Oppression Theology

Youssef Yacoubi, Nottingham University, School of Critical Theory & Cultural Studies; Proctor Fellow, Department of Camparative Literature, Princeton University

Part 8 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

I will lastly question the book's theological credibility. I will restrict myself to two points. First, Mallouhi has insisted throughout her book that it is unscriptural not to use prestige for one's own 'evangelistic' ends. How on earth did she come to this conclusion? I have already argued that this is a mere utilitarian method. But this is also a serious misreading of biblical material. She tells us on p, 15 quoting Matthew 10:11 that Jesus himself recommends the importance of knowing prestigious local people. This has nothing to do with the obvious meaning of the verse and Jesus' intention. If one reads the context of the verse, it becomes clear that by the word 'worthy person' 'Moustahiq' in Arabic Bible translation, Jesus refers to a person who is auspiciously willing to offer hospitality, and listen to his message. The clue is in verse 14 "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town". In French worthy/ Moustahiq is translated as 'prêt', which means someone who is voluntarily willing or ready to perform an act. The French translation of verse 14 is even more explicit: "Si, dans une maison ou dans une ville, on refuse de vous accueillir (refuse to receive you), ou de vous écouter (or [refuse] to listen to you), partez de là et secouez la poussière de vos pieds". Mallouhi's lack of basic tools of biblical interpretation as well as her misappropriation of the concept of Intention deprives Jesus from 'depth'. Throughout his ministry Jesus was deeply suspicious of people in power. He understood that people in authority could be bribed, that they were almost 'genetically' morally corrupt. In his book Orthodoxy, Gilbert K. Chesterton captures this quite well when he says:

it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. (p 218)

Mallouhi's suggestion to benefit from local powerful men is neither theologically sound nor morally motivated. There is nothing wholesome about power and prestige. In many Islamic and Western countries it has been used as an instrument of abuse and despotism. How can Mallouhi distinguish herself from such powerful men and women, and still speak to us about moral agency? Authority must be criticised and not endorsed by opportunist missionaries because it suits their propagandist purposes.

Second, and most importantly, what I find mostly nugatory about the book's theology is its 'conspiratorial' and naïve introduction by Elias Chacour. He sees in the author's "deep and thorough experience and knowledge of the Third World mentality and especially of Islamic and Arab society", an impetus for Christian workers to practically benefit from the book's 'cross-cultural' programme. Chacour naively describes the non-western world, the 'other' as 'Third World, (note the 'us' 'them' binary) a slippage in language? Or, indeed, a Christian notion of Three Worlds? Ironically enough, Chacour belongs to this degenerate (neither first nor second) world, but surprises me with a well-founded system of division. Is this a coincidence, ignorance or a lack of theological discernment? He does not deviate one inch from the same stereotypical assumptions advocated by Mallouhi. I believe he is as entirely mistaken as Mallouhi. Let me explain why.

Jesus was born into an intensely imperial milieu. His message was fundamentally in direct opposition to the current politics of the Roman Empire. One could make of him a socialist par excellence; (historically Jesus' moral commitment to the 'Wretched of the Earth' inspired the movement of liberation theology both in the 'East' and the 'West'). Yet, in some instances Jesus insistently preserved a degree of political distance. And this is where many evangelical thinkers justify their depoliticisation of Jesus. Of course, this is a reductionist reading of what Jesus stood for, for he was, paradoxically, many things at the same time.

In fact, being a 'rebel' (as the Romans saw him!) he was, ironically enough, born to witness the rule of Caesar (and his Empire helpers like Pilate, cirrus and many others), a powerful politician, warrior and dictator. His empire stretching from the straits of Gibraltar to the Euphrates had brought immense wealth. Shakespeare, a great chronicler as well as a literary genius, enlarging upon hints supplied by the Greek biographer Plutarch, represents him as a great man who had degenerated into a petty and boastful tyrant with a touch of megalomania. Years of military command, exploitation of other lands and prosperity had, doubtless, made him vain. We sense this in the New Testament where the agony of the cross, metaphorically, elucidates the emperor's ruthless regime and irredeemable barbarity. Jesus, a historical victim of such human, too human cruelty chose not to challenge the dictator's earthly imperial rule. This is analogous in a deep sense to many powerless Albanians or Iraqis today under the 'lawful' military machine and lawlessness, savagery and megalomania of United States and its obedient slave, the UK. Jesus possibly undertook to understand the clash of Empires seriously. In this transcendent manner of 'deconstructing' Roman imperialism, he symbolically froze Caesar's claim to ownership of the imperial episteme. Pilate could not understand Jesus' defeatist response and his lack of resistance. This was a case of mixed paradoxes that went beyond the understanding and perspicacity of Roman politicians. However, one can comfortably suggest that Jesus' resistance to non-resistance was a statement about the way the world was divided.

