The Israeli occupation of Palestine is ugly. To speak of the occupation as “ugly” may sound strange, jarring, or at least atypical. But I suggest that, at its core, occupation is an aesthetic phenomenon and one that we must investigate theologically. There is no beauty in occupation, but this does not mean that we cannot conduct an aesthetic analysis, that we cannot consider how matter and relationships are aesthetically manipulated. The opposite is the case. Precisely because there is no beauty in occupation, precisely because occupation is so ugly, we must take on the project of aesthetic critique. Aesthetically, occupation takes the form of walls, borders, and checkpoints. It is the despair that infects relationships. And it is the objectified flesh of suicide bombers.
Palestinian suicide bombings were most prevalent during the period known as the Second Intifada. Precise dates are disputed and perhaps unimportant, but the Second Intifada lasted roughly from September 2000, when former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Ariel Sharon made a provocative and aggressive visit to Temple Mount in Old City Jerusalem, to February 2005, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then Prime Minister Sharon agreed to the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit agreement, which promised an end to Israeli military activity against Palestinians. Between 2000 and 2005, there were 241 suicide attacks done by Palestinians. By way of comparison, between 1980 and 2005, there were twenty-three attacks. Since 2005, there have been seven. Since 2008, there has been only one: in 2015, a Palestinian woman exploded a bomb in her car after she was stopped by Israeli traffic police on her way to Jerusalem. She was the only fatality.
Despite the fact that suicide bombing is no longer the predominant tool of resistance—which is always the same as saying that it is no longer the predominant means of occupation—the sheer and deep ugliness of this particular act demonstrates, in a marked and moving way, the terror of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The ugliness of the act compels us to look. But if we glance too quickly, we might see the suicide bombings as a chance to apologize for occupation: these people kill the innocent; they must be occupied. So, true to the spirit of immanent criticism, we will overcome this apologetic claim by going through it. If suicide bombing is held as the grounds of occupation, then these grounds should be shaken.
To date, the most thorough and convincing theological discussion of Palestinian suicide bombing is Naim Ateek’s 2002 essay “Suicide Bombers: What Is Theologically and Morally Wrong with Suicide Bombing?” The essay is a careful and nuanced “attempt to understand but not justify” suicide bombing. Ateek argues that suicide bombing is, incontrovertibly, a response to occupation. With characteristic directness, he captures the gravity of this situation:
When healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguished cry for justice. These young people deserve to live along with all those whom they have caused to die.
Continuing along moral lines, now laced with a more overtly theological bent, Ateek notes that suicide bombings are done from a place of total despair. This category of despair, for Ateek, is essential for any understanding of suicide bombing. The story of one suicide bomber, Abdel Odeh, is taken as demonstrative:
Odeh was prevented by the Israeli authorities from crossing into Jordan to get married to his fiancée from Baghdad. The Israeli Shin Bet (security intelligence) kept sending after him. He refused to go because he suspected, as often happens, that they would blackmail and pressure him into becoming an informer. He was twenty-five years old, ready to get married, start a family, settle in Jordan, and enjoy life. When everything was shut in his face and his future plans were shattered by the Israeli army, he turned to suicide bombing. His father attributed his son’s action to humiliation and a broken heart. His family first heard about the bombing from the television. Such stories abound in the Palestinian community.
Odeh’s story and others like it show the ways in which Palestinian subjectivity is constructed to be despairing. The occupation creates an environment where despair is the norm—the occupied do not despair for something, but they are constructed as despairing, as dehumanized.
A despairing life, especially one under occupation, makes one capable of things unimaginable to those of us who live more comfortably. This is not to say that the conditions in Palestine are so horrid that suicide is the only option. No, far from it. Rather, the occupation is so brutal and it employs aesthetics in such a perverse way that suicide bombing becomes an imaginable act. Occupation sets the conditions for its own violent resistance. As Ateek has demonstrated, this violence is the result of despair, which is itself the result of the material and relational—that is, the aesthetic—instantiations of occupation. These material instantiations of occupation, such as checkpoints and Israeli-operated prisons, affect Palestinian relationality in destructive ways: they make the family unstable, alienate the worker, and establish a hierarchy in which the most stable relationships are between the occupied and the occupier. Put differently, occupation makes matter and relationships ugly things. Aesthetics is used as a tool of occupation, so a theological response to occupation must have at its disposal tools capable of critiquing constructions of beauty and ugliness.
Critical Theological Aesthetics
By speaking of beauty and ugliness, I am not primarily interested in what beauty is. Rather, I am interested in what beauty—as construct, category, signifier—does. Concern for what beauty does is what makes a theological aesthetics properly critical because it critiques particular deployments and constructions of beauty, and it does so with an eye toward liberation and justice. And it is in this respect that Theodor Adorno’s critical aesthetics offers a compelling and theologically provocative way forward. For Adorno, the fundamental aesthetic act is renunciation. Beauty is that which renounces the ugly.
