Category: Pondering Peace
Unto to Us a Child is Born
As I was pulling out the decorations for Christmas this year, I came across a small box that hadn’t been there last year. On the box was written “Olivewood Creche from Bethlehem” in my mother’s handwriting. We had come across it while sorting through some of the boxes that came to our home after my parents passed away many years ago. Our family had visited Israel a couple times during my childhood, and I have some vague memories of Bethlehem, mostly of the place claimed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Overly ornate and embedded within the Church of the Nativity, it seemed a far cry from the conditions under which Jesus was born. Yet it was the way in which those of centuries past had sought to honor him.
As I slid my fingers over the light tan olivewood, I thought about Bethlehem, which today is located within the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Usually it is a bustling place this time of year as tourists from around the world converge to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This year it is quiet, devoid of tourists who have been scared away by the Israel-Hamas war. As I feel the olivewood, I recall a news story I had heard about how Palestinian farmers are being attacked by Israeli settlers and harassed by the military such that they cannot get to their fields of olive trees ready for harvest. Of course, the situation is far worse in Gaza.
As I unpack the figures to set up the nativity scene, I pause to consider the small figure representing Jesus and place him in the simple manger at the center of the scene. The birth narrative tells us that his mother and Joseph had been forced by Roman imperial decree to travel to Bethlehem for a census. There, without midwife or mother to help, without home or needed supplies, alone except for Joseph, Mary gave birth under the harsh conditions of a shelter for animals, because there was no room for them in the inn.
I think of how in the midst of the intense war of Gaza there are around 50,000 pregnant women, with 180 giving birth every day, many of them prematurely because of the inordinate stress. Almost all have been displaced from their homes and doctors. They are fortunate if they are able to access one of the few remaining hospitals when the time to give birth comes, but many are delivering their babies in a temporary shelter, or someone else’s overcrowded home, or in the rubble of demolished buildings. One woman delivered soon after being pulled from the rubble which had injured her. Her unborn daughter was also injured in the air raid, entering the world with a broken leg. The medical system has almost collapsed, bombing is continuous, there is very little food or water, and quite likely there will be no home to return to as nearly half of the homes have been destroyed or damaged. Mothers are unable to produce milk to breastfeed their newborns, as they cannot find enough food to eat. The situation is even more dire for premature babies or those needing special medical care.
God’s fragile life being born into the world today is imperiled. As an adult, Jesus identified himself with children. He once took a small child and said that whoever welcomes one such child is welcoming him. Thousands of children have been killed in Gaza, and more are being killed every day. All the children there are traumatized, as well as those who were caught up in the horrendous Hamas terrorist attack and subsequent hostage ordeal which resulted in their emerging as “shadows of children,” as one observer noted.
Matthew’s narrative of the birth story tells us that wise men from the East came seeking the newborn king of the Jews and encountered King Herod, a murderous man so bent on maintaining his power and so fearful of any threat to it that he ordered the killing of all Bethlehem children who were two years old and younger. I cannot help but think of those leading Israel right now who hold to the belief that violence can secure safety and peace for the nation, even as their political ambitions to maintain power are not hard to see.
The world power behind King Herod was the Roman Empire, which believed that through violence and oppression they were achieving Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Today the world power backing up Israel’s war on Gaza is the United States. This country also demonstrates a deep loyalty to a belief in the effectiveness and legitimacy of using violence to achieve ends we view as important. Our country has the largest military in the world, with bases in 80 countries. It is the largest exporter of arms in the world and has provided Israel with over 80-90% of its weapons, and continues to provide more. Our leaders remain firm in support for the war as Israel’s right to defend itself, have vetoed the United Nations’ calls for a ceasefire, and although urging some restraint, continue to give more weapons.
What Hamas did on October 7 in killing 1200 people and taking over 200 hostages was horrifying. The stories of what people experienced in that attack and hostage ordeal are terrible. However, the strategy of trying to destroy Hamas by fierce bombings and military action that indiscriminately kill large segments of the civilian population is morally indefensible. Nearly 20,000 people have been killed in Gaza, around 40% of them being children.
As I put the wise men in place, I think of how the birth narrative indicates that their visit triggered King Herod’s violent response and the consequent flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to escape. I think of the people in Gaza with no way to escape. They were told to evacuate south, away from Israel’s military invasion in the north. When amassed in the southern part of Gaza, they were bombed anyway and forced to flee from place to place, seeking safety but not knowing where it can be found. This time Egypt is not accepting those seeking asylum and refuge from the violence. All exits out of Gaza are closed to Palestinians; there is no escape. Unlike Jesus who was given refuge in Egypt with his parents, these babies and children are trapped, like the ones in Bethlehem killed by King Herod’s fury.
There are also shepherds and sheep to place in the nativity scene, along with other animals residing where the Holy Family took shelter. Shepherds were peasants, looked down upon by others, but the ones who believed the messengers from God and sought out Jesus. As an adult Jesus welcomed such humble people of the land and identified himself with those most disregarded and in need. He assured them that they are embraced by God’s love. But the ordinary people of Palestine, already impoverished by historical displacement from the land and subsequent military occupation and siege are being devastated; they are being killed and injured, almost all of them are internally displaced, and much critical infrastructure is gone.
This olivewood creche from Bethlehem, representing the birth stories of Jesus, is a sweet scene expressing the tender love of God embodied in a baby, embraced by a humble couple, celebrated by poor people and animals, and honored by wise ones of other lands. But threats to God’s love and intended peace are also part of this story. The gospel writers in many ways make clear who is the true Savior and Sovereign. It is not the Roman emperor or King Herod who cling to power by way of violence, but rather it is this humble baby who as an adult taught and showed us that the God of inclusive love is not a God who supports war but quite the opposite. Those who learn God’s ways, according to Isaiah 2, ” beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:3-4).
Many are calling out for a permanent ceasefire as a step toward peace. Hearteningly, some of the loudest voices being heard are those of Jewish Voice for Peace, who are “guided by a vision of justice, equality, and dignity for all,” including Palestinians. Recently I participated in an online event sponsored by Mothers for Ceasefire. As maternal bearers of life, we gathered to listen to women of both Jewish and Palestinian descent speak about their anguish over the war, and then we were resourced to call our Congress members to ask them to support a ceasefire. Next week I hope to join others in delivering a letter calling for a ceasefire and signed by local faith leaders to the office of our congressional representative. Perhaps this is how we need to be lifting our voices during this Christmas season and beyond. Perhaps in this way, we will be joining our small efforts to the angels’ song of hope for “peace on earth, goodwill among people.”
Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.