Manger Square in Bethlehem 2012
After the unrest in the Holy Land as of late, it was heart-warming to hear the good news reported by the New York Daily News: “Thousands of pilgrims and Palestinians converged on Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the first Christmas in this West Bank city since the U.N. vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member state.The celebrations capped a boom year for the city of Jesus’ birth, with a record two million tourists in 2012 helping an impressive economic revival.”
I dare say the importance of this news (and that picture above) makes little sense to many Christians anyway. We Christians like to romanticize the little town of Bethlehem, as though it somehow belongs to us. We sweetly sing our caroling song about it, our faces aglow, basking in the candlelight. How still we-e see thee lie. Well, that’s a lie. (Somehow we forget that Jesus wasn’t exactly welcomed in that restless place with open arms – he was only welcomed by a mangy manger.) Commerce hasn’t come through there, either, like it used to (mostly due to an ugly Apartheid wall that blocks it and is responsible for blocking the harvesting of many age-old olive trees now destroyed or inaccessible), and hearts are still restless there – so “pilgrims flocking” – and buying – is good news of great joy to the people of ‘O Little Town.’
Going to Israel’s West Bank has made one of the greatest life impacts on me, putting many things in perspective for me, while also knocking many of my perspectives off-axis. That’s why it was important to go there.
The very night I first arrived in Jericho in January 2006, Hamas was elected into power. There was immediate unrest, with gunfire celebrations going all through the night, as Islamic Palestinians anticipated release from Israeli authority (while Americans – a.k.a. Christians there, regardless of religious affiliation – had enough sense to remain in their hotel rooms). It’s interesting being over there as an American. Politics & religion become one in the same – don’t bother trying to explain our principle of separation of Church & State; you’re wasting your breath. So if you’re an American without obvious Islamic ties or without Jewish transfer as an Israeli soldier, you’re classified as Christian – no exceptions (which I am Christian, but coming from America, I had to come to understand this particular paradigm). And if you’re an atheistic American, I guess you’ve just become a secular Christian. Yeah, well, academic arguments don’t really matter. Life stinks out for you, huh?
I had just come from Ammon, Jordan, where I’d seen the Palestinian refugee camps and had begun to understand the true extent of potential hatred between the Israeli & Palestinian people because of decades of displacement (and how U.S. Christians are viewed in the turmoil with a Zionist worldview). Nerves were a little on edge in Israel, anyway, as Prime Minister Sharon had suffered two strokes (which had resulted in his vegetative state). It seemed the Hamas must have been surprised to have come into power (certainly unprepared, as were America & Israel about it) because it took them several days to effectively organize and begin disseminating ‘power’ statements. By the time all that had occurred, I had made my way into Bethlehem.
The “Apartheid” wall that encloses Bethlehem
(Note the sign on the wall when leaving Jerusalem to go into Bethlehem. It reads, “Peace be with you.”)
The wired fences, the walled Apartheid barricade, the armed soldiers, the long wait during passport inspection at the ‘you are leaving Jerusalem & we’re not sure if we’ll let you back in’ checkpoint – all matched well with the ominous gray sky the first day we entered Bethlehem. No sooner did we get off our bus and begin walking to Jesus’ supposed birth site than I began to realize the desperation of the Palestinian people there. Tourism and commerce were down significantly (I was told to less than one-third of what they had been), with great limitations on supplies that could come into the city. Residents didn’t necessarily have the means to get out of the walled-in city to sustain themselves either. We were swarmed upon several times by people desperate to make sales with very little to actually sell (even though, honestly, I’m not much of a shopper anyway, avidly avoiding Black Friday & Walmart like the plague). I accidentally offended one man by backing away and holding up my hand, trying to make the point I wasn’t interested in being crowded any further. (Well, it always works as a good signal to those upstanding people trying to sell you stolen goods at U.S. gas pumps. You must understand that I’m also the person who will ask to be excused from the no-longer-has-met-its-weight-limit-elevator as people keep trying to push me towards the back to suffocate me.) This fellow was persistent in sharing my personal space, as he boldly pursued me, yelling at me that he, too, was a Christian and that I was not “the Mrs. of the World” (which was a little heart-breaking that he hadn’t recognized me without my sash and crown). Desperation creates frustration; frustration causes tempers to easily flare. As disconcerting as this experience was, my heart did hurt for him and the others, one of whom actually was successful in picking another woman’s pocketbook in our party that day, passport and all.
I don’t believe we traveled too many more steps down the road before the speakers on top of the mosques began to blare. I had become accustomed to chants coming from them often, but this time seemed different. Apparently, Hamas had begun to make some decisions, and at least one was relayed to us. Did it come from the very loud-speakers? I can’t recall. Did the words first come in Arabic and then were translated from the speakers? Or were we simply thereafter informed of their meaning? Regardless of the details I’ve failed to remember, I do quite clearly recall the gist of the message we received as we stood out on that street: “Hamas is now in power. Bethlehem is an Islamic state. Christian women will cover their heads” (hijab – yep, I got that part of the announcement).
