O Little Town of Bethlehem….How Still Do We Really See Thee Lie?

by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod

Meg Warner

At this time of year our thoughts and our imaginings go winging to Bethlehem – the ‘little town’, ‘where the dear Christ enters in’ to ‘meek souls who receive him still’. Bethlehem sounds so lovely when you put it like that, although the reality, of course, is, and was, quite different. Matthew’s gospel, in particular, makes it clear that Judea was an area under the ruthless control of Herod, the ‘client-king’ (some would say ‘puppet’), who owed his primary allegiance to Rome. No wonder rumours of the birth of a new king, in Bethlehem was sufficient a threat to goad Herod into ordering the slaughter of all boys under the age of two (Matt 2:16-18).

It had always been like that in the Holy Land. The geography of that place, as a land bridge between Egypt, Asia and Europe (a bit like Belgium), led to a history marked by a succession of empires – often violent: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome in the biblical period alone. The ancient Israelites had to learn to live with this parade of colonising overlords. The Bible gives us clues as to some of the ways that they achieved this: sometimes cooperating, sometimes practising subversion, sometimes retreating into the desert, with different groups taking different approaches at the same time. Life was harsh – the ancient Israelites had to contend with droughts and shortages of all kinds as well as periods of occupation punctuated by military battles, ostensibly between the current occupational forces and those hoping to be next, but all played out in, and over, Israel’s territory.

Today everything is the same and everything is different. The Holy Land is divided – between the relatively recent (post-1948) state of Israel and the Palestine Territories, which Israel occupies. Today’s Palestinians, ironically, live, in many respects, as the biblical Israelites themselves lived, with many of the same concerns about shortages of resources, restriction of freedoms, erosions of sovereignty, destruction of property and threats of violence.

Only, it’s not really so ironic. Research into the effects of trauma on communities shows us more and more clearly that the impact of traumas, such as those experienced by the ancient Israelites, stay with communities for generations, causing a narrowing of perspective such that identity can be constructed in only one of two guises – oppressed or oppressor.

Traumatised communities tend – without some form of intentional intervention – to adopt one of these roles, oppressed or oppressor, or often both in turn or at the same time. Don’t forget, part of the historical land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by the international community (the UN), partly to make up for the victimisation of Jews in the Holocaust. The tragic irony is that the victim then became the oppressor.

We have seen this played out in history many times, around the world. South Africa offers a particularly vivid example: it was colonised by French Huguenots escaping religious persecution in France and Holland, whose descendants many centuries later came up with apartheid as a ‘biblical’ principle for managing relationships between peoples sharing land. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was in many ways a remarkably successful intervention against the patterns of community trauma, following the eventual dismantling of apartheid. However, once again the tragic irony is that twenty years after the TRC, the new majority black government has succumbed to many of the temptations of corruption and violence that plagued their white predecessors. As Desmond Tutu puts it, ‘the ANC stopped the government gravy train just long enough to get on it’.

The other way in which things are still the same in the Holy Land is that its politics are still being determined by forces from afar.

Last week Australia (my native country) became only the third nation, after the US and Guatemala, to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While there is no immediate intention on Australia’s part to move its embassy to West Jerusalem until it can put a Palestinian embassy in East Jerusalem, nevertheless the announcement itself is sensitive, and brings with it the potential for violence such as that which occurred after the US recognition of Jerusalem. The background, what’s more, is extraordinary. In October this year there was a byelection in the seat of Wentworth, in Sydney. The byelection was rather important to the Australian government, which held a parliamentary majority of only one seat. The seat of Wentworth has an unusual profile in the Australian context – it is 13% Jewish, and the government’s fielded candidate in Wentworth, Dave Sharma, had previously been Ambassador to Israel. The average percentage of Jews enrolled to vote in Australian electorates is 0.5%. Numerous media commentators, including the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning (Guardian Online, 16 October 2018), have been clear that the policy shift, first mooted prior to the 20 October byelection, was carefully timed to improve Sharma’s (and the government’s) chances.

In the event, the Government lost the byelection, its parliamentary majority, and probably also the respect of the Jewish voters of Wentworth. Even so, Israel remains on the agenda of the now markedly weakened Australian Government as last week’s further announcement shows, just as much as it is it is part of the partisan politics of Trump’s America, so that Israel’s fate remains subject to the random whims and aspirations of imperial powers around the world.

At this time of year our thoughts and our imaginings go winging to Bethlehem, and indeed to Jerusalem. Bethlehem was never the ‘still’, ‘silent’ town of the hymn, just as Jerusalem (Jeru/shalom) was never truly ‘the city of peace’. Instead, they have been, and remain, sites of negotiation and tension, conflict and violence, practised both by and against Israel, and by and against Israel’s neighbours.

In the midst of your Christmas celebrations, please pause to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ and of Bethlehem, Gaza and Ramallah …, that peace might be found within their walls and security within their towers (Ps 122:6-7).




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