When Christmas celebrations are cancelled in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, like other Palestinian cities and towns, is in mourning over the ethnic cleansing and genocide taking place in Gaza.

Dec 22, 2023

What? No Christmas celebrations at the birthplace of Jesus this year?

Bethlehem, like other Palestinian cities and towns, is in mourning over the ethnic cleansing and genocide taking place in Gaza. The town’s outgoing mayor said, “We cannot celebrate while we are in this situation.”

Instead, it will follow the approach that Christian churches in the Holy Land have taken. It will put the focus on prayer in solidarity with the suffering people of the land.

“We’ll pray to God to have peace in the land of peace.”

This dark time for Christians in Bethlehem puts mainstream Christianity in a major dilemma.

One big problem that Christians and others in occupied Palestine face is the support given to their oppressors by Christian Zionists abroad, especially in the US.

Christian Zionism is a political movement that continues to see the Jews as the “chosen people” and the formation of the modern state of Israel as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, especially as the precursor to the second coming of Christ.
Now, this poses a problem. God is not a real estate agent focused on a prime patch of land in the Middle East, even if many events in the Scriptures took place there and are especially close to the hearts of those from the Abrahamic faiths.
Jesus Himself did not confine His mission to a specific geographical region but told His disciples to go to the ends of the Earth to preach the Good News.

Many Christian Zionists, however, are obsessed with interpreting the “End Times” from the scriptures in the light of ongoing events. They see the state of Israel as playing a key role in the End Times, even hastening those times.

But before that, they believe the faithful Christians, alive and dead, will be zapped up in the clouds during “the Rapture” to be in God’s (heavenly) kingdom. Apparently, this would be just before a seven-year Great Tribulation, which would culminate with the second coming of Christ and the mother of all wars at Armageddon.

Such Christian Zionism thinking from over a hundred years ago is an exclusive, dismissive imperial theology that seeks the domination of one group of people over others, especially in the Middle East.

What about the Christian Palestinians and those of other faiths as well? Where do they figure in all this? Don’t they have a place in the “promised land”?

We need to keep asking this question because all too often the voice of the churches in the Palestinian territories — as well as those of other faiths — are drowned out.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has put up a thought-provoking nativity scene depicting an infant Jesus, swaddled in a Palestinian scarf, the kaffiyeh, amid rubble. This is a symbol of solidarity with all those who have perished or are suffering due to the devastating bombardment and genocide in Gaza.

Let’s be crystal clear. The kingdom that Jesus heralded is also on Earth — “thy kingdom come on Earth as in heaven”. So it is not just a kingdom up in the sky at the end of time or in our hearts, but one very much rooted in this world.

In this kingdom, Jesus outlined the values and the people that would inherit the world — the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.

Unlike the exclusivist world of the Christian Zionists, the kingdom of God is inclusive — all are invited, no matter who they are, no matter where they are.

But the Christian Zionists’ obsession with the End Times consumes their thinking and distracts from the calling to build the kingdom of God on Earth.

The other problem with Christian Zionism is that many of its adherents think they are following God’s desire by supporting — financially or morally — a state that is involved in settler colonialism, occupation, apartheid and the ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of Gaza. In doing so, they have turned the Gospel message upside down.

Unfortunately, many Christians from mainstream denominations have been influenced by such Christian Zionist interpretations of the Scriptures.

Let’s remember that the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant, even if the Jews are regarded as the spiritual “elder brothers and sisters” of the faith and Jesus Himself was brought up in the Jewish tradition.
But Jesus also radically transformed the people around Him and put forward a more inclusive, universalist vision of the kingdom.

In this blossoming kingdom, new shoots are constantly being grafted into the Vine (Jesus) while some old branches, which refuse to bear fruit, are cut off.

The chosen today are those who follow the Word of God and His Way of truth, justice, compassion and suffering in order to build His kingdom. Meanwhile, the entire Creation itself is groaning in the pains of birth that will give rise to a new world that upholds all the values that God holds dear.

This Christmas, let us do our part to express solidarity with all those suffering from atrocities, violence and injustice.

Let’s call for an end to genocide, settler colonialism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, war, discrimination and all forms of injustice. Let us reject terrorism — whether state-sponsored or individually inspired. But let us recognise that people have the right to struggle for their freedom and speak out against oppression.

Let us pray — and collaborate in creating a new world where peace and justice will reign. Our rededication to this kingdom project will be the most appropriate way to celebrate the coming of the Light to the world.
Come, Lord Jesus.

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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