Tuesday, December 24

MCC Palestine Update #69

MCC Palestine Update #69

December 23, 2002

I indicated in my last update that #68 would be the last one of 2002. That was before I received today a Christmas message from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. I wanted to make sure that you had a chance to see it as you prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Christians in the occupied territories celebrate Jesus' birth this year in bleak circumstances. Bethlehem has been under curfew for over one month, with few breaks. Christians in the city debate about how to celebrate and remember Christ's birth. If the Israeli military governor attends the Midnight Mass, should Christians stay away from the Mass? If metal detectors are placed in Manger Square, what should be done? If curfew is lifted for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, how can Palestinian Christians help the media of the world understand what they and their Muslim compatriots live through all the other days of the year?

MCC's Palestinian Christian partners repeatedly tell us two things: first, that they are determined to celebrate Jesus' birth one way or another, even if only in their homes; second, that they want to bring some small measure of joy to all children in the Bethlehem area this season, both Christian and Muslim. MCC is contributing to an ecumenical effort coordinated by the Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society in Beit Jala to bring small toy packages to all of the homes in Beit Jala, both Muslim and Christian; a "Baba Noel," or Father Christmas, will go out accompanied by volunteers every evening from Dec. 26 to Jan. 8, delivering the presents, even if he must break curfew to do so.

Your ongoing prayers for the Palestinian churches and for the work of MCC's Palestinian partners are much appreciated. May you and your loved ones have joy and celebration on the occasion of Christ's birth.

--Alain Epp Weaver

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center 2002 Christmas message: “Unto us a child is born”

For a child has been born for us,
A son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders;
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
And there shall be endless peace…
With justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

This passage of the prophet Isaiah is a song of liberation and joy. Christians have interpreted it as a reference to the birth of Christ. It is certainly one of the most beautiful poems of the Old Testament.

In its original context in life, this poem had to do with the overthrow of an oppressive occupation. It was probably written in the aftermath of an Assyrian invasion of parts of east Jordan that extended to the coastal region of the Mediterranean Sea. The inhabitants were totally subjugated and oppressed. Isaiah describes them as living in thick darkness, anguish, and gloom.

It is worth noting that our region of the world has always experienced invasions and conquests from the dominant powers of the times. In fact, Palestine has always, geographically, resembled a corridor. It was a thoroughfare for people crossing from north to south and vice versa. It linked Egypt, the major power in the south with the successive empires of the north. Conquerors passed through it and had to subdue and control it.

In this specific beautiful poem, Isaiah envisions an end to the Assyrian occupation of the land. All the instruments of war will be burned by fire and a new divinely gifted king will reign. He will end the violence and establish a kingdom of peace based on truth and justice. For Isaiah as for many people throughout history, the possibility of peace has always been present in the imagination and dreams of human beings. Why cannot people live in peace? Why do they have wars? Why do so many people have to be killed? This poem lifts up the hope for a new day when, after the occupation has ended, the new king will be recognized as the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. In other words, he would possess all the essential qualities and abilities to bring an end to war and to usher a permanent peace and prosperity.

Such a vision of “endless peace…with justice and righteousness…forevermore” was never realized, neither in Isaiah’s time nor at any other time, in the history of the world since it has to be based on the power of arms, violence, and destruction. Christians believe that the vision of an enduring peace came closest to its actualization in the coming of Jesus Christ. His birth was, indeed, the non-violent entrance of God into the world. Circumstantially, Jesus came into a world similar to that which Isaiah described. Isaiah was referring to an Assyrian occupation. Jesus was born under a Roman occupation when people were also longing for liberation and

It is important to emphasize that there is nothing called a benevolent occupation. No matter how benign any occupation claims to be, it is unacceptable and undesirable by the occupied. This is the way it was in the time of Isaiah as well as in the time of Jesus, and it is still the same today for the Palestinians; except, maybe, for a few weak souls who have been co-opted by the occupying regime and have become collaborators with it and beneficiaries of it. Most people, however, long for liberation as, indeed, do the Palestinians who long to see the end of the oppressive yoke of Israel. Yet most people think of liberation as being possible only through military might. For the prophet Isaiah, the potential of real peace lies in the reversal and abrogation of war when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”(Is 2:4).

