17 December 2022
By Nils von Kalm
When we think of the first Christmas more than 2000 years ago, in some ways it wasn’t that much different to Christmas in the Holy Land today.
But if the pregnant Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, were traveling the road to Bethlehem today, they wouldn’t be able to get there. The separation wall dividing Israel and the West Bank would keep them out. They would have to line up, probably for hours, be harassed by Israeli soldiers, and quite possibly have their entry rejected. Like other mothers have, Mary might have even had to give birth at the checkpoint. These have been the realities for many years for Palestinians trying to get through Israeli checkpoints.
In Bethlehem, the separation wall is built with concrete. It is eight metres high (twice the height of the Berlin Wall) with watchtowers and a “buffer zone” for electric fences, trenches, cameras, and military patrols. In other places, the separation wall consists of layers of fencing and razor wire, military patrol roads, sand paths to trace footprints, ditches and surveillance cameras. It is designed to intimidate.
The similarities between the obstacles that Mary and Joseph faced 2000 years ago, and those today, are striking. Bethlehem today is part of an occupied land, with a legal system in place that discriminates between Israelis and Palestinians.
Jesus too was born into an occupied land with brutal oppressors. The land he was born into was occupied by the Romans, who let everyone know that they were in control, and who lined the highways with people being crucified; a strong and stark reminder that if you messed with the might of Rome, this was going to be your fate too.
The Jewish people of 2000 years ago had been waiting centuries for a messiah-figure to liberate them. He was going to come and conquer, overthrowing the Roman overlords and freeing Israel to be able to go about their lives as God’s people once again, and showing who the true God really is.
Jesus however came announcing and demonstrating a radically different kind of messiahship. So, it was no wonder that many of his followers just didn’t understand what he was up to and even if he was the one they should be expecting. Even his cousin, the outspoken John the Baptist, languishing in a Roman prison cell, eventually doubted whether Jesus was the one or if they should expect someone else.
The disciples of Jesus were no different. Simon the Zealot would have enthusiastically joined Jesus’ band of followers believing that this was the time for what Simon’s movement was born for: violent overthrow of the Romans.
Jesus though had a different way. His kingdom was one of reconciliation of people to God and each other. The first – the powerful, the rich and the oppressors – were to be last, and the last – the oppressed, the poor and the outcast – were to be first. And the way he would do it was with love, including love of enemy.
This is still the way that many Palestinians today want to see change. The fact is that the vast majority of both Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land just want peace. It is a very small minority who desire oppression, violence and power over the other. People in the Holy Land are tired of the conflict.
The rule that Jesus brought is one of nonviolence, peacemaking, and justice. And it is done through those who God says are blessed: the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. As the New Testament theologian, NT Wright says, “The whole point of the kingdom of God is Jesus has come to bear witness to the true truth, which is nonviolent. When God wants to take charge of the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the poor and the meek.” Truer words have never been spoken.
This Christmas, as we spend time with loved ones, many Palestinians will be separated from theirs. For them this is a continued time of lament, but also a continued time of hope. They are a remarkably resilient people. It is the hope of the reconciliation and renewal of all things that Christmas is about.
If it wasn’t for God coming to earth and moving into the neighbourhood – as The Message translation puts it – hope would not exist. But it does. May we work and pray for a realisation of that hope in the Holy Land this Christmas.
Nils von Kalm is a member of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network committee. PIEN is a network of Australian Christians and supporters whose mission is to seek lasting peace and justice for the people of Palestine and Israel. They have strong connections to the Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land. To stay up to date with what is unfolding in Israel and Palestine, sign up to their mailing list here.