On Christmas Eve, worshippers, both pilgrims from abroad and local Palestinian Christians, had to pass through checkpoints on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, manned by rude, trigger-happy teenage Israeli soldiers. Some were barred entrance and turned back. Entering Manger Square, where several choirs from around the world were to sing Christmas music to be broadcast worldwide, we were subjected to frisking, metal detectors, and body searches. Israeli soldiers mingled with the crowd and stood on rooftops ringing the square, Uzis at the ready. A mood of apprehension, fear, and suspicion trumped the joy, peace and love one would expect at this season.
Earlier, I had visited a Palestinian Christian village in the West Bank that featured a home very much like one in Jesus’ time. Cows and sheep were housed under the same roof as the family — reminiscent of the time when a baby was born in a stable to a peasant family forced to journey through the winter rains by an imperial edict requiring tax registration. Midway on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, archaeologists were excavating the site of a fourth century Byzantine church, built on the traditional site where Mary and Joseph had paused to rest before continuing on, only to find “no room in the inn.” (Excavations complete, the site has since been covered over.)
More recently, the Israelis have erected a huge, forbidding 16-foot wall with armed checkpoints (euphemistically called a “security fence”), separating Palestinians from their farmland, schools, jobs, relatives, medical care, and places of worship. Our Palestinian friends tell us this really puts them in a large prison, with their movements strictly monitored and controlled.
Too many pilgrims go to this “holy land” only to see the “places where Jesus walked,” and are led by Israeli guides who shield them from meeting the “living stones” — Palestinian Christians whose ancestors were the contemporaries of Jesus who became the first Christians. Many of their villages were demolished by the Israeli military. The homes that survived are now occupied by Jewish immigrants, while their original Palestinian owners still hold the keys, hoping one day to return and claim their rightful property.
Later, I returned to teach a semester at Bethlehem Bible College, where my students were young Palestinian Christians preparing for ministry with their people. One, Ala’e, was from a Muslim family who had accepted Christ as Savior, attended the Nazarene Church in East Jerusalem, and was trying to remain a faithful member of both faith communities. Another, Gabriel, was a talented musician, who had decided not to pursue further education because he “saw no future” for himself there. A third, Jusuf, one day asked me point-blank in class, “Must we forgive our enemies?” A classmate later explained that, as a boy of seven, he had seen his father dragged from their home by Israeli soldiers and shot dead before his eyes.
And then there was Tony Nassar (later married to classmate Nisreen), who took me several times to the farm seven miles south of Bethlehem owned by him and his two brothers — devoted members of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Their farm was surrounded on all four sides by Israeli settlements. Each time I went I saw where more of their land had been confiscated by the settlers. They had shot his horse and blocked the access road to the farm with huge boulders so that the Nassars had to go several miles out of the way to reach their land. Their olive trees, some centuries old, had been uprooted by Caterpillar bulldozers. Holding deeds and tax receipts from Ottoman, British, and Jordanian governments, they had proof of their ownership, so had already spent thousands of dollars in legal fees and court costs to defend their land and were determined to hold onto it.
One of the Bible College faculty, Salim Munayer, conducts a ministry called “Muslahala,” which brings together Palestinian Christians with Messianic Jews (who do not identify as Christian but accept Jesus as Messiah and Saviour) to hear each other’s stories, get to know each other as human beings and fellow believers, gradually overcome their mutual fears and suspicions, and build the kind of relationships that are the only sure basis of a lasting peace in that troubled land.
A growing number of Jews in this country, such as the young people in Jewish Voice for Peace, have lived with Palestinian families in the West Bank, suffered with them the same indignities and persecutions at the hands of Israeli settlers and military, and returned home to tell their synagogues that what they have seen there “violates the Jewish values with which we were raised.” They are joining with growing numbers of Christians in a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against U.S. corporations like Caterpillar, Motorola, and Northrop Grumman that contribute to the illegal occupation, and products and services originating in the occupied West Bank — like Veolia (bottled water) and SodaStream (home carbonization machines) — similar to the worldwide campaign waged in Nelson Mandela’s time against the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa.
Of course, violence originates from both sides in the turbulent Middle East, so that, in this Christmas season, it is sometimes difficult, above the din, to hear the angels sing “peace on earth, good will to all.” But if we wish genuinely and effectively to contribute to peace with justice there, we will listen openly and fairly to all sides; seek to meet, get to know, and hear the stories of Palestinian Christians, the “living stones” (and their Muslim friends and neighbors); let our expenditures be guided by BDS principles; reject both anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitism (while at the same time opposing the unjust policies and practices of the Israeli government and settlers), and live in the spirit of this verse from the carol, “O Holy Night”:
“Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.”