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What Would Jesus Do (on his birthday in Jerusalem)?

Israel/Palestine
on 29 Comments
Dormition Abbey

Dormition Abbey

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

If Mahmoud Abbas should simply give up his diminished – or non-existent – ship of state and go AWOL, since there’s no end in sight to the occupation, what should the churches in the Holy Land do? Keeping their regular hours, preaching salvation to an increasingly ghettoized Palestinian population, is irresponsible. It’s a scandal to the Palestinian Messenger whose birth the churches just piously celebrated.

Israel’s occupation – and colonization – is civilian. Every sector of Israeli society participates in and benefits from the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

The churches in the Holy Land are likewise culpable. Though the churches often see themselves as protectors of the people, garnering international support and holding onto valuable property, especially in the heart of Jerusalem, the sad reality is that they are occupation-enablers. They are part and parcel of the ghettoization of the Palestinian people.

These are harsh accusations, especially in the Christmas season, but at least the discussion should commence. Buttressing the charge – and opening the discussion further – the churches who accompany the Palestinians by sending emissaries, accompaniers and development workers are also enablers. Too often the indigenous and international church institutions are more interested in keeping their toehold in the Holy Land than risking their Israeli-approved place in the sun.

I have been thinking about this over the years. It came to a head with an article on Christmas worship in Jerusalem where most in attendance were, yes, that’s right, Israeli Jews.

Check it out. Someone told me about Israeli Jews filling the churches on Christmas Eve but I had difficulty believing it. What in God’s name are Israeli Jews doing there?

What struck me first was the title of the article: “What Do You Preach to a Church Full of Jews on Christmas?”

The church featured is the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and evidently it is decked out for Jesus’s birthday. As the article relates, the Abbot there is ecumenical and sensitive to the interfaith nature of the audience. I use the word “audience” because for most of the Israeli Jews, the service was a happening.

Some of the Israelis were asked why they attended:

“It’s a nice show,” said one dreadlocked Israeli university student in attendance. “It’s a good choreography, you know. I can appreciate a good show.”

“We’re here to share the happiness of different holidays than ours,” another student said. “It’s also just fun.”
Hundreds of Israelis were in attendance, many of them university students wearing dreads and piercings and funky gold leggings. One said he was attending for an ethnographic study — an assignment for anthropology class.

Liel Magen, who works at an intercultural center up the alleyway from the church, said he goes to all kinds of religious celebrations in Jerusalem.

“I think it’s important to be tolerant and interested in other religions, especially those that live among us as neighbors,” Magen said. “I don’t think we need to be separate. The beauty of this city is that we can celebrate all year long.”

So go happenings in occupied Jerusalem.

The report doesn’t detail the Abbot’s sermon, but the question I have is simple: Why bother? Or if he does bother, let it rip.

Strip the church bare. Abandon the happening ritual. Tell the gathered that nothing occurs in these hallowed halls until the occupation is over.

Invoke Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s maxim that the church has lost its credibility to announce anything in public except its sins. Practice Bonhoeffer’s “secret discipline;” Christian life should be celebrated in private by those living fully Christian lives. More importantly, listen to Bonhoeffer about Christian responsibility in the face of injustice. Place a “spoke in the wheel” of occupation.

By going on with these services years after year after year, the church normalizes the occupation.

Hold the transcendent logic, especially when it comes to Jesus who, according to the Gospels, squarely places himself in the Jewish prophetic tradition. It doesn’t help Israeli Jews, Palestinian Christians or the international Christian tourists to make Jesus’ entry into history transcendental.

What would Jesus do in Jerusalem, on his birthday no less?

He wouldn’t be an enabler of occupation and ghettoization, that’s for sure. He also wouldn’t be attending the churches who, through their ritualistic life, have become part of the problem.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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29 Responses

  1. libra
    libra
    December 29, 2013, 12:39 pm

    Professor Ellis: Someone told me about Israeli Jews filling the churches on Christmas Eve but I had difficulty believing it. What in God’s name are Israeli Jews doing there?

    Well Professor, the answer is given in the linked article. They are singing “Silent Night”. In German. Perhaps a transcendent moment of peace and all its possibilities.

    • joecatron
      joecatron
      December 29, 2013, 4:00 pm

      A song whose historical connotations, in this context, can hardly be accidental.

      • libra
        libra
        December 29, 2013, 4:18 pm

        My thoughts exactly, Joe. Thanks for the link.

  2. Walid
    Walid
    December 29, 2013, 12:55 pm

    “What would Jesus do in Jerusalem, on his birthday no less?”

    He’d probably begin by telling you that he wasn’t born on December 25th and he’d be displeased at having had that date, a pagan holiday, arbitrarily chosen to be his birth day for no good reason.

