Bethlehem on our minds

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” —Micah 5:2

The text from Micah 5:2 will be read in churches around the world this Advent. Even more so right through Christmas “the little town of Bethlehem” will reverberate in Scripture readings, sermons, and Christmas carols. Images of the manger of the first Christmas will be recreated in figurines and Christmas cards. Christmas brings Bethlehem to mind.

Yet, in Bethlehem this year there will be no Christmas celebrations. For the first time in a long time there will be no Christmas tree in the Nativity square, no parades, and no lights. Celebrations will be muted, and smaller prayer services and rituals will replace the normal festivities. At the Christmas Lutheran Church, a figurine of the baby Jesus lies in the midst of rubble signifying the number of children that have died. In Bethlehem it is not Christmas that is being remembered, it is the slaughter of innocents.

Many churches around the world are also calling for muted Christmas celebrations to advocate for justice in Palestine. The United Reformed Church has a campaign to not light the Bethlehem candle, the candle for the second week in Advent, as an act of solidarity.

Horrific violence has broken out in an already violent context in the last quarter of this year. After the killing of 1200 Israelis in the attack on 7 October more than 17,000 Palestinians have been killed. After a short ceasefire, the assault has once again begun with more lives being lost.

Unfortunately, the international community and the churches seem to have lost their moral compass in the light of what is being named a genocide by many. This lack of morality is coupled with a lack of imagination with no one being able to see beyond the binary of “a right to defense” on the one hand and “humanitarian aid” on the other. What is needed is to get out of this unholy loop and look for immediate and long-lasting alternatives that are embedded in justice.

Perhaps this Christmas it is time for us to turn to Bethlehem for answers. In the Bible—and from what we know from biblical history—Bethlehem, meaning house of bread, was a small and insignificant place, a point that is also made by the prophet Micah. Yet the prophets see great hope emerging from this insignificance. And perhaps this is a lesson for the world today: That answers to these terrible crises will not emerge from power, nor come from military might. Our hope is not to be found in horses and chariots (Psalm 20:7-8).

Christmas reminds us that hope for the world does not come from the locus of power, but instead it comes from sites of powerlessness. The glad tidings of Christmas do not come from the grand palace of Herod but from a lowly manger. The news of Christmas is not told to lords and princes but to shepherds in a field. It does not come from Caesar in Rome but from a child born in small, insignificant Bethlehem.

This Christmas as we remember the Christ child, we cannot but think of children in Gaza and the West Bank whose very existence is threatened. And it is the Christ child who calls us to recognize that we as the global community are accountable to these children.

This Christmas, more than ever, the call is to go to Bethlehem. It not only calls us to be in solidarity with those living there who are suffering from war and oppression who will not be celebrating Christmas, but also to learn from Bethlehem. That our salvation does not come from power, but will come from children.

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