The lights are blinking, the malls are full and so are our stomachs. Fat Santas hand out plastic toys, with plastic smiles above fake beards. As we scramble to make our last minute purchases, we worry about how long the Turkey has to cook; whether we have enough chocolate log and how will we possibly survive an entire day with the in-laws.
The strains of carols and Christmas songs fill the air as we head to the nearest bar to enjoy that Christmas drink. Shimmering firs and gaudy decorations, exchanging gifts we can often ill afford, Christmas pudding with brandy butter, the big match, a shmaltzy musical, and a monumental hangover are what Christmas is all about. Bah!
This year we could do with a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. We need to be reminded of just what we are supposed to be celebrating. We need to be taken by the hand to the birthplace of the child who grew up advocating peace, forgiveness, love and goodwill to all men – the town of Bethlehem.
This is the town where, tired and hungry, Mary and her carpenter husband Joseph took refuge in a stable because there was no room at the inn. This is the very place where Jesus drew his first breaths as foretold by the stars, which guided three wise men to his side. The child brought a message of hope to mankind and forever more Bethlehem, or ‘Home of Bread’ represented all that is good in the world.
But on this Christmas at the end of the year 2002, there is little bread in Bethlehem and even less hope. Its ancient cobbled streets are over-run with the ugly tanks and armored personnel carriers of an occupying power. Its people are hungry, their children suffering from malnutrition and fear, their mothers fighting anemia and stress, their fathers, anger and frustration.
There will be few wise men and women from foreign lands in Bethlehem this Christmas, most frightened away by the harsh trappings of occupation. Most of its inns will be empty, its souvenir shops closed and its roads will remain unlit due to lack of funds. But what do we care? After all, we dwell in lands of plenty and relative safety. We don’t have to worry about our children being filled with bullet holes while still clutching a stone. We don’t expect to be hit by a tank shell while shopping in the market and we can reasonably expect our elderly mothers and fathers to die in their beds, not gunned down in the streets near our homes.
When women give birth in our societies, they expect to receive the best pre and post natal treatment both for themselves and their babies. In the West Bank, newborns are lucky to survive at all. Many are born at roadblocks while 17 have died from complications because the IDF willfully prevented ambulances from reaching their mothers. Who knows? If Jesus had been born last week he may not have been one of the lucky ones.
We sit smug in our pretty, climate-controlled houses and apartments with perhaps a Snow Man gracing the garden, a mistletoe wreath on the front door and a blaze of Poinsettia around the hearth. ‘Merry Christmas’ we cry to all and sundry truly believing that our hearts are filled with kindness and cheer. After all, we gave a dollar to the Red Cross and a box of chocolates to the recently widowed woman next door. Heck! We even plan to attend Midnight Mass. We must be good people. Right?
Yes, sure, we’re good people. We are so well behaved that we only see what we are supposed to see. Although we know in our heart-of-hearts that a force that flagrantly ignores UN resolutions and the Geneva Conventions has illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza, we tell ourselves that it’s none of our business. And in any case, the Israelis have so much more in common with us. Many of those ‘nice settlers’ came from the US. They are used to having a pool. It’s too bad if the neighboring Palestinians don’t have enough water to drink or to irrigate their olive groves, but Americans have to keep their standards you know. Right?
In any case, most of those Palestinians are Moslems. Last September 19 Moslem terrorists used passenger planes to knock down buildings in New York and Washington. Our governments took their revenge on our behalf and bombed Afghanistan. It’s a pity that a few brides and grooms were among the more than 4,000 dead but there’s always collateral damage, you know. Shame about the dead babies under the rubble too.
Now our leaders are getting set to invade Iraq, and perhaps the entire Middle East and the Gulf. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands could well lose their lives, others could suffer terrible injuries, unimaginable man-made diseases could be unleashed on the planet, perhaps a nuclear bomb could be dropped as a message from the superpower. We want to kick butt to avenge the victims of 9-11. We’ll show those Moslems that they can’t mess with us and get away with it. And we can hardly blame the Israelis if they take the opportunity to kick those pesky Palestinians and their suicide bombers across the Jordan River while they have the chance. Right?
Back in the birthplace of Jesus, worshipers exiting Saint Catherine’s Church last Sunday said that this Christmas is destined to be the bleakest they have ever known. “We’ve been robbed of our freedom,” said one whose business was demolished by the Israeli army two years ago.
Another spoke of being unable to celebrate this year because ‘we’re psychologically battered after two years of death and wanton destruction.”
Last year the Church of the Nativity came under attack by Israeli forces and even the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the church was damaged. A monk and a bell ringer were shot and killed by trigger happy Israeli soldiers and all the while we swallowed the lies put out by our governments and their propaganda arms that clergy and nuns were being held hostage by Palestinian terrorists. Where were the outraged Christians then, and where are they now?
Oh, how we love to dress up our children and take them to church to gaze at the pastoral scene with baby Jesus as its centerpiece or, perhaps, we go to watch them acting in a nativity play. We may even shed a tear as we watch little Ben playing Joseph or our sweet Jody dressed as Mary. And yet, when the real place where the Christian savior came into the world is desecrated by innocent blood and its congregation oppressed and attacked, we change the channel and pretend that all is well.
Well all is not well. All is very far from being well. Millions of right-wing Evangelists calling themselves Christians unconditionally support the Israeli government, both morally and financially. Those same ‘Christians’ are behind the Bush administration and its self-proclaimed Crusade. Some of these ‘Christians’ actually want to usher in Armageddon using the Israelis to do so in keeping with their Messianic beliefs. They seriously look forward to WW3 and the demise of most of us so that the Jews can build their third temple after which the second coming is prophesied.
The Catholic Church appears to have stepped back more concerned about sweeping away its wayward priests and manufacturing new saints than making a decisive stand on the future of humankind.
Having said that, there are many Christians in America who do feel uncomfortable with the warmongering way their country is going. There are many Christians who feel a dichotomy between their Christian beliefs and the pull of rampant nationalism. Many have demonstrated outside southern Baptist churches and tried to spread a message of peace.
In Britain, too, there are dissenting church leaders. There, Anglican bishops have come out firmly against the killing of innocent people for whatever purpose and they propose to say as much to their congregations on Christmas Day. At least, they have the moral fortitude and strength of conviction to tell the British government ‘No, not in our name’ and not in the name of Christianity.
What a spoilt and gutless lot some of us have become! We don’t deserve Christmas if all we are going to do is sit around stuffing our bellies and swigging booze pretending we are celebrating the life of Christ. Christ told us to love our enemies. Instead, we are making more enemies through our bigotry, greed and misplaced self-righteousness. We are devaluing God-given human life and when Donald Rumsfeld gets up on a podium and talks proudly of how many war fronts his armies can manage at one time, as he did last Monday, he makes a mockery of this season of goodwill to all men.
Oh little town of Bethlehem, how you must be weeping. May God keep you and your people safe, and may you once again become the symbol of love and peace you once were. This can only happen when all good people unite no matter what their race, color or creed to forge a better world. Are you one of the wise men… or women? Think about it! Merry Christmas!
LINDA HEARD is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org