Leyla King: Reflecting on Palestinian Christianity
By Jeannie Babb
“I’m half Palestinian.”
The Rev. Leyla King is the visiting instructor for international and global studies at the University of the South, where she teaches Arabic. Her mother is Palestinian-American, her father of Irish and Croatian descent. Her mother’s parents met in Haifa, Palestine, and were married in 1948. “That was the year the Arabs call the Nakba, or catastrophe,” she tells me. “The rest of the world calls it the creation of Israel.”
Through the eyes of the Palestinians, 1948 was indeed a disaster. King explains, “Much of the Western world still thinks that Israel was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’ That’s a complete, utter falsehood that has been perpetuated.” According to the United Nations, more than 700,000 people were displaced from their homes in Palestine.
King’s grandparents left Palestine with the clothes on their back and a bag of jewelry. Her grandmother was four months pregnant when they boarded a ship in Haifa and sailed to Beirut, Lebanon. It was in Beirut, many years later, that King’s mother met her father, an American journalist covering the civil war in Beirut. King grew up in the United States speaking English. Although her grandparents and seven of her grandmother’s eight siblings eventually immigrated to the United States, King did not learn Arabic until her post-graduate days when she studied the language at Middlebury College’s summer program.
King sees three problems for Western Christians thinking about Palestine. One is a literal interpretation of the Bible. “There’s one type of Christian that thinks the country Israel today is the same as the biblical Israel, and if you get enough Jews in Israel then Christ may come again. I think it’s somewhat illogical.” King is hopeful these Christians will begin to understand the Israel of the Bible as an ancient ethnic group, which established a kingdom in the area of the Middle East thousands of years ago. “Since then,” she says, “history has changed the political landscape of that area many times over, and the country now known as Israel has very little to do with the ancient kingdom. There is no doctrine or biblical mandate that requires the country of Israel to be in existence in order for the second coming to take place.”
Secondly, some Christians shy away from the issue because they fear anti-Semitism, or even the appearance of prejudice. “I’m not denying there is this sort of anti-Jewish history of Christianity that we do need to be ashamed of, and that we need to rectify,” King says. “Being pro-Israel or pro-Zionist at the expense of the Palestinian people is not the way to rectify that.”
Finally, a percentage of Christians feel they must support Israel over Palestine because they prefer Judaism over Islam. King emphasizes that the conflict is not about Judaism or Islam. She grew up hearing her grandmother’s stories about life before 1948. King’s great-grandparents met in a Christian Palestinian village called Shefa-’Amr. The next nearest village was populated by Jewish Palestinians. Just beyond that lay a Muslim Palestinian village.
“These three villages traded with one another, interacted with one another, and socialized with one another. This was before Zionism existed as a concept. All those Palestinians are now either living in refugee camps, living in occupied territories, or living in Israel proper as second-class citizens. Whatever their religion was, it is their ethnicity that brands them as second-class citizens.”
While the conflict is not religious in nature, King emphasizes that our responsibility is a spiritual duty. “As educated Christians, one of the missions of our baptism is to recognize the dignity of all human beings.” King says we do better at that when we think of people as people, whether they happen to be Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian.
She says people who happen to be Palestinian and Christian are hardly on the radar of most Western Christians. To make matters worse, their numbers are dwindling. “There’s been such a mass exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. Part of the reason why someone like Father Fadi Diab [see page ___] is so admirable is because he sticks it out. He doesn’t leave. He sort of finds himself in the mess and the muck and the chaos of human sin and human violence, and he chooses to stay. Talk about a baptismal ministry! That’s what we’re called to do, right?”
King sees a real mission for Christian Palestinians to remain in the Holy Land. “Supporting them is a way that we as Christians in the West can help.” Many Western Christians are not even aware they exist. As rector of Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., King has the luxury of bringing her personal ethnicity into her sermons. Without using the pulpit as a soapbox, she can bear witness to the church in Palestine simply by being herself.
“My hope is that folks in Chattanooga who were not aware of Christian Palestinians, at least know now, because I am one!”
Though King confesses a “do what you can, where you can” approach, her style is more direct and powerful within the government of The Episcopal Church. As a deputy to the 2010 Convention, King sought to amplify the voices of Palestinian Christians. She advocated for a resolution asking parishes and church members to read and consider the Kairos Palestine document, a call by Christian clergy in Palestine to Christians worldwide, asking for help to stop the Israeli occupation of Palestine. King points out that the resolution only asked The Episcopal Church to do one thing: Listen.
The resolution did not pass.
“It was absolutely bizarre to me,” she confesses. “I was just really, really angry. This document was written by a consortium of Christian clerics. It was the Christian Palestinian voice.” At the same General Convention, The Episcopal Church expressed openness to human sexuality, and the convention, as a whole, showed a willingness to listen.
King hopes that at the next General Convention, the church will be more open to listening. She cites the failure to adopt the resolution as an immoral decision, and a failure to live up to our baptismal covenant. “There were a lot of moral decisions made at General Convention,” she says, “and there were a lot of good decisions made at General Convention. But that one was neither of those things.”
Critics of the Kairos Palestine document charge that it lacks the Israeli perspective. King does not disagree.
“Is it one-sided? Yes. But it’s the side we’ve seldom hear in the West. And that’s what was so frustrating. The resolution was asking The Episcopal Church to just listen to this voice, not to necessarily support it, not to necessarily do anything about it, to just open your ears and listen. Hear. Just hear this voice.”
Pope Francis is to canonize 2 Palestinian nuns, Sisters Maria Baouardy and Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas. Rosie Scammell writing for Religious News Service considers how the making of saints is more than a theological exercise. The canonization of Arab saints—and especially of modern Palestinian Christians—gives international recognition to the Palestinian church, and a jolt of hope to those living out their faith in an time and place that often leaves them invisible to the rest of the world.
By Jeannie Babb on May 13, 2015
About the Author
Jeannie Babb, T’12/13, followed her love of sacred literature to Sewanee. After earning an M.A. in theology (church history) and writing an S.T.M. thesis on violence against women in ancient Christian literature, she stayed on the Mountain for the fellowship and the fog.
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