Some of us believe that this vision of peace is achievable for Israelis and Palestinians today. What needs to happen is for Israel to lift its oppressive domination and end its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and accept the resolution of the conflict on the basis of international law and not on its own laws. On the one hand, the government of Israel is literally crushing the Palestinians until they succumb to its own demands for peace by accepting further land concessions. On the other hand, the Palestinian resistance is using all the means and methods available to it to insist on international legitimacy based on UN resolutions. Obviously, since Israel is by far much stronger militarily we continue to witness the total suppression and destruction of the Palestinian people.

Isaiah’s vision for peace is realistic but conditional. It demands of both the Israelis and Palestinians to “…beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks [neither] nation shall…lift up sword against nation, neither shall…learn war any more”. Such conditions must apply equally to both the Israelis and Palestinians and not to the Palestinians alone. If Israel is asking the Palestinians to disarm for the sake of a permanent peace, is it willing to do the same for the sake of the same objective? This is the revolution that Isaiah was talking about. Many of us would love to see it happen. Unfortunately, the history of nations and individuals has always been a history where people learned the art of war and violence.

Even the psalmist praises God for his military training, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle….”(Psalm 144:1). Twenty years ago, when I was serving the church in Haifa, a church member told me about a conversation he overheard between two Israeli women. One was asking the other why she had not seen her for quite sometime. She replied, “I gave birth to a soldier”. This woman was so proud to have given birth to a son who will grow up to be a soldier. Sadly, we still live in such a mentality of war.

All of us constantly observe the birth of innocent children who grow up to become dictators, war criminals, or presidents and prime ministers who spend huge budgets on the production, purchase, and accumulation of arms, and who teach and practice war. We daily witness the presence of young Israeli soldiers oppressing the Palestinian people. They, like many others, have been trained in the skills of war.

At this Christmas season, as our thoughts turn to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Bethlehem is practically a closed military area. In spite of the Israeli army assurances that Bethlehem will be opened for Christmas, the facts on the ground reveal the opposite. The Palestinians, except for few hours during the day, are confined to their homes by Israeli military orders. Everything around and inside Bethlehem connotes violence and injustice against Palestinians. The young soldiers are in their tanks and armored cars patrolling, oppressing, and dehumanizing others and in the process being themselves dehumanized. All of this is totally foreign to the spirit of Christmas; and is a basic contradiction with the beauty and innocence of the birth of any child let alone the birth of Jesus Christ “the prince of peace”.

The evangelists writing the biography of Jesus from the vantage point of his death and resurrection could say that his birth, in actual fact, fulfilled the prophecy or dream of Isaiah in a more perfect way (Matthew 1:21; 4:14-16). Jesus’ coming into the world was the nonviolent coming of God. For the first time, a child grows up and walks the way of love and nonviolence; and although he suffers at the hands of violent people, he keeps clearly to the possibility and viability of a life of peace and love.

Indeed, the truest _expression of our humanity is found in children, in the birth of every boy or girl. To stay in touch with our humanity and hold on to it we must look at young children. Before they begin to learn, or more correctly, before we begin to teach them racial discrimination, prejudice, hate, violence, or the ugly art of war, they reflect our truest nature. The difference that Jesus Christ has brought through his birth is precisely the fact that he did not lose the essence of his true humanity. In order to hold on to our humanity, we must not walk the way of this world, the way of empire, the way of violence but to follow the way of Jesus Christ, the way of fidelity to God through the path of nonviolence and peace.

It is also possible whether we are Christians or not, to learn from children. Jesus recognized this when he said, “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 18:3). Jesus made children a model of the kingdom “…Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). Unless we become like them in simplicity, humility, ability to forgive and trust, we cannot be members of God’s kingdom. This is the nature of God’s kingdom. The children become our model. We must mirror them.