Adorno notes that the ugly is intimately bound up with suffering: “The aesthetic condemnation of the ugly is dependent on the inclination, verified by social psychology, to equate, justly, the ugly with the expression of suffering and, by projecting it, to despise it.” Ugliness as suffering seems to make good phenomenological sense, but phenomenology is not what Adorno is doing. By identifying ugliness with suffering he is not making a claim as to some essence of ugliness. Rather, Adorno is arguing that the category of ugliness is employed in such a way as to aesthetically value suffering. What counts as suffering is mediated aesthetically. That is, suffering is deemed ugly when one wants to be rid of it. At the same time, the oppressed, those who suffer under oppression, are deemed ugly by virtue of the fact that they have been renounced by their oppressors.
We must recognize that Adorno is here simpatico with Ateek: “If Israel labels (suicide bombers) as terrorists, they are, after all, the product of its own making.” Nobody is born a suicide bomber. Instead, barriers, checkpoints, and squalid conditions all yell out, as it were, You, you are a terrorist! Occupation occupies Palestinian matter and relationships—it renounces them and thus makes them ugly.
There is an inherent relationship between aesthetics and politics. Or rather, there is an aesthetic mediation of the political. Relationships of power—those relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor—give themselves in aesthetic forms. It is not just that politics constructs notions of the beautiful; in such a schema, aesthetics would be reducible to the political. Rather, aesthetics is political because it names suffering as ugly, and so as undesirable. But this undesirability can be read in different ways. For the oppressor, the goal is clear: We are to treat the ugly as really ugly. We are to ignore them, accept their dehumanized form, and perhaps even blame their ugliness for causing this neglect—if you weren’t so vile, I would offer to help. But from the standpoint of the Christian tradition, the ultimate aesthetic act is God’s becoming flesh. In taking up flesh, God takes up a space and a body in our shared aesthetic history. God becomes a human person who can be perceived and who can perceive with us. Because God became incarnate—and so made and affirmed the beauty of humanity—we must renounce all oppressive attempts of naming people, especially suffering people, as ugly. In this way, the fundamental theological aesthetic act is the renunciation of oppression.
God’s aesthetic call, the call of beauty, is never merely to admire God’s beauty, but it is also to perceive and do beauty as Christ did. As the “light of the human race” (John 1:4 NABRE), Christ illumines not only divine truth but also flesh itself. In this way, the incarnation is a radical materialization of beauty. Beauty cannot be merely transcendent because absolute beauty, Christ himself, was made of matter; Christ ate with us, walked with us, and gazed with us. By doing miracles here in the flesh—miracles that were, by the way, concerned with physical well-being, with feeding and healing—Jesus brought beauty here, to the flesh. Hence, Christ unsettles the old and worn distinction between “divine” and “worldly” or “supernatural” and “natural” beauty. Theologically, we can speak plainly of beauty and ugliness. The incarnation encourages us to speak of participating and renouncing, in the flesh, in the material world, with Christ. Thus, the kingdom of heaven, understood as the way and life revealed by Christ’s life that is both already here and not-yet-here, is not only a spiritual one. In order to truly partake in the building of the kingdom, we must constantly negate instances of ugly materiality.
The institution of the checkpoint, which is just one instance of occupation, does not partake in the building of such a kingdom. It partakes in creating a materially ugly world: there are no checkpoints in heaven; divinized flesh ought not be subjected to checkpoints. The ugliness of checkpoints refers not so much to the architecture of the checkpoints—although they are daunting and dim—but to the fact that checkpoints and barriers, contribute to the notion that matter itself is oppressive. The depth of the ugliness of a checkpoint can best be seen when contrasted with a home, a place of protection and love. G. W. F. Hegel’s famous meditation on home construction shows this ugliness. The home, Hegel teaches, is built using the laws of nature and the stuff of nature in order to restrain nature:
So also when someone starts building a house, his decision to do so is freely made. But all the elements must help. And yet the house is being built to protect man against the elements. Hence the elements are here used against themselves. But the general law of nature is not disturbed thereby. . . . The result is that the wind, which has helped to build the house, is shut out by the house; so also are the violence of rains and floods and the destructive powers of fire, so far as the house is made fire-proof. The stones and beams obey the law of gravity and press downwards so that the high walls are held up. Thus the elements are made use of in accordance with their nature and cooperate for a product by which they become constrained.
And so a home is an exercise in cooperation between a builder and nature. Nature is cooperative, and matter is protective. To some extent, matter is even sacrificial: matter undermines itself, keeps itself out, in order to protect the builder and the home-dweller.
