Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – My mother was a Lutheran and the Coles were Catholics, though my grandfather fell away when he married a woman from the Brethren peace church. So it was striking to me that on this Christmas a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, Munther Isaac, and Pope Francis both made headlines with their sermons. The schism of the Reformation was never healed, but people in the two spiritual traditions can agree on one thing, which is that the hunger, thirst, cold, homelessness, wounds and death stalking the 2.2 million Palestinians of Gaza at the hands of the extreme right wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, aided by President Joe Biden, makes this Christmas different.
Pope Francis said at his evening Mass on Christmas Eve, “Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world.”
In Bethlehem itself, where Pastor Isaac preaches, the city elders canceled the Christmas parade and other festivities in commemoration of the shivering Palestinians a few miles away whose stomachs are being gnawed at by hunger and whose throats are raspy with thirst. Bethlehem is a town of some 25,000 in the Palestinian West Bank occupied militarily by Israeli troops. About 11,000 of its residents are Palestinian Christians, descendants of the Near Eastern pagans and Jews living under Roman rule who embraced the message of Jesus of Nazareth in his lifetime and after.
Bethlehem’s population is not being bombed from the sky the way the Palestinians of Gaza are, but they also suffer from Israeli occupation. According to a 2020 poll 80% of Palestinian Christians worry about being attacked by militant Israeli squatters, 83% worry that these colonizers will drive them from their homes, and 70% are concerned that the Israeli government will simply annex their land. Fully 62% of Palestinian Christians believe that the ultimate goal of the Israeli government is to expel Christians from their homeland. A good 14% have actually lost land to the Israelis, and 42% have to regularly go through Israeli security checkpoints, which have carved the West Bank up into cantons and make it difficult to get to hospital.
Although there are only about 800 Palestinian Christians in Gaza, they have suffered from Israeli bombardment, sniping attacks, and razing of civilian infrastructure. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem revealed in a letter last week that an Israeli army sniper “murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza”. It said that besieged mother and daughter Nahida and Samar “were shot and killed as they walked to the Sister’s Convent. One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety”.
They were among hundreds of Christians taking refuge in the Parish. The church had given the GPS coordinates of church properties in Gaza to the Israeli government in hopes they would be spared, but local Palestinians say that church building has been shelled by Israeli armor.
Pope Francis responded at that time, lamenting of the Israeli campaign against Gaza that “unarmed civilians are the targets of bombings and gunfire.” He condemned the assualt at the compound of the Catholic parish, “where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities, and nuns . . . A mother, Mrs. Nahida Khalil Anton, and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, were killed, and others were wounded by the shooters while they were going to the bathroom,” he announced.
The Pope continued, “Some say, ‘This is terrorism. This is war.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism . . . That is why the Scripture affirms that ‘God stops wars… breaks the bow, splinters the spear’ (Psalm 46:10). Let us pray to the Lord for peace.”
The Israeli army denied the charges and got in a snit about a “blood libel.” But when you are the 17th most powerful military in the world and you genocide 20,000 civilians in 11 weeks, there isn’t any libel involved. It is just blood.
Israelis with a conscience, such as activist Orly Noy, the chairman of the human rights organization, B’Tselem, in contrast called desperately for a ceasefire. This issue isn’t about Judaism or Islam or Christianity, since there are people from each of those traditions who are on opposite sides of it.
As for Lutheran Pastor Munther Isaac, on Friday he preached a sermon, “Christ in the Rubble.”
He cited the enormity of the death toll, including of thousands of children, and said that as in the case of South African Apartheid the theology of the state has been wielded against the helpless. Not even that some Palestinians are Christians has evoked sympathy in European and American Christians. “This war has confirmed to us that the world does not see us as equal. Maybe it is the color of our skin. Maybe it is because we are on the wrong side of the political equation. Even our kinship in Christ did not shield us. As they said, if it takes killing 100 Palestinians to get a single “Hamas militant” then so be it! We are not humans in their eyes. (But in God’s eyes… no one can tell us we are not!).”
He implicitly referred to US Evangelicals, many of whom have enthusiastically cheered on the Israeli army’s genocidal (my word) actions.
“I feel sorry for you. We will be ok. Despite the immense blow we have endured, we will recover. We will rise and stand up again from the midst of destruction, as we have always done as Palestinians, although this is by far the biggest blow we have received in a long time.
But again, for those who are complicit, I feel sorry for you. Will you ever recover from this?”
No, I don’t think this campaign’s supporters ever will regain their souls, which they have sold for the thirty silver coins of conformism, militarism, cowardice and Islamophobia.
Pastor Isaac went on:
“In our pain, anguish, and lament, we have searched for God, and found him under the rubble in Gaza. Jesus became the victim of the very same violence of the Empire. He was tortured. Crucified. He bled out as others watched. He was killed and cried out in pain – My God, where are you?
In Gaza today, God is under the rubble.
And in this Christmas season, as we search for Jesus, he is to be found not on the side of Rome, but our side of the wall. In a cave, with a simple family. Vulnerable. Barely, and miraculously surviving a massacre. Among a refugee family. This is where Jesus is found.”
So he inspired me to a digital painting. I’ll leave you with it.
“Gaza Guernica 19: Nativity,” by Juan Cole, Digital, Dream/ Dreamland v.3, PS Express, IbisPaint, 2023.