    • Mike_Konrad
      Mike_Konrad
      December 29, 2013, 1:46 pm

      Right! He was probably born in early October (by our Calendar) on the Jewish Feast of Trumpets.

    • Ellen
      Ellen
      December 29, 2013, 5:02 pm

      many if not all Abrahamic religious holidays are built upon so-called pagan holidays and rituals. nothing wrong with that as all are really about universal truths and giving us guidance/orientation through the seasons…

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones
      December 29, 2013, 5:46 pm

      I’m going to go with Ellis on this one. I think the birth date would be one of His less important concerns. ;)

      I think you will agree. :)

  3. bintbiba
    bintbiba
    December 29, 2013, 1:01 pm

    Amen to that…!!! Well said, Dr. Ellis.

  4. Don
    Don
    December 29, 2013, 1:32 pm

    Can”t agree with this at all…

    At a time when we are told, on a daily basis, that Israelis are slipping ever deeper in to xenophobic racism…a story of young Israelis willing to enter a church of their “ancient enemy” (Catholicism)…and this is somehow NOT good news?

    As for the Church proclaiming “Tell the gathered that nothing occurs in these hallowed halls until the occupation is over.”…and how many Jews, Israeli or otherwise, would listen to that message?

    Phil…our fearless leader…today proclaims how many Christian friends he has…primarily because they are not really Christian? Would Phil listen? Would you? I suspect not.

    • Bumblebye
      Bumblebye
      December 29, 2013, 1:55 pm

      Don

      “As for the Church proclaiming “Tell the gathered that nothing occurs in these hallowed halls until the occupation is over.”…and how many Jews, Israeli or otherwise, would listen to that message?”

      Well, the Israeli govt would be listening, would then proclaim the churches to be disused, and either tear them down and put up apartment blocks for exclusive Jewish use, or turn them into nightclubs and bars!

      Marc’s being daft with this one. It would give Israel what it would perceive as another ‘win’.

    • December 29, 2013, 5:53 pm

      Willing to enter a Church… as an act of patronization. For entertainment provided by the unter menschen

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones
      December 29, 2013, 5:53 pm

      Don,

      Phil…our fearless leader…today proclaims how many Christian friends he has…primarily because they are not really Christian?

      You were referring to this?
      It’s not like my wife or my friends are very Christian. If they were, we wouldn’t be friends. They respect Christ as a teacher, but mock Christian religious claims and stay away from church.

      I was surprised by this and thought it went against the rest of the essay that was otherwise about his valuing other religions and cultures.

  5. Shmuel
    Shmuel
    December 29, 2013, 1:37 pm

    I think a lot of secular Jewish Israelis have “Christmas envy”, part of a broader West/Europe-envy. If it were only about “shar[ing] the happiness of different holidays than ours”, you’d also have heaps of Israeli Jews lining up to “share” in Muslim celebrations and, as Dr. Ellis points out, being a spectator is not sharing.

    When I was a student in Jerusalem, I went to the Redeemer Church one Christmas. It was a about the music (I went with a friend, who was a musicology student), but I think it was also about our own claustrophobia and feeling of isolated provincialism.

    • bintbiba
      bintbiba
      December 29, 2013, 2:48 pm

      For me it is always about the music and the rest is my personal free way of being spiritual and being as one with the rest of humanity. I can’t allow ‘religion’ to limit my human horizon.

      • Shmuel
        Shmuel
        December 29, 2013, 4:35 pm

        I actually went to mass this Christmas, but it wasn’t for the music. I was in a tiny village on the Calabrian coast that has taught the world a spectacular lesson in humanity. I wanted to be with the villagers and to express my solidarity and thanks. I also shared (and helped prepare) a Christmas meal with friends. All were enriched and none was diminished.

      • Bumblebye
        Bumblebye
        December 29, 2013, 5:09 pm

        Would that be the one (whose name I can’t remember) that’s been taking in the migrants? If so, I’ve heard some lovely accounts on the radio. They sound like really super people! Incredibly open and generous of spirit. Universalists.

      • Shmuel
        Shmuel
        December 29, 2013, 5:14 pm

        Would that be the one (whose name I can’t remember) that’s been taking in the migrants?

        Yes. We were in Riace, but also visited other villages that have done similar things.

        They sound like really super people! Incredibly open and generous of spirit. Universalists.

        Absolutely.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        December 29, 2013, 5:58 pm

        Congratulations, Shmuel.

      • bintbiba
        bintbiba
        December 29, 2013, 7:27 pm

        Beautiful!!

  6. Sycamores
    Sycamores
    December 29, 2013, 3:04 pm

    “The churches in the Holy Land are likewise culpable”

    i agree, their silence is deafening.

    was there any serious backlash from the churches during the Easter celebrations at the Holy Sepulchre where Christians were forbidden to reach freely to the Church.

