Between ruins and remnants: religious reinvention and renewal among Christians in West Bank Palestine
Marteijn, Elizabeth Sulammith
This thesis offers an ethnography of local Christianity and its relation to the changing social, cultural, and political context of contemporary West Bank Palestine. This study argues that the changes over the course of recent history in the Middle East brought about a renewal of ancient Palestinian Christian religious expressions through which the community reinvented itself and adapted its theologies and practices to the changing socio-political circumstances. In order to build up this argument, this thesis draws on a theoretically innovative framework, developed in conversation with recent scholarship across several disciplines, and ethnographically embeds this question in the mixed Orthodox and Catholic Christian village of Taybeh. The thesis builds on existing research relating to theology and contextualisation, but explores these dynamics differently by combining the three dynamically growing research fields of World Christianity, Middle Eastern Christianity studies and the research that has grown out of the rapprochement between theology and anthropology. Working at the intersection of these three fields, this thesis produces a theologically-informed ethnography of Palestinian Christianity. What is particularly innovative about this approach is that the thesis does not only examine theologies as produced by Palestinian theologians and church leaders, but explores theological reflection and engagement among the laity as mediated through societal involvement, biblical associations, and ritual behaviour. The ethnography is based on a total of 16 months of fieldwork that has been conducted during multiple visits in the period between 2016 and 2019, particularly in Taybeh, as well as in the greater Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah regions. With its emphasis on the village of Taybeh, this thesis is also the first in-depth study on a Christian community in contemporary rural Palestine. Accordingly, chapter 1 provides an extensive introduction to the social, cultural, political, and religious dynamics in Taybeh, with special emphasis on the missionary interventions in its history. On the basis of this portrait it is argued that Palestinian Christian identity should be understood in an organic way in which religious and national identities are intertwined. Chapter 2 deals with the implication of this identity and explores how Palestinian Christians relate to the broader society. The chapter shows that Palestinian Christians have emerged as a socially and politically engaged community, thereby re-integrating the study of Palestinian Christianity with the wider context of the Middle East. Chapter 3 provides a grassroots theology that forms the basis of everyday religious practices that relate to theologies of the land and, ultimately, to a deep sense of belonging. The chapter particularly focuses on how Palestinian Christians have constructed and reimagined their identity as essentially biblical. Chapter 4 shifts the attention to the Palestinian veneration of Saint George and the Virgin Mary and argues that these ancient practices focused on human flourishing have transformed into another platform for grassroots theological ideas. In this last chapter it is argued that theologies of martyrdom, liberation, and belonging are rooted in the Arabic notions of baraka (‘blessing’) and ṣumūd (‘steadfastness’). Ultimately, the study finds Palestinian Christian vitality in common faith and everyday religious identity, thereby counteracting popular rhetoric of extinction and persecution.