I bet nearly everyone reading this blog has heard this Christmas staple in the past few weeks. I wonder how you responded to it? Does it jar, inspire or are you numbed by familiarity? Does it occur to you that Bethlehem is a real place, a place in the midst of conflict, the home to thousands of people who share your dreams, your hopes and your passions.
If you have spent any time at all there, you will know it’s rarely still. Traffic is a major problem for the city’s residents as they are unable to build by-passes, tunnels or flyovers and the roads in the town are choked and congested. The Church of the Nativity often looks like a traffic jam too – as tourists stand nose to tail in hour long queues to visit the grotto. There are sounds of life too – busy markets, children in schools, coffee shop chatter and the buzz of friendships gathered round sheesha pipes in the bars and restaurants across the city.
Sometimes there are other noises in the night, the noises of tanks rumbling into refugee camps, shouting as an arrest is made, the heart-stopping sound of weaponry which might be followed moments later by the haunting call to prayer that wends its way over the hills and valleys of this holy place.
When I first visited the Holy Lands I felt as if I had woken up in the land of Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. Walking past a signpost that simply says Sion on it makes me shake my head in disbelief – the concrete reality of biblical mythology is a faith transforming phenomena for many. But I no longer visit these lands to walk in Jesus’s footsteps – I now visit to walk with people who live as Jesus lived.
Back home in Birmingham much of my work revolves around interfaith social action and it is often cited that the ‘Golden Rule’ is found in all the world’s major religions – the rule to love your neighbour as yourself.
But in the Holy Lands of Israel-Palestine so many people I meet have gone beyond this baseline and challenged themselves to love their enemy – in the midst of conflict, fear, oppression and injustice.
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze and people of no explicit faith have followed their calling and allowed themselves to be broken open to love the other in small ways and large ways. Some Palestinians can’t meet people who live in Israel, but they work to prevent the spread of violence and despair by empowering women, giving young people ways to articulate their pain or by investing in training and development for those trapped in poverty.
Jewish people and Palestinians together run programmes to help both peoples confront and heal trauma, bereaved parents meet across borders to seek comfort, solace and reconciliation in their loss and former soldiers join forces to wage peace.
Living in an occupied land is not easy. Water is rationed, this month there have been power cuts across the West Bank, movement is limited, violence can and does flare up; everyday there are many injustices and restrictions to navigate.
But so many people refuse to hate, they refuse to teach their children to hate and their lives speak instead of compassion, hospitality and generosity.
These people are human and sometimes I do hear a complaint – not aimed at the Israelis, or their own Government, or at Donald Trump but at us, the Church and particularly the church in the West.
Why have we forgotten the Palestinians? Why are we not in solidarity? Why do so many Christians support the Occupation and ignore the presence of Christians in the Holy Lands. One Christian leader suggested it was because we in the West have hardly any concept of Kingdom and thus of kinship. Our faith has become reduced to a ticket to the Good Place, our discipleship to a matter of personal morality and convention.
Perhaps another reason is our guilt. The Christian roots of anti-Semitism and our collusion with the holocaust is truly shameful part of our history and practice. How many people have recently sang Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending and in particular the words:
‘Those who set at nought and sold him, Pierced and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, shall their true messiah see’?
Are we really longing to bring Jewish people to a place of wailing and do we still want to perpetuate the accusation of deicide that has caused such harm over two thousand years? We cannot deny that our ill treatment of Jewish people over millennia has had deadly consequences and therefore shouldn’t we recognise and support the establishment of a Jewish state as a place of sanctuary?
But I believe this is not a zero-sum game. Being for one thing does not mean being against another. Jesus teaches us that. He loved all who crossed his path, he healed the sick child of an occupying soldier, he bantered at the well with a Samaritan woman and went to tea with a tax collector. But he was still passionate about justice, freedom and kindness.
I have friends in both Israel and Palestine – Christians, Muslims and Jews. I hope there is room for me to be passionate about equal rights for everyone in the land. I hope there is space to grieve at the pain of generations slaughtered by Nazi ideology and to hear the hurt of a Palestinian family who lost their home, livelihood and father in the Nakba of 1948.
I don’t go to the Holy Lands to ‘do’ anything special. There are enough peace-making experts, theologians and reconcilers there already. I go to listen and learn. I take others to listen and learn. I go because the people there have become my friends and I want to be in solidarity with them as they live lives that speak of Jesus. I go too to learn how I might live here, as we become aware of the fragmented and fissured nature of our society. Who needs to be heard? Who needs to grieve? Who is living like Christ with a heart broken open with love for the ‘other’ refusing polarities, binaries and the comfort blankets of self-justification, blame and scapegoating? How do we see what God is doing through ordinary people and join in, in Birmingham, in Bethlehem or wherever God sends us.
If anyone is interested in visiting the Holy Lands please contact me at email@example.com.