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.