Whilst Caesar was having dominion over people's earthly lives, Jesus seemed to be adamant to create a hope for the wretched of the Earth in heaven, the cross, as the Gospel narratives suggest, was endured to translate a possibility of hope. It was, more importantly, a symbolic 'salvation' from colonial oppression. But it had to be a vision beyond Caesar's human materiality. Jesus did not act militarily to overthrow the Roman regime. Instead, he is quoted to 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's' (Matthew 22:21). My point here is the way Jesus perceived the world in a situation of imperialism, injustice and oppression. He seemed to be suggesting that politically the world be divided into two: the first dominated by the powerful (the Romans at that time), the second endured by the meek and dispossessed (the poor and the colonised). Theologically, he was also saying that the world be divided into two: those who believed in God, and those who rejected God. Jesus' conclusion was a result of his 'spiritual beyondeness', but most importantly, it was an act of moral processing and consciousness. Oppression exists because moral responsibility and consciousness are 'unnatural' to humans. To divide the world into more than what it actually is, is to enter into ideological processing; an exercise clear in Chacour's introduction.

This uncompromising distinction could not only be read in the historical context of Jesus, but also by the experience of the first Christians who were despised and persecuted and by subsequent world history of wars, persecutions, and famines caused by a fundamental conflict between the two worlds. Examples for this are endless. The twentieth century alone with two World Wars, Colonial invasions, the First Civilisational War, war in Kosovo, etc. proves that the unfairness of the world lies in a dialectical and historical conflict between the Rich and the Poor, the Powerful and the Powerless.

Jesus according to biblical documents (both those in the canon and outside it) never spoke of a Third World (even in such severe circumstances of civilisational and military imperialism), because he would have been discredited even by the established power, and possibly criticised by Roman scientists for being bad at the basic mathematical table of addition. Something an 'acclaimed' Jewish king could not have afforded to do. I guess Jesus knew maths 'well enough' possibly because his career as a carpenter demanded a use of tables and logic!

Where does the term originate? This is, maybe, a digression from my theological argument but, I believe it is worth looking closely at the contemporary historical backdrop out of which the term 'Third World' was initiated. In so many non-western circles the 'third world' was for itself- a group of countries devastated by western exploitation, conscious of their common colonial history and its legacy; underdevelopment, yet many of those countries were at different stages of independence and diverse in their political and cultural structures. The unity of such a diverse set of countries, extremely varied in their cultural heritages, with very different historical experiences and marked differences in the patterns of their economies, whatever their common history of subjection to colonialism and their common underdevelopment, both as colonies and independent states, was inherently problematic. This division was the inevitable result of imperialism. My point is the fact that the term 'Third World' did not even originate in the 'non-western' (that takes its name), but the term originated in post-war France. The term, in fact, emerged in a very different political milieu, that of the non-communist Left, which had played an heroic and militant part in the Resistance and which continued to espouse a militant socialism despite being overshadowed by the much larger Communist Party. One major focus for those for whom neither social democracy nor the Soviet Union was synonymous with socialism was the newspaper edited by Claude Bourdet, L' Observateur. They naturally saw parallels between their own search for a 'Third Way' between 'Capitalism' and 'Stalinist Communism' and the struggles of a new wave of militant anti-colonial movements which opposed imperialism but were by no means pro-Communist.

The analogy was a peculiarly French one: the 'tiers monde' was the analogue of the tiers état of pre-Revolutionary France: the estate of the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the artisans, the peasants and workers who lacked the privileges of the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility. The deeply class divided society of Europe found its translation in another non-European context, driven once again by greed and profit. The first public use of the term came in an article of L'Observateur on 14 August 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, the demographer, entitled trois mondes, Une planète. (Three worlds, one planet) 'The Third World', he declared, 'ignoré', exploité', meprisé', comme le tiers état, veut lui aussi être quelque chose: (ignored, exploited, and despised like the third state, wanting also to be something). The term was quickly taken up in academic circles, but soon became diffused outside those confines in an epoch when it looked as if the Second World War would be followed only too quickly by the Third. The connection was uncanny!

