Minister: Find your ‘Bethlehem,’ ‘wage peace’ at Christmas
By the Rev. Alan Rudnick
As millions of Christians around the world sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this Advent and Christmas, many will think of Joseph and Mary journeying to a peaceful, Hallmark-cardesque small town. As I experienced firsthand, the Bethlehem of today is far from peaceful.
Six years ago during Advent, I journeyed with a group of fellow American Baptists and a group from the Church of the Brethren on a goodwill, peace and perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, which was organized by the Telos Group.
When entering Bethlehem, one is greeted by a Cold War-style military wall replete with lookout towers, rusted fortifications, armed soldiers and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was about 12 feet high, but the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem is 25 feet high. To the Israeli government, it’s not a wall but a barrier to protect against suicide bombers and attacks. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the terrorist organizations that operate in the West Bank are equal to the average Palestinian. You might be surprised to learn that not all Palestinians are Muslim. They are of Christian and other faiths.
Along the wall in Bethlehem are stories and artwork that depict how the wall has impacted people in the area. The stories are testimonies of death, oppression, injustice, rape, injury and violence associated with the wall, checkpoints and military security. People in Bethlehem are treated as criminals. They have no access to public water. They have little civil rights in Israel and are restricted in travel. As I read the stories, I started to tear up. There are stories of pain, separation and oppression in Bethlehem — the birthplace of our Savior.
At a checkpoint, I learned firsthand the fear and harassment of which people in Bethlehem must deal. Our small bus was boarded by four Israel Defense Forces soldiers. We were asked the nature of our visit from Palestinian-controlled land into Jerusalem. They asked for our passports. Our bus driver and guides explained that we were Americans on a Christian pilgrimage.
As the soldiers pointed their loaded M-16s in our faces, one announced that all the men would have to come with them to be questioned. Our guides were stunned. In all their years of traveling with American groups, such a thing had never happened. As the driver and soldiers discussed our entry, we sat waiting to hear what was going to happen next. It was an extremely tense situation. Thankfully, the lead soldier discovered that our driver had family in the soldier’s hometown, and the two continued to talk. The outranking soldier released us without detention.
The Israeli government is understandably concerned with security. Between rocket attacks, shootings, bus bombings and other mass casualty attacks, the country has a duty to protect. Certainly, there are enough instances of Palestinian aggression and violence. The unfortunate reality is that some Israeli protection policies fall within a gray area. Because of years of persecution, most Christians have left Palestinian towns like Bethlehem for better economic opportunities and basic freedoms.
For some, to object to the treatment of displaced peoples in and around Bethlehem is to object to Israel. To question any policy of the Israeli government can be seen as anti-Israel or even anti-Christian. Americans question American government policies every day, but that does not make someone automatically anti-American.
It is easy to treat this Middle East challenge as a binary issue, but it is not. For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a third way is possible. Pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace solutions can co-exist. However, it is hard work to find a third way. It is easier to draw lines and pick between two options. The more we draw lines, the more we separate ourselves from our neighbor. Many talk about peace, but few understand what it takes. It’s easy to speak or pray for peace, but if one truly wants to achieve peace, one must “wage peace.”
Just south of Bethlehem, I met an individual who chooses to wage peace. I visited the Tent of Nations, a farm that brings people together to live and work on disputed land. Born-again Christian Daoud Nassar is owner of the disputed land for which his grandfather obtained deeds from the Ottomans, British and then the Israelis. However, the current Israeli government is trying to prove that the land is public. Nassar says that the Israeli government and military harass his family on a monthly basis. Israeli settlers cut 800 of his olive trees, the government destroyed his farm and the military blocks his private roads.
At a time when many Christians are fleeing such places as Bethlehem, Nassar chooses to stay. He fights back — not with rocks, guns or violence but by allowing thousands to visit his farm and to hear his story. Nassar does not want war; he simply wants to live peaceably. He refuses to be enemies with the Israeli government. He wages peace by building relationships and reaching out to the Israeli government and the local community.
The story of Christmas that happened in that little town of Bethlehem is the story of God waging peace with the world. Making peace is not easy business. The message of Christmas is this: Christ was born to all the world for the redemption of the world. However, as Christians, we often believe that peace is to be prayed for yet never achieved.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus was specific. Christians cannot sit on our hands in a world of injustice. We must wage peace. Just as war is waged, peace must be waged. Praying for peace is one thing, but waging peace is another. Peace must be waged on a daily basis.
Bethlehem and its problems are thousands of miles away, but you must find your “Bethlehem” — your own place where peace-waging is needed. Act and wage peace in your part of the world. Be the redemptive presence of Christ that is proclaimed in the Christmas story of Jesus.
Do not let this season of Advent and Christmas go by with only prayers of peace. Be the peace. Wage peace in your community. Refuse to be enemies with others. Be the presence of Jesus Christ that transforms people and communities.
The Rev. Alan Rudnick is executive minister at DeWitt Community Church, Syracuse, N.Y., and a Doctor of Theology student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He blogs at www.alanrudnick.org.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.