For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Mitri Raheb

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Philip Brooks certainly could never have imagined modern Bethlehem when he penned those lyrics in 1867, but today’s Bethlehem represented for me the meeting place of hope and fear, the place where everlasting light shone in dark streets.

Today’s Bethlehem is in the occupied West Bank. To visit the place of Jesus’ birth, we had to pass through the Israeli checkpoint and giant security wall erected to prevent the Palestinians from having access to their land or Israel. After listening to Noora’s story the day before, we had a chance to see with our own eyes the conditions of occupation.

The security wall blocks all view of Bethlehem from outside, erasing its presence from the landscape.

As tourists, we were not subject to the same scrutiny as local Palestinians, but we saw the long lines as we passed by the checkpoint. We saw the teenagers with machine guns looking warily at old men and young women with babies. We drove on a road built for the Israeli settlers, a road that Palestinians were not allowed to use to access their own towns, a road whose impassibility created a barrier that separated families from one another. The wall cut across the land like an ugly scar. Once we got inside the wall, we saw the passionate expressions of resistance painted on it.

Graffiti inside the security wall

This is the town of Jesus’ birth.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus too was born under an occupying army, cut off from his family by a Roman decree that sent them on the road to Bethlehem.

The fortress-like exterior of the Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, is built like a fortress. It’s the oldest surviving church in the country, built by the Byzantines in the fifth century. It was only saved from destruction by the Persians because it had a mosaic over the entrance featuring the three wise men. Their image resembled the Persians themselves, so they left the church intact. When the Crusader armies became the occupiers, they built major fortifications around the building, and expanded the church with new art and decoration. They even blocked up the doors so they were only four feet high, so that no soldier on horseback could enter in battle. Jesus’ birthplace looked a lot like the checkpoint—one narrow entrance into the space behind the high wall.

Members of our group waiting to enter the narrow door to the Church of the Nativity

The narrow door of the current checkpoint for Palestinians to enter or exit Bethlehem

The church itself was dark, and the supposed site of Jesus’ birth was buried underground in a tiny grotto, laden with tapestries and candles and stones and silver décor. It didn’t feel to me at all like a humble stable. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was oppressive with the weight of Christendom, rather than the light of the living Christ.

An immense number of decorative lamps in the chancel of the Church of the Nativity

Ornamental altar area at the Church of the Nativity

Beneath this decorative display is the traditional site of Jesus' birth.

But the everlasting light does shine in the dark streets of Bethlehem today, bringing hope into this place of so much fear. The Christ-light is alive and well at Diyar, the Palestinian Christian organization founded by Dr. Mitri Raheb, author of I Am a Palestinian Christian and pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. We met with Dr. Raheb for an hour, and listened to his theological reflection on what it means to be a pastor in Bethlehem today. His words, his presence, his church’s ministries are giving birth to hope in Bethlehem today, and they inspired us with hope as well.

Raheb himself was immediately impressive as a theologian with the heart of a pastor and skill of a visionary leader. I was captivated by his analysis of contextual theology for Palestinian Christians, who dwell in the land where it all began. He spoke powerfully of the deep losses sustained by the Palestinian people since 1948. The greatest loss, he said, was not the land—it was their narrative. They had lost their story, their continuity of worship from the time of Christ, their culture as a people. This, he said, was far more important to reclaim—and, thankfully, reclaiming it is not dependent on political liberation, change from the outside or the end of the occupation. That work begins right now.

His congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, stepped out in faith to begin this work in their community, to become an outreach community by founding Diyar. As he told the story of Diyar’s founding, his church could have been anywhere, in any location. They were a small church, only about 220 people. When he first had a vision of launching a community outreach program, the congregation was hesitant. They were already struggling to pay the bills—how could they take on more? Weren’t they there to worship God first? How could they reach out to others when they were barely taking care of themselves? Shouldn’t they just hunker down and do their best to keep the church going through occupation? Instead of those questions of scarcity, they focused instead on the theological questions of mission: Where is God? Who is my neighbor? What is the vision of the best possible future, and how do you get there? Christ’s call to service prevailed, and God’s grace has been abundant.

The sign for Diyar, listing many of the programs they offer.

