THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
This summer, Abigail received a scholarship to join a two-week-long Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME) human rights delegation to Israel and Palestine. UUJME’s mission is “to promote peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, including a settlement of the conflict affirming the equality, dignity, freedom and security of all peoples involved.”
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
This past December, I was sitting in a holiday concert by my city’s symphony orchestra. They were playing carols about the little town of Bethlehem, and all the sudden—I realized I had tears rolling down my cheeks.
I was back there again, suddenly, in Bethlehem—seeing the high concrete wall that surrounds three-fourths of the city, pressing my face to the bus window as we passed the graffiti of doves and machine guns and hope as we drove in. Wandering the dark streets at night, lit with Christmas lights even in the middle of summer because it was perpetually the place where Jesus was born, a city distilled in that moment of all the Christmas carols.
I remembered sitting in the Church of the Nativity, right above the grotto where legend has it Mary gave birth. Staring at the bullet holes left in the basilica from the 2002 siege by the Israel Defense Forces, a siege where even the bellringer of the Church was shot by an Israeli sniper. Thinking about how Mary was a young Palestinian woman who had to see her vibrant, intelligent, inspiring son be put to death by the empire. Thinking of the 18-month-old Palestinian baby boy we’d just found out was burned to death by Israeli settlers (his parents both also later died from their burns).
Thinking of how Christmas would never be the same for me.
I used to struggle a bit with Christmas. Raised in the Bible Belt South, in a Christianity that I could never really get on board with, I’m now a Unitarian Universalist who sees Jesus as a great teacher, but no more divine than any of us are. Which meant, when I came home for the holidays with my family, I didn’t love singing all those carols about Christ the Lord, the Savior of the World, the newborn King. It was not really my theology. I was much more along the lines of Unitarian Universalist educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, who writes, “Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.”
I was so focused on the theological claims around the Christ-child in these songs that I forgot the rest. That Bethlehem was a real place—is still a real place—not just a mythical backdrop. That the oft-repeated verses of “peace on earth” are not just idealistic platitudes, but a call to action—by singing them, we reaffirm our goal of peace building.
Bethlehem showed me this. Being there made me realize that all of us who celebrate Christmas have a responsibility to remember and be involved with the situation of Bethlehem now. How many churches around the world—and especially in the United States, where our government provides Israel with $10.2 million in military aid each day—sang those fond carols and held their Christmas pageants and never mentioned the current state of Christians (and the Muslims who also affirm the Virgin Birth story) in the very city of Jesus’ birth? How many Christians mouthed the words “peace on earth” and gave no thought to the violence and injustice that Palestinians suffer in the Holy Land today? How many of them have never read the Kairos Palestine Document, a piece written by Palestinian Christians which connects their Christian faith and sacred texts to a call for peace-building and justice in Israel and Palestine?
I think of something Lutheran pastor Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian activist in Bethlehem, said when I was there: “Bethlehem is the place where the human met the divine.” I think of the lyrics of that carol again: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.”
I think about how, in my Unitarian Universalist theology, we are all places where the human meets the divine. Where the everlasting light shines. Jesus, 2,000 years ago. Ali Dawabshe, that 18-month-old Palestinian baby boy who died in flames in 2015. All the Palestinians I met in refugee camps in the West Bank. The IDF soldiers, barely eighteen, I saw carrying assault rifles through the streets. The Israeli rabbis working for human rights. Me. You.
And how all of us are called to be peace-builders. How the three religions which identify that strip of contested ground in the Middle East as the Holy Land are all called to make peace. The Jews have tikkun olam, the concept of “repairing the world,” which Reform Judaism explains as the “perspective that works towards a time of peace – not just ending war, but a time of prosperity, health and justice for all.” Islam, literally, derives from the Arabic word for peace.
And Christians, after the Christmas trees are taken down and the lights put back in storage until next December, have that age-old refrain: Peace on earth.
It is not meant to be put away, with the decorations and the carols, until next year. It is a challenge each of us must live.