    Palestinians Christians wrote a letter “To our Venerable Heads of Churches” https://www.facebook.com/PalestinianChristians/posts/601486056547050

    the last paragraph sums it up

    “Our dear and venerable Heads of Churches, your silence kill us. Do you not see the soldiers and their guns, and their attitudes? Please say a word of truth. And let us pray on the day of our Easter in our Churches.”

    “Strip the church bare. Abandon the happening ritual. Tell the gathered that nothing occurs in these hallowed halls until the occupation is over.”

    that would send a clear message to the Christians globally without doubt and would create such panic amongst the occupiers and israeli apologists because things on the ground in Palestine/israel would change over night.

    maybe the penny has drop for me because i believe Mr Ellis is on to something here.

  7. Citizen
    Citizen
    December 29, 2013, 3:10 pm

    Whatever prompts Israeli Jews to attend subject Xmas service, why is this not mentioned in the American press? That American mainstream media silence speaks loudly. No? Why so?

  8. Taxi
    Taxi
    December 29, 2013, 3:17 pm

    “What would Jesus do on his birthday?”

    Turn the Jordan river into wine and take a dive.

    Anything to get away from all that whining in israel!

    • mcohen
      mcohen
      December 30, 2013, 8:06 am

      Taxi

      Have to agree.thats why i read angry arab,i dont like his anti zionist but he gets to the point and has a sense of irony minus the whine

  9. Daniel Rich
    Daniel Rich
    December 29, 2013, 4:38 pm

    The first thing Jesus would do is to beg people not to have him hang from a cross, for those memories are way too painful.

    The second thing Jesus would do is politely ask Jewish visitors to stop hanging a large piece of cloth over his face.

    The third thing he would do is ask everyone to stop worshiping him, abandon all churches and turn to the Universe for answers [aka god].

    Then, and only then, will peace be upon you.

    • Djinn
      Djinn
      December 31, 2013, 1:41 am

      I never really understood how Christ suffered so much. If god told me that my torture & death would save all mankind forever & when I died I’d sit next to God then I’d do it in a heartbeat. A few days pain to save all humanity and live in paradise forever? Most non sociopaths would take that deal surely?

  10. Keith
    Keith
    December 29, 2013, 8:42 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “…the sad reality is that they are occupation-enablers.”

    Are you sure you want to get into this? As I suspect you are aware, historically religion has always been an important component of the ideological glue which binds a society together. A religion at odds with the power structure will be either destroyed or co-opted. Look at what happened to liberation theology, a one-time return to the original scriptures, quickly abandoned by the Catholic Church following the death of Pope John XXIII, and crushed by US counterinsurgency. Likewise, missionaries have always been enablers of imperialism, a function now performed by NGOs.

    “What would Jesus do in Jerusalem, on his birthday no less?”

    Probably similar to what he did 2000 years ago with comparable results and consequences. He didn’t exactly run the Romans out of Palestine, did he? Those who defy empire usually pay a heavy price, life after death not exactly a sure thing.

  11. Talkback
    Talkback
    December 29, 2013, 10:22 pm

    Jesus would say: They have learned nothing.

  12. Theo
    Theo
    December 30, 2013, 8:50 am

    In my opinion Jesus would say the following: Since I am only an invention I have no birthday, however I am ashamed of all those crimes done in my name!
    I am particularly ashamed of those churches, that although carry my and preach in my name, do not follow those commendments they supposedly live by. The oldest one, the roman catholic church, always prostituted itself to gain power and earthly fortunes, blessed the weapons used to kill other christians, preached hate against other christian churches and forbade marriages between different christians faithfuls.
    Where were all those christian churches when during WWII millions were massacred because of their faith, ethnicity, political belief, etc.?

    Coming from an orthodox catholic family I wonder how intelligent and well educated persons still can believe those fairy tales, myths and outright lies, and discuss the merits of the Torah or the Bible.
    Might as well do the same with the tales of the Grimm Brothers or Christian Andersen, among others, who also wrote beautiful stories, full of wisdom and kindness, where the good usually wins and the bad will be punished. In all religions I know of the bad and the aggressive wins, the good is usually sidelined and used for others to follow.

  13. Theo
    Theo
    December 30, 2013, 9:04 am

    During my travels I have visited mosques in Istambul and Kaiouran, (it being the third holiest to the moslems), the world´s second largest synagoge in Budapest, St.Peter´s Dom and other old churches in Rome, Firenze, London, etc. Also pagodas and buddhist temples in Asia, to see the culture of those peoples.
    Jews visiting christian churches during Christmas should not raise any eyebrows at all.

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