Founded in 1995, Diyar now serves more than 60,000 people a year (Muslims and Christians) through their programs. Diyar means “home,” and they describe themselves as a “Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented organization serving the whole Palestinian community.” They offer cultural programs and civic engagement training, health and wellness ministries (including a women’s sports league), higher education, and programs for children, parents and seniors.

The congregation itself is still small (no one can move into or out of the West Bank, conversion is not a reality in Israel, and the community is predominately Muslim), but they no longer see themselves as barely holding on. Their ministry to the community has revived their sense of mission and their vitality as a congregation. Following God has given them a sense of freedom and purpose that no amount of oppression or occupation can suppress.

All the fortifications of occupying armies and all the might of empires, whether past, present or future, cannot keep hope from being born again and again and again in the City of Bethlehem. The hopes and fears of nations and their peoples meet in this tiny place. May God’s everlasting light continue to burn brightly there.

I Am a Palestinian Christian by Mitri Raheb, Fortress Press, 1995, 164 pp.

This is the first in a series of books I am reading in preparation for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this January and February. (I fully expect to blog the experience, so you’ll be hearing more. It’s a journey for pastors called the Macedonian Ministries program, sponsored by the Cousins Foundation.)

I have had a compassionate heart for the plight of the Palestinian people since I first learned their story about ten years ago, when I was involved with the Friends of Sabeel North America Conference in Boston. The stories of displacement, disenfranchisement and discrimination are appalling. I expected Raheb’s book to confirm this perspective, to add to my knowledge about this injustice, and tell again the story of how it has all unfolded. While I Am a Palestinian Christian did share again the Palestinian perspective, it also did much more.

Mitri Raheb is a Palestinian Christian (a Lutheran pastor) who explains how being a Christian who lives and hails from the site of Jesus’ life and death makes a difference in his perspective as a Christian. He also explains why it should make a difference to Christians that he and other Palestinians like him maintain a presence in the region.

A kind of symbiosis exists between the land of Palestine and Christian Palestinians. Each has influenced and imprinted the other deeply. … The fate of the Christians is bound up with the fate of their holy sites. The fact that Christian Palestinians have refused to abandon these holy sites despite massive  pressure demonstrates that the holy sites are almost meaningless to them if there is not a Christian community living and worshiping there. The stones of the church need the living stones, but we living stones need a space and a locality in which to live and to celebrate. (4)

I had never considered the importance of a living Christian community native to the sites in the Holy Land. Something indeed would be lost if the holy sites and cathedrals were all maintained only by European Christians, and worship every Sunday was populated only with tourists and pilgrims. The true church is the “living stones” who live out the kingdom of God week in and week out in their community. What a loss if those communities were lost in Jesus’ own homeland.

The first half of the book describes the life, theology and political circumstances of the Palestinian Christian community. He talks about Arab Christians as a minority in Palestine, and the role they play in negotiations between Muslims and Jews. He talks about the modern history of the Holy Land, the injustice of the Occupation, the hardships of increased settlements and security, and the need for a two-state solution.  Raheb notes the unique relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East, especially the Holy Land, where the two cannot peacefully and justly separated. He puts forth an outline of a contextual theology for Arab Christians, which includes the above intertwining of religion and politics, ecumenism, an emphasis on incarnation, attention to the poor, the sacredness of the land, and more.

The second half of the book offers biblical interpretation from the perspective of Palestinian Christians. Raheb begins with a list of principles for biblical interpretation in the Palestinian Christian community, moving beyond allegory but avoiding ahistoricism and fundamentalism. He then offers perspectives on the Exodus, the promise of land, Jonah, the love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount and more. Most interesting to me was his chapter on “Election.” He writes:

Election, correctly understood, is therefore a promise to the weak, encouragement to the discouraged, and consolation to the desperate. But election can easily become “claim,” and a statement of faith can then turn into a dangerous ideology. This occurs especially when a person, a religion, or a people becomes strong, secure or rich. It is alarming to have a promise turn into a claim. … Election is not a special privilege. It is much more a call to service, above all a service “to the other.”

If we believe ourselves to all be God’s chosen ones, we have no claim to special authority or privilege (or land)—we have only mission in God’s name.

Raheb’s book is an excellent introduction to the history, impact and theology of Palestinian Christianity. Raheb himself is an astute and authentic writer, whose perspective claims both personal and intellectual authority. There is nothing heavy-handed or politically charged in the book. He just speaks his truth, and that truth is powerful.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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