Problems of how to reconcile the conception of a single world-system with the conception of three distinct worlds were there from the beginning. Many writers continued, (and continue) however, to use both without confronting these contradictions. Their definitions of the Three Worlds, in consequence, are usually descriptive, often arbitrary, and at times so loose as to be casual. Horowitz, for example, described the 'Third World' reasonably enough, as made up of the ex-colonial, non-aligned countries, thoroughly dedicated to becoming industrialised. Yet, there were intellectual attempts to abolish the concept 'Third World'. This has been paralleled by political scepticism about the very existence of this notion that was born in Western context and manipulated later by Western mind to serve a certain ideology. Regis Debray, for instance, has made this important remark that,

'Third World' is a lumber-room of a term, a shapeless bag in which we jumble together, to hasten on their disappearance, nations, classes, races, civilisations and continents as if we were afraid to name them individually and distinguish one from another: it is the modern version of the Greek barbaros, whereby all those who did not speak the language of Percales were lumped together in a single word -- Yet what is there in common between Saudi Arabia and The People's Republic of Vietnam, between Israel and Yemen, between Cuba and Brazil?.

One has to concede that when Chacour uses the term 'Third World' he likely refers to certain backwardness in economic and social development. But the ideological use of the term in Western mind and politics is the concept of a world apart, equidistant from the capitalist first world and the socialist 'Second World' (which has now disappeared hoping to metamorphosise into a first world), whose sole inner determining principle is that of underdevelopment. Mallouhi, a Christian writer claiming cultural communication never questions how such a term is used ideologically to separate between modes of living, economic systems of operation and ultimately between peoples. There is no such thing (as the ruling imperialist class want us to believe) that these categories are there to create one 'World System', what USA, now the only self-appointed and lawless super- power has re-branded 'World Order'. It is the most obvious contradiction in the use of this term. Whether Mallouhi and Chacour like it or not, we all live in the womb of the past, (so to speak). Just as Christians live on the memory of Christ's death, the Muslims on the memory of Mohammed's moral example, and the Jews on the memory of the forthcoming Messiah, proclaimed in an ancient Book belonging to the past, racist terms are rooted in the past, and must be 'deconstructed' not employed for cultural warfare.

Jesus was not involved in politics of blame (as though every rich man or woman should feel guilty), but he was pointing out to the corruptibility of the concept and pursuit of richness itself. The idea itself perverts the rich and licences them to crush the poor. Richness meant power. In this sense, he was not saying anything that demanded great intellect. What he was saying was totally logical in a sense that it agreed with material reality and with common sense. Chesterton captivates Jesus' intention:

I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest- if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this- that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern [prosperous] society to rags. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt (Orthodoxy, pp. 216-17). (my emphasis).

Hence, one could speculate why such elevation and concern for the poor: it was a moral stand. Of course, Jesus did not always mean material poverty; he used the term, more often than not, metaphorically to denote moral and spiritual states of mind and conduct, -the poor for him understood the kingdom of God better because they did not have to sit all day painstakingly watching and agonising over the pain of their camels going through an eye of a needle!

In Jesus' time all accounts narrating stories about his relationships, with what Chacour calls 'The Third World' today, referred to them as The poor in spirit, the inheritors of the kingdom, the meek, etc. Jesus had never used a numerical adjective to describe the Poor. The usual use of the definite article 'the', 'Al' in Arabic by New Testament writers indicate that the 'subject' of description is neither divisible in itself nor in relation to the outside world. As Chesterton remarks this also happens to be a historical reality. The British Empire, for instance, before it materialised, was an idea formed through knowledge and power; the idea of being there and being Master. Abuna Elias certainly miscalculated the number of worlds advocated and counted by Jesus himself. I wonder why can't he trust his real Master? Both Mallouhi and Chacour may not have known on what pedigreed information they were drawing when they cut the world into 'us' and 'them' conceptions. Their distinction is identical with racist orientalists and Colonial Officers who separated 'Orientals' from 'Westerners'.


Mallouhi, Christine. Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture. Spear Publishers (1997), Revised Edition, 109 pages, ISBN 0-9904012-9-4

The right of Youssef Yacoubi to be identified as author of this Extended Book Review has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please send your comments and views to: ajxyy@nottingham.ac.uk

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Last modified: 13 May 2001