Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bethlehem, Then and Now

Political Poster in Bethlehem

The Bethlehem of 2007 years ago when Jesus Christ was born bears little resemblance to the Bethlehem of 2007, which I visited last May. Or does it?

Growing up in New England - land of the white Christmas, I sang carols in the snow outside my neighbors’ houses. I got cards with shepherds, Persian kings and manger scenes depicting that first Christmas in Bethlehem. How authentic were those images? That’s hard to say, but they were imprinted in my imagination nonetheless, just as they were for millions of others. Bethlehem in 2007, however, didn’t look anything like that.

It’s is a depressing place - literally walled off from greater Jerusalem where I was staying. The wall is about 20 feet high with barbed wire above that. It’s black and ominous with guard towers at regular intervals. From the bus window, I saw it snake down the valley and over the hill in the distance as we inched up toward the security checkpoint. Graffiti, including a large lion devouring a dove, were painted on the wall. The message was anything but “Peace on Earth” or “Good will to men” as we entered the “little town of Bethlehem.” Administered by the Palestinian Authority, Israelis are not welcome there. Tourists are allowed only if guided by Palestinians, which we were. Our bus driver and our guide were Palestinian Christians - a dwindling minority in Bethlehem after comprising the majority for centuries. That’s because the Palestinian Authority is made up of radical Muslims intolerant of other religions. Christians are ruthlessly harassed and are moving away in great numbers. If present trends continue, there won’t be any more Christians in Bethlehem before long.

Inside Bethlehem were overflowing dumpsters and graffiti on the ground-level walls of nearly every building down the main road through town. Men - young, old and middle-aged - loitered on street corners and stairs and smoked. Nearly every one had a cigarette going. Aside from cab drivers and waiters at the restaurants where we ate, I saw no one working, though there was obviously plenty to do just cleaning up trash. There were posters of the late scumbag terrorist Yassir Arafat and, here and there, posters of Hamas terrorists holding AK-47s. The approach to “Shepherd’s Cave” where the carols proclaim that “shepherds watched their flocks by night,” was lined with barbed wire. The bathrooms had no water and the cave entrance, which had been a natural limestone formation, was bricked up with bars on windows. The site of the manger is now inside the Church of the Nativity, which was occupied by Palestinian Muslim terrorists for over a month in 2002. They urinated on the floor, set an adjacent Franciscan study afire, and a statue of Mary was hit by a bullet. Israeli security forces had come to arrest them, so they holed up in the Church of the Nativity and effectively held the holy Christian shrine hostage. The terrorists threatened to blow up the church, which is the oldest in Christendom, unless the Israelis withdrew. The siege broke when Israelis did withdraw and terrorists melted back into Bethlehem’s population.

No. Today’s Bethlehem bears little resemblance to the Christmas cards. Thinking about this for the past few months as Christmas approaches for the the 2007th time, I’m realizing that the Israel Jesus was born into was full of conflict too. Romans occupied it and the Jewish king Herod, who the Romans allowed to stay in power, was no prize. Was he as bad as Arafat? A case could be made. He ordered the slaughter of every male infant in Bethlehem after hearing that a king had been born there. Hamas? Yeah, they’re terrorist scumbags too. They’re rocketing Israel every day from the Gaza strip. When I was there, Hamas and Fatah (considered the “good” Palestinian terrorists by President Bush) were killing each other. During Christ’s time, Jews were chafing under Roman rule. Some kissed up to the Romans while others conducted hit-and-run attacks against them. Romans practiced pagan rituals which were insulting to pious Jews. There was religious and political violence aplenty. John the Baptist was later beheaded by Herod’s son and his cousin, Jesus, was crucified by the Romans after being set up by some Jewish religious leaders.

Though it doesn’t resemble the Christmas cards, the Israel Jesus was born into 2007 years ago wasn’t too awfully different from the country I visited. Political and religious conflict - which were often the same thing, then and now - were either playing out in violence or brewing under the surface waiting to erupt again. Shortly after Jesus Christ’s time, there was a large-scale Jewish revolt. Romans slaughtered a million Jews, destroyed their temple, and scattered the rest in the Great Diaspora. Two thousand years later Israel exists again, but for how long?

One in five people on earth believe the most important lifetime in history began in Bethlehem and ended eight miles away in Jerusalem - so important that we measure time according to what happened before it and what happened after it. Though many try to obsure this by calling our time the “Common Era,” we know that it’s 2007 AD - Anno Domini - the “Year of Our Lord.”


Unknown said... would be good to have everyone in Christiandom visit Isreal.

Almost like a Mecca and see what a mess it is in.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I meant Bethlehem. Israel has her head on right.