This Christmas Eve, in the hours before Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the coming of light and hope into the world, I wanted to offer you the story of a Christian Palestinian American. One, like the stories of many current and previous residents of the Holy Land, which grieves the conflict, aches for peace, and clings to glimmers of hope. I offer you the story of a man, who we will call Yousef.
Yousef was born in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem into an ancient Greek Orthodox family. Growing up he experienced the city’s glorious tapestry of traditions and, in time, its military oppression. Eventually, he left, and it was in his State-side home this week I met with him, to hear his stories of life in Jerusalem from youth to sporadic visits in adulthood, reflections on Jerusalem’s situation today, his experiences as a Christian there and call to Christians here in the United States. Come, hear, hope.
In 1967 life changed dramatically for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. At the end of the 6-Day war in June of that year, Israel declared victory and claim over Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and Gaza from Egypt. A military occupation over these regions began which has lasted till today. While Gaza is no longer internally occupied by Israeli military, it remains surrounded by Israeli forces who control all entry to and exit from the region, both of people and products. Yousef recalls the changes he experienced in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Though Yousef left shortly after the occupation began, it has continued to impose a degree of force and control over his life.
How does religion play into the Palestinian experience?
Being an American, I was curious to know Yousef's opinion on President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Life has become increasingly challenging for Palestinians. To some, it has become unbearable. Many have left, especially Christians, in part because Palestinian Christians have had an easier time immigrating due to their religious connections in dominantly Christian, Western countries. It is now believed Christians have dwindled to a mere 1-3% of the current population in the Holy Land.
I asked Yousef, "What would happen if there were no more Christians?"
My question had also come off the back of numerous reports which identified Trump's conservative Evangelical Christian support base to be the driving influence behind his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Gary M. Burge, a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, explained to the Atlantic the theology of this particular group of conservative Evangelical Christians. It goes something like this:
“Some conservative evangelicals have built a remarkable theology around the modern state of Israel. It’s as if a biblical story has come alive again from the scriptures. In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), Jerusalem was established as Israel’s capital by King David about 1,000 years before Christ. Notwithstanding various wars and a Babylonian exile that led to the loss of the city, Jerusalem remained Israel’s de facto capital in the Jewish imagination. Even in the New Testament, Jerusalem is assumed to be Israel’s capital. But another war in 70 A.D. led to a longtime loss of the city. Modern Israel did not recapture Jerusalem until 1967.
"The key to understanding this perspective is to recognize that these conservative evangelicals are building a bridge from ancient biblical Israel to the modern secular State of Israel. So, promises made almost 4,000 years ago to Abraham apply to the modern Israeli state. “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you,” God says in Genesis 17:8. For these evangelical interpreters, a verse like this one is not just something ancient; it provides a political mandate for Israel’s privileges today. And Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse,” originally intended as a word of protection for Abraham’s tribe, now can become a mandate for anyone living today. We are obligated, the argument runs, to bless modern Israel. In the U.S., blessing Israel means recognizing its sole ownership of Jerusalem…
“[They]… believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ. The average conservative evangelical is filled with a tangle of commitments that are often tough to sort out. She just knows that if Israel wants something—in this case, Jerusalem—Israel deserves to have it.
“The problem is that this bridge is fundamentally unsound. It uses the Bible for modern political ends that many of us find illegitimate.”
One of the other dangerous, and even ironic, repercussions of this theology is it hurts Christians, though not American Christians, but Palestinian Christians.
And yet, sumud. And yet, steadfastness.
This Christmas, whether you are Christian or not, I invite you into the spirit of this holy event. May you be inspired to hope, to seek, to watch, to wait for shimmerings of light in the darkness, for liberation of the oppressed, for peace in our world. May we grow in unity and compassion with creation, our neighbors, our families, and ourselves. May we partner for equality and wholeness of life. May we open to love.
Tell congress Jerusalem is a final status issue.