In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:1-5)
We have heard that story so often, it is easy to think of it as simply a preamble to the main story, which is all about the birth of Jesus. A little reflection reminds us of the significance of the framing.
The Roman Emperor, the over-lord at that time, decreed that all people should make the trek to their ancestral homes, to be registered there. The King James Bible translates this passage that “all the world should be taxed,” and that Joseph went to Bethlehem “to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife.” So not only was Joseph required to go 100 miles or so from his home, it seems he was required to take his fiancée, well into her pregnancy, along with him. Over hundred miles of walking? Google maps says that today it would take 38 hours; for a pregnant woman, even with a donkey, it would surely have taken several hard days. Where did they spend the nights? What did they eat, along the way? These were not rich people. This trip was surely an immense burden on them.
These details remind us that Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth was under the firm thumb of Roman occupation.
These details remind us that Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth was under the firm thumb of Roman occupation. The holy family’s trek to Bethlehem was only the first of many burdens that resulted from that occupation. It was followed in quick succession by a summons to continue their journey to Egypt – another several hundred miles of walking – this time with an infant in tow, to escape the Roman ruler’s edict that all children under two years old in the Bethlehem region were to be killed. An edict to suppress any danger of a threat to his power. The Roman occupation was no benign thing.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
It is amazing that the Lord of the Universe, deciding how and when to enter into human history, chose to do so in that particular place and time. The incarnation – the Word becoming Flesh – happened not only in a poor household in a backwater corner of the world; it took place in a land where all lived under the occupation of a mighty power intent on affirming its absolute rule over all people in its domain. As might be expected, the force of the occupation fell especially heavily on the most disadvantaged of those under its control.
It was to people just such as these that Jesus preached his first sermon, that one where he talked about bringing “good news to the poor …release to captives… [letting] the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). Good news indeed, for all people, but especially for those caught under the yoke of occupation. To such people, the good news of the gospel was – and is – particularly relevant.
Fast forward, then, two thousand years. Much has changed, but once again, the people of Palestine find themselves under the grip of a powerful occupation.
Fast forward, then, two thousand years. Much has changed, but once again, the people of Palestine find themselves under the grip of a powerful occupation. If a Palestinian in Nazareth today needed to make that same journey to Bethlehem, he or she would almost certainly not choose to walk; tour buses are much faster and more comfortable! But it wouldn’t be possible today, because the trip would be illegal. Palestinians from Nazareth (in Israel) are not permitted to visit Bethlehem (in the West Bank). In like manner, if someone from Bethlehem wanted to visit Nazareth, or even go on a day trip to the neighboring city of Jerusalem, which is immediately adjacent to Bethlehem, that trip would require a special permit, needing significant effort to obtain and in practice, rarely given.
In addition to the strict regulation of movement of people into and out of the city, there are many manifestations of the occupation that constrain the people in Bethlehem. A particularly upsetting one concerns the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements on all sides of the city. These settlements are usually built on land that has been a part of the city of Bethlehem, land owned by the Palestinians who live there. On a visit there last month, a group of us watched sadly as bulldozers worked on the construction of a new wall separating the homes of Palestinians in Beit Jala from their land in the Cremisan Valley, one of the few agricultural areas to which the people of Bethlehem have still had access.
This new portion of the wall will also cut through the property of two religious orders, including the Salesian Sisters’ Convent and School, which provides education to some 450 local students. The adjacent Salesian Monastery has for many years operated a winery, using grapes grown on their adjoining property, to which they need regular access that the wall will cut off. The justification they have been given for claiming that land for Israel and building a wall to enforce its ownership is that the wall is needed to provide security, particularly for the Jewish settlers who live in the two settlements (built on confiscated land and illegal according to international law). It is hardly a convincing argument: the Palestinians are told that Israeli settlers living on confiscated Palestinian lands need security, which provides a justification for further confiscation of Palestinian land.
Settlers on the West Bank and Israeli sections of East Jerusalem have ready access to water, not only for drinking and washing, but also to water their gardens and fill their swimming pools. Palestinians are often restricted to two hours of flowing water per day.
The occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem shows itself in many ways, reflecting entirely different treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. Some examples:
- Water: This resource is in short supply to start with in this part of the world. Settlers on the West Bank and Israeli sections of East Jerusalem have ready access to water, not only for drinking and washing, but also to water their gardens and fill their swimming pools. Palestinians are often restricted to two hours of flowing water per day. One can tell Palestinian from Israeli neighborhoods by the water storage tanks on Palestinian roofs, not needed in most Israeli areas.
Home demolitions and new constructions: A permit is required to build a new home in most areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The process is expensive, and permits are routinely denied to Palestinian applicants, especially in East Jerusalem. The result is that, in many Arab neighborhoods, people build without permits. In due course, they are often served with demolition orders; we were told that currently the rule is that the owner must pay the cost of having his or her own house demolished. In contrast, the construction of new homes in settlements has continued without let-up over the past several decades and is still active today.
- Roads: The road system is designed to meet the needs of Israelis, both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Palestinians are generally not permitted to drive on these roads; the roads provided for them are poorly maintained and more circuitous.
- The legal system itself: In the West Bank, Palestinians are judged by military law. Israelis, including all settlers, are judged by Israeli civil law. Two very different sets of standards apply, with military law often operating much more harshly and with fewer protections than the civil law.
These examples of the overall regimen of occupation are the daily experience of Palestinians. In fact, in each of these domains, the discrimination inherent in the occupation continues to expand in breadth and depth month by month. During periods of peace negotiations, during times of quiet as in periods when violence erupts, the occupation continues to expand. Someone has expressed this by saying: Over the past thirty years, in good times and bad, the bulldozers have never stop working, destroying Palestinian houses and uprooting olive trees, building new settlements and new settler roads.
First and foremost, we are called to become better informed.
Matters have been made worse by increasingly widespread use of language by many among the the Israeli leadership which expresses a clear intention to carry this process to its logical conclusion by asserting that the whole of the West Bank will henceforth be declared a part of a Jewish state of Israel. When such statements become increasingly common in the Israeli press, and when so many dimensions of the occupation are continuing to move the “facts on the ground” in that direction, it is increasingly difficult for Palestinians to hold tight to their hope for a better future that provides any kind of just outcome for them.
So, what are American Christians called to do in this situation?
First and foremost, we are called to become better informed. The media in the United States generally tells the story of what is happening in Israel/Palestine with no mention of the occupation, which is a central fact in the experience of Palestinians. The occupation does not justify violent responses, but recognizing this reality makes clear that such actions taken are in response to a hugely unjust set of policies and practices.
Second, we must challenge those who are implementing that occupation. As we have in the past and as the most recent decisions of our denomination have affirmed, we must continue to make clear that our challenges are combined with our strong support for Israel as a predominantly Jewish state, but one in which non-Jews can live and have their rights fully recognized and respected. But even as we affirm the Israeli right to a state we must challenge the misleading discourse that describes what is happening on the ground. Even more important, we must challenge the oppressive policies in place by using the most powerful non-violent tools we have available to us: boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Carefully focused and specific, as they have been in the official policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), these are tools that we can use to challenge the policies of the Israeli government in their continuing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
We must continue to make clear that our challenges are combined with our strong support for Israel as a predominantly Jewish state, but one in which non-Jews can live and have their rights fully recognized and respected.
Third, we must stand in solidarity with our Palestinian friends, encouraging them in their “sumud,” their steadfastness. As caring friends, we must condemn those – Israeli and Palestinian – who resort to violence, which we insist has no chance of bringing them closer to just outcomes and in fact only makes things worse, while uselessly sacrificing precious lives on both sides of the lines.
God sent God’s Son into the midst of Roman occupation to bring good news to those who are imprisoned and suffering. As the people of Israel and Palestine seek a way forward in their current situation of Israeli occupation, and as we walk alongside them in solidarity, we are reminded of John’s clarion call:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
May God give us wisdom as we seek to be bearers of that light, affirming and challenging both occupier and occupied in a troubled part of God’s world.
AUTHOR BIO: Don Mead is a Presbyterian Ruling Elder, a retired economist. He spent 19 years as Professor at Michigan State University, where the principle focus of his teaching, research, and advising was on issues of economic development, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since his retirement 17 years ago, he has done volunteer work for the church, much of it relating to issues of peace and justice in the Middle East, including traveling to and spending time in the region.