For the sake of children, we must change. The greatest tragedy of our every day life in Israel/Palestine today happens whenever a child is killed, whether Palestinian or Israeli. Every time we kill a child, we murder the truest _expression of our humanity. And the more we get used to killing child crimes because gradually and inevitably we lose our own children, the more savage and brutal we become against each other. This is the worst of humanity. Every time the crime is repeated, it points to the malady of our world.

Jesus has pointed out the way of nonviolence. Dare we follow it? At this Christmas, in the midst of the violence of the occupation and the violence of the resistance to it and the cycle of violence that continues to escalate, we are reminded again of the nonviolent coming of God in Jesus Christ. Dare we follow the way?

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…and there shall be endless peace…with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore….”(Is. 9:6-7)

Addendum to MCC Palestine Update #69

December 24, 2002

Please pray for the family of Sami Awad, the director of the Holy Land Trust, and the other families in his apartment building in Bethlehem. The following letter from Sami details how his building has been occupied by Israeli soldiers and the families in the building are being kept locked in their apartments. The Holy Land Trust is an MCC partner which is developing a training manual in Arabic for training in nonviolent direct action.

--Alain Epp Weaver

To our friends,

With hearts full of sadness I write this letter a couple of days before Christmas to inform you that Israeli army troops have occupied the apartment building we live in and have locked us as well as twelve other families in our apartments. They have told us that they are here for an indefinite period of time and we will not be able to leave our apartments until they leave.

This afternoon (Dec 23rd, 2002 5:00 PM), as volunteers (Bob and Margaret) and myself were going around Bethlehem passing out gifts donated to needy families through Holy Land Trust, we got a call from a neighbor who said that the Israeli army had stormed our building and had forced all residents out of their homes and into one apartment. We immediately tried to return in order to see what was happening and to at least be present if the army decided to enter our apartment. (If the residents are not there, they usually blow-up the door or a hole in a wall then destroy all the furniture). I thanked God that my wife Rana and our baby were in the market doing last minute Christmas shopping. When we got close, we were welcomed by Israeli soldiers pointing their machine guns at us demanding and yelling at us to go back. An hour later I tried again and was informed that we could go to our apartment. Welcomed again by machine guns, Rana, the baby and myself, were kept outside in the cold while the soldiers went through our belongings and checked our identification cards.

Once we were escorted to our apartment we were told to leave the door key on the outside key hole. When I asked why, one soldier turned his head and walked away in what I think was a sign of shame; the other said "to lock you in."

Yes... lock us in our home! When I refused to be a prisoner in my own home, the soldier began to yell and make threats. Having no choice and fearing for my family's safety, we were locked in and the key was kept in the outside key hole so that we can not use any spare key. Christmas is two days away and we are prisoners in our home. this is our gift this holiday season. They have refused to tell us why they came here, what they want and how long "indefinite" means.

The Israeli government had falsely promised the world that it was going to pull out of Bethlehem on Christmas so that the residents of the city can celebrate. We are prove and witness to you that the occupation of Bethlehem continues, that injustice continues to innocent families. We are trapped as prisoners in our home guarded by Israeli soldiers standing in front of our apartment door as if we were criminals.

This year was going to be our baby girl's first Christmas... Even with the siege of Bethlehem and the continued curfews and suffering, we still decorated the tree, bought the gifts, took our the Christmas CDs and thought that at the least we will be able to celebrate Christmas with our families. It seems that even this simple wish will not come true this season and we will be celebrating Christmas as prisoners locked in our home...

Please pray for our safety. We do not even know what the next hour will bring us. We hear the soldiers walking up and down the staircase and we also heard them destroy furniture in the apartment below us. Are we next? We do not know!

I can only conclude this letter by saying that from the bottom of our hearts and from this Holy place, we wish you a Merry Christmas.

In Peace,

Sami Awad

No comments: