Israel/Palestine pt 1 | Bethlehem, then and now

A few days ago I returned from a Holy Land pilgrimage.  It wasn't the typical Holy Land trip, though.  For us, the historical sites spread throughout Israel and Palestine were essentially the backdrop for an encounter with the human stories and living saints that are enduring in the midst of conflict today.  It's hard to know where to start, but maybe Bethlehem makes for a good beginning.  

Bethlehem, like a lot of places in the Middle East today, feels conflicted.  There's a church there that was built in the 4th century, and not too far from it you'll find something that resembles an outdoor mall where local residents and tourists mix to buy plastic toys and jewelry and food.  An Arabic chant over loudspeakers calls Muslims to prayer as Christians head to that ancient church to pay homage to the place where Jesus was born.  The real conflict isn't just cultural, though.  It's political, too.  If you look closely at that church, you'll see its facade pocked by bullets that were shot during a siege of Palestinian militants by Israeli Defense Forces in 2002.  Elsewhere in the city you'll find a refugee camp where 13,000 displaced Palestinians are living today.  And every once in a while you'll run into a concrete wall with barbed wire and sniper towers, interrupted by checkpoints, reminding you that you're in a contested land.  

At first, it all seems contradictory to the idea of a Holy Site.  But the more we reflected on the story of Jesus, the more we remembered that this is exactly the kind of world He was born into.  Everything was up for grabs -- the land, the authority to lead the people, the idea of what God expected of His people, and the means by which He would bring about His Kingdom in the world.  It's not surprising that Jesus wept or got angry from time to time.  He wrapped Himself up in our circumstances and felt the weight of a world in conflict.  We spent some time with a man named Mitri Raheb who feels that same weight today.  

Dr. Raheb (in the middle of the picture) is from Bethlehem, born into family of Palestinian Christians who have lived in that city for generations.  He eventually made his way to Germany where he earned his doctorate before returning to Bethlehem to pastor the Lutheran church there.  A lot of the people in his community don't see much reason for hope in their circumstances.  Some of them have no freedom of movement beyond those concrete walls.  Some of them don't have enough food or water.  Many of them have no reason to believe they'll be able to live for a dream.  Some aid does come to the area, but this community is hurting for an identity and a future as much as it's hurting for its basic physical needs.  

Mitri told us that he came back to Bethlehem loaded up with theology and discovered no one wanted it.  He was anxious to reach out to his town with the truth that we believe about Christ, but the experiences of his community left them uninterested in a dissertation.  So he did what any good leader would do -- he reconsidered his approach.  

Mitri discovered that, in a place where high-minded beliefs seem disconnected from day to day life, art becomes the crucial vehicle to communicate the message and the necessary outlet to give witness to our human experience.  In art, circumstances and promises that seemed to threaten one another find a way to strengthen one another, and that's what's happening at the Addar Cultural and Conference Center that Mitri created in 2003.  He and his team are raising up artists who see culture as the resource that will sustain a population that is waiting for peace, and possibly as the strength that will help them work for it.  Traditional handcrafts that had been dying out are being revived while modern forms of expression like filmmaking are leveraged, too.  Without Mitri's work, there are a number of people who I believe would be driven toward radicalization in the conflict and who would be dismissive of the story of Jesus, but because of him I believe the Holy Land is closer to peace. 
It's not just our songs and our paintings and our crafts that tether our lives and our beliefs to each other, though.  More fundamentally, it's our stories.  Jesus wept and cursed and somehow still trusted that His father's Kingdom was in fact on its way, making appearances in the most unexpected places (like Bethlehem).  And Paul tells us that we are a work of art, meant to join Jesus in bridging the gap between a world at war and a Kingdom of Peace.  This is what I saw Mitri doing, and his is one of the stories from the Holy Land that is changing my life.  I hope it inspires you, too.