you’re curious about why Jesus really died, and what his death really saves us from. If so, consider spending your Lent reading The Cross in Contexts: Suffering and Redemption in Palestine.

In this book, a Palestinian theologian and an American biblical scholar explore the redemptive power of Jesus’ death in first- and twenty-first-century Palestine. (You already knew the theologian by the name of Mitri Raheb; now you know the biblical scholar named Suzanne.) In both settings, military occupation has exerted forceful power in ways that cripple and destroy; in both settings, the cross has become a symbol not of defeat but of liberation. As Mitri narrates the saving power of the cross for both Christian and Muslim Palestinians today, I shine new light on the meaning of the cross in Jesus’ day and for his first followers. Together, our chapters invite readers to go beyond a “transactional” notion of Jesus’ sacrifice to see it as a “transformational” source of life abundant for our world.

Here’s a final thought from the book, just to whet your appetite:

“Our world today stands at a crossroad, in dire need of meaningful, life-giving dialogue on a large scale. Oppressive governments inflict suffering on people without listening, really listening, to their voices. Multinational corporations worship the bottom line with little regard for the wellbeing of their employees. Fundamentalist religious movements exert power through terrorizing tactics that they say their God has prescribed. The cross reminds us where to find God today, and it’s in none of these places—not in the allies of power and violence but in the midst of those crushed, marginalized, and silenced. Listening to their cries is what the cross is all about. Joining their struggle, it turns out, is part of the Easter journey to hope. Will you join us?”

Suzanne Watts Henderson