Bethlehem Still?

December 23, 2011

This weekend as we celebrate Christmas, congregations across the nation will likely join in singing about that "little town of Bethlehem." However, few will likely pause to reflect on conditions in that city today. Fortunately, a couple of Christians in Bethlehem have written pieces about this topic that should cause us to stop and ponder. Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, a Christian, wrote a piece about what might happen if the biblical tale occurred today. Here are is an excerpt:

Our hearts grieve for what our city has become, and it pains us to imagine what the birth of our lord Jesus Christ would look like today. Joseph and Mary would be stopped and searched entering Bethlehem or departing on their flight to Egypt. The Magi would run into a huge concrete wall. The shepherds would not be able to graze their sheep; their land would have been confiscated.
Making a similar argument, Alex Awad, a minister in Bethlehem, wrote a piece for Sojourners. Here are a few highlights:
If you are among the people who visit today's Bethlehem, what will you see, hear or feel? As you come near Rachel's Tomb at the entrance to the city, you will be stopped by a checkpoint, a military watchtower, and an 8-meter high wall. The checkpoint is guarded by Israeli soldiers whose job is to welcome internationals to Bethlehem while at the same time keeping Israelis from entering the city or Palestinians from leaving it. ... If Jesus were to be born in Bethlehem today, he would have difficulty crossing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for the same security reasons. Moreover, because of the current political turmoil in Egypt, Mary and Joseph may have to flee to Canada instead. What one quickly learns when visiting Bethlehem is that the political climate today is quite similar to the one that was prevailing during the time of Jesus. One exception is that the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem today are being occupied by those who consider themselves the offspring or cultural descendants of Jews who were under the yoke of Roman occupation in the first century.
Both writers draw connections between the political issues today and those on that first Christmas. Jesus was born into a dark and troubled world. It was not a time of peace and joy. It seems that Bethlehem still is in that state. A former professor of mine, Rodney Reeves, wrote on his blog recently that we gloss over parts of the Christmas tale that would make for a scary Christmas pageant (and he hilariously describes one possible scene to add to next year's Christmas play at church). If we forget the context of the birth of Jesus, we might not capture the full importance of his ministry or make proper connections to problems today. As Stephen Holmes, who teaches theology at the University of St Andrews (in Scotland), detailed in a recent report, the biblical Christmas story is a highly political one but since the Victorian era we have transformed the holiday into a story focused on personal charity and family time. He concluded:
Nativity plays and carol services are not - or should not be - safe, comfortable, 'feel-good' moments through which we escape from reality, but rather occasions of truth and hope, where the faithfulness of God breaks through into the ordinary, where we are invited to consider how God intervenes in the business of politics.
Some interesting points to ponder as we consider the reason for the season.