To get into Bethlehem our bus needed to negotiate a couple of checkpoints and then drive through a hole/gate/portcullis in an ugly grey wall topped with barbed-wire.
This wall dominates the landscape and likewise dominates the tone of life on the Palestinian side. It's impossible to drive through the wall and then not feel the reach of its shadow.
And the Palestinians - I have to get this out up front - are not, as one confused politician suggested, an "invented" people. The natives of this region have been "Palestinian" for the best part of a century. Fact is, even the Jews who were born in present day Israel before 1948 had the word "Palestine" printed on their birth certificates.
So we headed in to Palestine for two reasons. First, to visit the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of the birth of Jesus. And then to attend a seminar at the Christian College and to encourage the Palestinian Christians, courageous believers who work for hope and peace and who present the Gospel of Love in the middle of chaos and despair.
NATIVITY: Our guide had a good answer when someone asked, "How could we possibly know exactly where Mary and Joseph were the day that Jesus was born?"
Tradition alone, he pointed out, is typically a fairly good indicator when researching historical sites. First off, tradition is not arbitrary, there is usually good reason for multiple centuries of attribution, even if the documentation is long gone. More often than not, archeology ends up affirming or at least adding credibility to tradition.
The Church of the Nativity, he said, is built on more than tradition. A late 1st Century Roman emperor did historians a favor when he built a temple directly over the site the early church recognized as the birthplace of Christ. His purpose was to obliterate the location and strike a blow against the upstart religion, but the result was to leave future researchers a huge, monumental "X" marks the spot! After Rome's decline the temple was removed and the Church of the Nativity erected in its place.
For us, however, the church, its gaudy excess, and the less than Christ-like demeanor of those who control the site (search "You-Tube" for videos of "brawling priests") was more symptomatic of the region's institutionalized angst than it was a spiritual destination. The most worthwhile moment was viewing the cell where St. Jerome (347-420) translated the Bible into the Vulgate.
As we were leaving the church Rebekah - having just been yelled at by a priest for, well, being a woman - fell victim to the uneven paving and sprained her ankle. The fall brought our "family" together in prayer, but we honestly thought Rebekah was done for the remainder of the tour. We pretty-much carried her onto the bus and she had to sit out the balance of the day.
PRAY for PEACE: Anyone influenced by the political rhetoric that infuses much of American Evangelical dogma would have a hard time believing any Jesus-Followers live in Palestine. But bona-fide disciples do live and work here, and we had an interesting visit with the president and vice-president of the Bethlehem Bible College.
- Note: Sunday evening during my small group I explained the difference between "exegesis" (which means allowing scripture to inform our interpretation) and "isogesis" (which involves reading our preconceptions into the text). I then mentioned my concern with the way many Christians in the U.S. try to co-opt the church into conservative political dogma.
- "That," my sharp-as-a-tack friend David Dale observed, "would be Ameri-gesis." Nice one, David.
We listened to many voices during our tour, but the good folk at the Bethlehem Bible College offered a perspective many in the group had never considered before. There is such sadness here; such frustration at the unwillingness of so many in the international community to speak up for an illegally displaced people; such a love for this conflicted land; such faithfulness to Christ's instruction in the way of peace.
They are a voice we simply cannot ignore.
And so we returned to Jerusalem, both more hopeful for Palestine and more fearful for the future of its people. And - as we approached the cold, grey wall - I felt the bus fill with unspoken prayer for the peace of the region, and out of compassion for our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.
Amen - DEREK