But this is not the relationship between matter and a checkpoint. In a checkpoint, matter is used not to protect but to keep out. The checkpoint forces the Palestinian to submit to the will of the Israeli. Here, at the checkpoint, the aesthetics are that of the butcher’s corral: dehumanized bodies are pushed this way, flopped that way, stripped over here, tossed over there. The checkpoint, as Ateek notes, is “clearly a policy that strips people of their self worth and dignity.” But the checkpoint is not just a policy; it is also a place and a site built of matter. And, as Ateek also notes, it is a site that is often “arbitrarily mounted at whim.” In this way, the checkpoint is a site of construction—quite literally, with gates and walls and fences and blocks and turrets—that dehumanizes human beings. Matter, allied with occupation, is dehumanizing. Matter turns a complex human into simple matter. It is thus no mystery that the suicide bomber thinks of himself as a that instead of a who. Those on the ugly side of the checkpoint see the matter of nature used to aid in their oppression and occupation. Their occupation depends on material stuff. Matter is oppressive.
A critical theological aesthetics renounces this perspective, and the dehumanizing structures that foster this perspective, by way of a double liberation. First, matter itself is liberated. Matter ought not be thought of as oppressive because God both created and became matter, and God is not oppressor. Second, those who suffer checkpoints must be liberated, and a constituent element of this liberation is the transfiguration of their world. If the matter that surrounds the occupied remains oppressive, then they can never be free.
The failure to liberate those who suffer checkpoints—for example, the Palestinians—has resulted in a terrible fulfillment of the logic of oppressive matter: the apparent oppressiveness of matter finds fulfillment in the reduction of the person to weapon, as suicide bombers use, abuse, and sacrifice their materiality in order to annihilate the materiality of themselves and others. Murder by gun uses matter to kill, but firearms and bullets are not people—they are not flesh. Murder by suicide, though, makes the place and matter that is a human person into a site of destructive resistance. The bomber is converted from person to weapon. The aesthetics of the bomber are irrevocably changed; the body becomes a weapon, changed from whom to that. The suicide bomber does not throw an explosive at the victims. Rather, the suicide bomber becomes the explosive.
And so suicide bombing is a hatred of self and other that treats flesh as inhuman matter. But the suicide bomber is not responsible for this reduction. As Ateek says, “It was in the crucible of the occupation that [suicide bombers] were shaped and formed.” This reduction of human flesh to a dangerous weapon is done by the occupier. It is the occupier who constructs Palestinian identity in such a way that bodies are always already weaponized. Suicide bombing, then, is a response to this occupation of the flesh. Palestinian flesh is made ugly by occupation and made a weapon, a terrorist, by the checkpoint.
Ateek says that there is “hardly any Palestinian family in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that has not experienced some kind of pain or injury.” The statistics agree: There are more than 4.5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. The current population of the Palestinian territories is also, roughly, 4.5 million. A Palestinian today is just as likely to be a refugee as she is to live in Palestine. During the Second Intifada, it is estimated that 4,800 Palestinians were killed. Another 2,000 were killed during the First Intifada, which is known as the peaceful intifada. The 1982 Lebanon War, Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, resulted in up to 20,000 Palestinian deaths. The assaults are so common that Israel calls its intrusions into Gaza “mowing the lawn.” The frequency of violence has made violence the norm. Speaking to this heartbreaking reality, Noam Chomsky notes, “Israel killed, on average, more than two Palestinian children a week for the past 14 years.” On average, including times of “peace” and times of open slaughter, two children are killed a week. To live in Palestine is to live familiarly with death.
These statistics confirm what the fact of suicide bombing already suggests: there is despair. Such a constant threat of death necessarily changes one’s understanding of relationship. A properly theological aesthetics claims that relationality is expansive and promising: Christ is the promise that brings us past the limit of ugliness, and relationship is the promise of hope. In Palestine, though, relationships often bring the promise of more despair.
These relationships of despair are illustrated, literally, in Palestinian street art. Indeed, the aesthetic presence of death is ubiquitous in Gaza. Journalist Eóin Murray describes this presence:
The street art here in Gaza focuses primarily on the human element of loss. On every street corner, in almost every shop (sometimes because they want to, sometimes because of social and political pressure) there are photographs and paintings of the dead, mostly young men but also women and children—people who have been killed by the Israeli army. . . . The street art celebrates the faces of martyrs and largely it is a simple form of painting, almost in pre-renaissance style with little attention paid to perspective or to any sense of a da Vinci-esque homage to human detail. . . . They usurp symbols such as the dove or flowers—showing them as they wither away under the occupation. The collective suffering of the people is emphasized by the huddled crowds which appear on this and other murals. Of course, this is in stark contrast to the immediate sense of the individual one absorbs from the murals of the “martyrs.” These individuals faced their death alone and are celebrated alone, on large murals, or small posters, with a background of flowers and weaponry. Guns ‘n’ Roses.
