O' Little Town of Bethlehem: A Lesson on Peace Learned From A Palestinian Christ Follower

We wound our way up the stone staircase to meet with a peacemaker.  Sounds of traffic and shouts of hawkers hummed from the main road below.  So many deals on trinkets to be had for tourists.

Welcome to modern day Bethlehem - an ancient town that we sing songs about this time of year.  Bethlehem is located 5 miles south of Jerusalem in what is now called the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” or the “West Bank” (due to its location on the West Bank of the Jordan River).

Worldwide Christians flock to this town to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and on this particular day, we were meeting with a Palestinian follower of this same Jesus – a follower in every sense of the word.  His name is Sami Awad and he is the Executive Director of an organization called Holy Land Trust.

Sami grew up in the Occupied Palestinian Territory under direct control of the Israeli Defense Forces where basic freedoms didn’t exist.  Even speaking about peace, resistance, or the existence of a Palestinian culture was illegal in that day.  A central question in his family was how to respond to such an occupation?  His grandmother held dearly to the teachings of Jesus, and understood that to live according to this way was to never seek revenge.  In fact, Sami’s uncle was a known Palestinian activist who promoted non-violent resistance to the occupation, and so Sami grew up with these models of how to live under occupation in the Town of David.  Sami was filled with disparate emotions of hatred toward occupation and a family who valued non-violence.

As time went on, Sami would regularly engage in non-violent direct action as a means of resisting the occupation, and time after time, Sami would return from such engagements bloodied and beat up, or exhausted after prolonged stays in prison.  He gained notoriety and attention from such endeavors, and in his words “It was all a big ego trip.”

Back in those days Sami would have said this is exactly what Jesus would do if he were walking the streets of modern day Bethlehem.  He would stand against his “oppressors” in this way.   But he said that God corrected this view during a trip to Germany in order to visit the Auschwitz death camp.  In Sami’s words:

In Auschwitz I discovered my enemy - it was the narrative of fear, trauma, and a lack of healing that Israelis have experienced. While I was there, I heard Israeli teachers tell Israeli children on government-sponsored trips that ‘the Holocaust is not over. That if the Arabs, Palestinians, Moslems have the chance, they will do it again. And so this is why we have to be strong, and never let our guard down. This is why we can never trust the other, this is why you join the army. The only way to keep our nation is through you and your service in the army.’

I began to understand and open myself in awareness of the underlying narrative that causes the action. We label people by their action without asking what causes them to do what they do. We use labels like: ‘Thief or rapist.’ But if you ask what caused that action then somehow you are justifying it. Our journey is to listen and hear the narrative behind the fear that causes them to believe what they believe.

The transforming point of my life was when I was truly and directly challenged to love the enemy. Jesus doesn’t say negotiate or sign a treaty with the enemy, he says to love them.

What is this love that Jesus is talking about? We, as those who follow Jesus, are proud to carry it as a distinctive, but how many of us actually love our enemy?

Before, my non-violence was actually motivated by hate - I wanted the world to see how bad our occupiers were. But now, I’m asking how we can engage in non-violence out of love and compassion… even empathy towards my enemy. It’s a continuous process of learning.
— Sami Awad

We sat in the room dumbfounded at the revelations that this man was sharing with us.  Not abstract theories in non-violence, or love of neighbor, but real-time, gritty, action-oriented, tested practices of peacemaking.

When we hear the word “PEACE” during Christmas time, it could be tempting to shrug it off, or relegate it to the fluffy, fake snow-filled scenes adorning the shops we walk past.  Peace doesn’t just float down on us from some far-off snow-machine.  Peace is made, crafted, forged, embodied.  An active re-creation of parts into something whole.

That’s what Advent teaches us.  A deep yearning for something we aren’t yet fully experiencing, and yet is all the while accessible in this exact moment.  Advent:  The arrival of a whole new way of being and seeing the world.  An awakening along the lines of what Sami explains, “The peace of the Kingdom [of God] is completely different than a political solution.”

What solutions are you looking for right now?

What does peace mean to you personally at this moment?  How about for your immediate relationships or neighborhood?

What dream of peace do you hold for our fractured world?

The Prince of Peace is found in the muck of the stable, in the dirt of this world, actively creating a new kind of humanity.  Jesus enters into the brokenness and embodies a love so powerful that enemies are turned into friends.  Jesus empowers people of all generations to do the same.  This same Jesus who entered into our global neighborhood through Bethlehem, is still stirring up those who would follow… even in Bethlehem, even in Costa Mesa, even in your neighborhood.

In a season that can feel anything but peaceful, the words of Isaiah 9 ring in my mind and heart… who’s “government” am I looking to for peace?

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
— Isaiah 9:6-7

“Of the greatness of HIS government and peace there will be no end.”

Jesus’ government and peace has no end.

It lives on in the hearts, lives, wills of those who would pursue the revolutionary task of loving our enemies.  Not in the abstract sense.  In the visceral reality we experience.  Embodied peace.  Incarnation.  May it be so in my life today.  May it be so this Advent.  Jesus bring more of your government and peace in my life, and also in Sami’s reality.


ANDREW RICHARDS

Andrew has lived on 2 continents in almost 30 different homes. He has been the new kid, the different one, the one who talks funny. And he has experienced love that breaks down walls of separation. He desires to see people experience that kind of love.  And also equipped to live that kind of love. When we follow Jesus into peacemaking, breaking down walls, we see transformation in our own lives, and the lives of those around us. Andrew loves his wife of 17 years, Annette, and 2 kids, and is grateful to serve as the Community Life Pastor at Redemption Church.