Sitting in Manger Square, Bethlehem, with my new friend Nader Abu Amsha, a Palestinian Christian, who was until recently the Deputy Mayor of Beit Jalah, I am starting to feel indignant.
On the other side of the square, thousands of tourists from all around the world are getting off their air-conditioned coaches and forming a queue into the Church of the Nativity. The vast majority set out on a day trip from their hotels in Jerusalem, take a tour around the church, visit the grotto where Christ is said to have been born, say a few prayers, then return to the coaches and back to the hotel.
Something is wrong. Few little towns are less like their image than Bethlehem. Set within the West Bank, Bethlehem is a place of real poverty and deep social injustice.
The Israeli separation barrier has cut many of its inhabitants off from their livelihoods in the surrounding fields. Farmers are no longer able to look after their olive trees, and others are not able to find work in the greater Jerusalem area. Nader’s elderly mother cannot get a permit to see her family in Jerusalem, which is just a few miles away. This is kettling on a national scale.
Yet all this seems to be of little interest to those who are queuing up outside the Church of the Nativity. They have come to worship the baby Jesus, and not to care too much about the current travails of the town in which he was born.
What seems so wrong about all this is that Jesus’s message of peace, social justice, and concern for the poor has been turned into an aesthetic experience. Distracted by the incense and the spiritual intensity of what is undoubtedly a very beautiful church, too many visitors seem not to connect the content of their faith with the current circumstances of Palestinian Christians and others living in the Holy Land.
I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that too many people have come to operate with a diminished idea of the holy — as if the holy were some pristine space in which God alone can be discovered and enjoyed. This is holiness as a form of separateness or set-apartness. It is a hangover from the idea that only the most pure, only the high priest, can enter the holy of holies. That which is impure (such as the messy reality of Middle-East politics) has to be kept as a distance, outside, away from the absolute perfection of God.
But Christianity will have none of this. This same God was scandalously born in a stable, among the dirt-poor and the oppressed. No amount of incense can cover up this central theological imperative.