In paying homage to the martyr, the audience is forming a relationship to death-as-image. Thus, these murals do away with the aesthetic category of promise and, with it, hope. These murals are blunt, as if to say: There is no beauty. Let’s skip the happiness; let’s get to the meat of the matter. This is the limit. This society is unhappy; there is no way out. In occupation, the aesthetic object becomes an image not of beauty but of death itself. The status quo is death, and these murals represent that. And so the viewer’s relationship to the aesthetic image is one of despair, of sameness, and of death.
And so for the Palestinian, relationships to aesthetic objects are not relationships to hopeful beauty but rather the opposite: they are relationships to death. Beauty offers the potential to renounce occupation, to name occupation ugly, but there is no relationship to beauty here. The most stable relationship the occupied has is with the occupier; given the apparent omnipotence of the occupier, this is the only relationship that promises to stay. Instead of participation and beautification, then, this is an aesthetics of sameness. Hope and beauty are themselves renounced. It is thus no mystery that the Palestinian suicide bomber offers death to the Israeli, for it is death that the Israeli offers to the Palestinian suicide bomber.
On to Beautifying
For Ateek, suicide bombing must be condemned because it disregards the value of life. But this disregard works from both ends: the Israeli disregards the Palestinian, and the Palestinian bomber disregards the Israeli. Therefore, we can say that suicide bombing must be condemned because it is both a construction and a promulgation of ugliness: the Israeli creates ugly matter and relationships, and the Palestinian bomber affirms the ugliness of these things through suicide bombing. There is no promise, no hope, and thus no beauty. We seem trapped. How can beauty promise change where ugliness begets itself?
Yet, Ateek, at least in 2002, in a time of increased violence, remains hopeful:
All peace-loving people, whether people of faith or not, must exert greater concerted effort to work for the ending of the occupation. Ultimately, justice will prevail, the occupation will be over, and the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, will enjoy freedom and independence. How do I know that this will take place? I know because I believe in God.
Despite Chomsky’s dire concern, and despite the horror and heartbreak of Israel’s most recent episode of “mowing the lawn,” there may be reason to share Ateek’s hope. If Ateek is right that suicide bombing is a result of despair, then the decreased frequency of suicide attacks may be a sign of hope among the Palestinians. If my analysis is right that suicide bombing is a reduction of Palestinian flesh to a weapon and an acceptance of the finitude of relationships, then the decreased frequency of attacks may be a sign of the return of the flesh and a righting of relationships—a sort of return of the repressed. The cause of this return can only be speculated—perhaps greater international solidarity, especially from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, has reclaimed the category of relationship. Or perhaps the Israeli Left, which is offering a domestic challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown that occupation need not be infinite. More radically, perhaps occupation itself is instable, and ultimately the beauty of relationships and matter cannot be totally reduced. Indeed, Adorno seemed open to such a notion.
Of course, Israelis disagree that there is any such return. Their explanation for the decrease in bombings is more practical: the Netanyahu regime and the Israel lobby have credited the construction of security fences with deterring bombers. But this claim does not hold up to scrutiny: there has still been violence. Indeed, there has been talk of a third intifada, the “Knife Intifada” or “Lone Wolf Intifada.” No, violence has not stopped; violence has changed. Would-be suicide bombers now kill with a knife instead of with their bodies. This is deplorable, but it is different. Without valorizing these knife attacks, we can say, “Thankfully, we no longer see suicide bombings in Palestine or Israel.”
We hope that these bombings do not return. We also hope that their absence is a sign of diminishing despair, a sign of hope and beauty. Perhaps there are no longer suicide bombers because there are no longer Palestinians who have internalized the dehumanization dished out by the programs of Israeli occupation. That is, perhaps suicide bombing and the oppressive structures that have created it are being renounced.
To conclude, I turn to a text that has inspired the argument from the beginning, if only in unstated terms. The prologue to the Gospel of John shows that Christ’s divine renunciation, the theological aesthetic moment par excellence, has unexpected contours. Eventually, we see, renunciation itself is beautified:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–5, 14)
In order to do beauty, Christ subjects himself to the ugliness of the world. Christ did not come only as flesh, but as poor flesh, ugly flesh. He came as occupied Palestinian flesh. The ultimate beauty of Christ is found in his ability to see the darkness through to its end. Because Christ did not accept the darkness of his oppressors, we can now hope that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We need not be suicide bombers—but as I have argued, this is the same as saying, we need not accept occupation. The darkness of occupation is an ugliness that begets itself. In this sense, all occupation is anti-Christ. Our choice, then, is quite clear: renounce Christ by endorsing the occupation he came to overturn or renounce with Christ by renouncing the ugliness, by healing the suffering, and by beautifying the desecration that we have allowed.