Now, I’m all for honoring customs and traditions. (Nobody wears green to keep from being pinched better than me on St. Patrick’s Day. Admittedly, I don’t go out of my way to find black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s; but when my sister says we have to eat them, I hold my nose and play along – even when I can’t recall the point). Seriously, I have no problem with head coverings when they’re called for. I had already taken one with me to the Wailing Wall in Old Jerusalem, and I didn’t even make a stink about having to go to the “girl’s side.” I understood the expectation. Had I known a head covering was going to be a requirement in Bethlehem that day – a town composed of both Islamic and Christian Palestinians – I’m sure I could’ve brought one along. It was the ‘immediacy’ of the matter -without any pre-designed rule book or warning – that kinda’ got my hijab in a wad that day. (That, and this, if you want more info about why the ruling wasn’t really ‘kosher.’)
When you’re one of less than a handful of American women with uncovered light-colored hair and skin walking down the streets of an agitated town in the middle of the day, you don’t have to wonder if you’ve just become a magnet for creating a potential offense! (Especially when there are women fully covered with a niqab or burqa who you realize are now only giving you uncomfortable side glances, as they quickly shuffle away in a direction quite obviously opposite from your own.) Obviously, the impracticality of not being forewarned of the possibility of immediate governmental law changes does not necessarily negate the severity of the perceived offense.
So, you see, had I but only known the wonderfully gracious and giving TravelingMarla back then – my blogging friend, Marla, who just recently sent me a lovely green forever-scarf as a gift for playing along in her writing challenge… (I would like to say it was because I won it for being such a profoundly gifted writer; but then I’d be creating a new offense by not simply saying she is a fun and generous gal!)…I could’ve easily pocketed that little green scarf and pulled it out quicker than a redneck Muslim could say “Hee-yawb.” (That’s some bad American Christian cowgirl humor for ya’, since all Americans notoriously are western cowpokes, too.)
Thank you, Marla, for my forever-lovely forever-scarf!
For the record, this isn’t the ending story of my Bethlehem visits – there’s a really good one in there that ends in prayer in an upper room. But I’m saving that one for another day. For now, there’s one more thing I have to say because there’s a small likelihood I haven’t offended enough religious (or non-religious, as the case may be) affiliations yet. I came back to the states and later went to see a family Christian production in the movie theaters. It began with a commercial from Evangelical Christians, essentially stating (as fact) that “all” Palestinian children were sent to camps to learn to make bombs. (It was a nasty little hate message, in case you didn’t get that.) It was the same sort of hate message that was keeping the residents of Bethlehem from being able to get any commerce or supplies into their town to survive. As a Christian, I felt more horrified over that commercial than I had during my own uncovered-head-day-in-Bethlehem excursion. I wished I’d had a hijab with me at that moment, along with a dark niqab to cover my reddened face.
News flash to those of you calling yourselves Christians while persecuting Palestinians: Somebody’s been leaving out some pertinent information while filtering their agendas to you. A reality check will reveal that, even if you care about no others outside of ‘your own,’ there are Palestinian Christians who remain just as displaced in both homeland and affiliation in the Middle East as any other Palestinian. Because they are neither Islamic nor Jewish, these governments tell them to go to America (because we all know that is where Christians reside, of course. Yep, lots of secular Christians.) While in Bethlehem, I witnessed Christians and Muslims living and socializing peacefully together as individuals (well, commiserating over their woes), rather than acting out separately like governmental entities of this region. So are we truly, as proclaiming Christians, going to persecute our Palestinian brothers and sisters with lies such as those being promulgated in that movie theater commercial? Are you truly willing to be the means of persecuting anyone, according to religion or beliefs, based on picked-up propaganda perspectives? I, for one, did not appreciate it – so much so that it makes me think long and hard before I take any political stances – especially those that might cost people their lives.
I found out, first-hand — Persecution Stinks. But what gets me most is that Jesus came into the world knowing his arrival would mean persecution – persecution to the point of eventually giving up his very life. He even found out how un-welcomed he’d be from the very beginning – right there in Bethlehem, when there was no room anywhere but with the animals down in a musty cave.
But that didn’t stop Him from coming. The Prince of Peace – coming into a restless world. Emmanuel (God with us) – coming not to hoard his power over us with unreasonable rules and restrictions we couldn’t meet or to throw new ones on us to embarrass us and trip us up, but so we could be free of the things that bound us;so His light might shine brightly upon those of us who had been hiding in the darkness.
Perhaps we should revisit that song, O Little Town of Bethlehem – especially that part where it says:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the Everlasting Light
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
We need to uncover that light within us – a light that desires to shine in the darkness for others to witness; not the darkness trying to snuff out the Truth – that God’s light has come into the world.