Friday, December 24, 2021
The Community Church of Durham
Years ago, I caught a cab in Bethlehem, on the central square, just a few steps from the Church of Nativity, where a silver star marks the spot where many believe the Christ Child was born. The air in Bethlehem, on that square, is thick with stories—stories of families on the move and communities in conflict; stories of unexpected joy and birth and rebirth. And to be honest, I could have stayed in Bethlehem a long, long time. I wanted to.
But I had an appointment to keep, and a new friend to meet. So I hopped in the cab on the square; and we roared off together. Barreling down a West Bank road, thirteen miles past old farms and Palestinian villages, before the driver dropped me off in the ancient, storied and divided city of Hebron.
|Bethlehem: "Our Lady at the Wall"
In communities attached to the biblical tradition, Hebron’s known as the resting place of ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah—they’re all said to be buried right there, in the city’s center. These days, it’s an anxious city, and a fractured city, where occupying settlers on the upper floors of settlements toss garbage and sometimes even scalding water at pedestrians in the streets below. Whole markets are shuttered and vacant, buffer zones between small settlements and larger West Bank neighborhoods. I was greeted that afternoon by Tareq Natsheh, a 21-year-old engineering student—a friend of a friend—who’d invited me to stay with him and his Palestinian family for a few days. He led me on a tour of the city that had raised him and inspired him and broken his heart several times over. He pointed out security towers, where young Israeli soldiers—some even younger than he—kept watch, sometimes laughing as teens do, sometimes sneering and pointing their American rifles at Palestinian elders and families below. We ducked into one of Hebron’s few open shops and wolfed down a couple of yummy falafel sandwiches. Talking about conflict and peace, and hope as a lifestyle.
Tareq was raised by a beloved Muslim family of civil servants and academics. Back then, he was a leader in a youth movement dedicated to nonviolence and coexistence in his city. And even though I was disoriented by my first visit to the Middle East—unnervingly so—I felt a remarkable sense of safety in his presence. Certainly Tareq knew his away around the city. But even more, he carried himself, everywhere, with confidence and hopefulness. Like he expected the best from people, all people, and from himself. I was twice his age, but I had so much to learn.
Leaving the falafel shop, we turned a corner and headed for home. Tareq was excited to introduce his new American friend to his mother, his cousins, and his Palestinian brothers.
But just then, a young solider called out from a protected shelter across the street: “Hey you!”
Tareq turned to me, discreetly, and said: “No choice.” And then he led me over to that shelter—where the young Israeli soldier slumped against a gated shop. And he asked Tareq: “You from here?” And Tareq said: “I’ve lived here all my life.”
The boy asked him: “You got friends?” I remember thinking that he seemed strangely disinterested. But obligated.
Tareq answered calmly and carefully. “I’ve got lots of friends,” he said. The boy with the gun nodded toward me. “This, one of your friends?” And Tareq said: “Sure, he’s one of my friends. I have a lot of friends.” And I realized then, in that moment, that I’d never seen anything like this before, any conversation remotely similar. Tareq was so remarkably composed, so at home in his own skin. The other boy had the gun, but Tareq was powerful. And I was glad to be with him.
The soldier said: “How old are you?” And Tareq answered: “I’m twenty-one.” And then, for the first time, he asked a question, Tareq asked a question: “And how old are you?”
At this, the young Israeli smiled, a little awkwardly, and Tareq smiled too, for the first time. “I just turned twenty,” the boy said. “I’m twenty.” The soldier was a year younger than the activist.
And then Tareq asked: “What do you think about what’s going on here?” And suddenly, the dynamics of their conversation in the street had shifted. It was, suddenly, a whole new world. And the two of them were at the center of it.
And the boy said: “To tell you the truth, I’m bored.” And he fidgeted then, with this gun, and he picked at his beard. “Honestly,” he said, “this is the worst place in the world.” It was just amazing. Two young men, two very young men, were talking, out in the open, a public conversation at one of the Middle East’s most contested intersections. And the soldier said: “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”
Tareq nodded, and then he asked another question: “Do you realize that your government makes it this way?” The boy answered: “I don’t know. I think religion just screws it all up.”
My friend Tareq had done this before. Had had this conversation before. He was—and still is—decent and daring. In his eyes that afternoon I saw a kind of fierce kindness, a faith that refused despair and resisted violence. He believed in his city, and in his family, and in his friends; and he projected that faith in the way he spoke, in the way he moved through his city’s ravaged streets.
And he did the most amazing thing. Right then. He took a step toward the young Israeli soldier and laid his hand on the boy’s wrist. Tareq said: “We need to get going, but I want to ask you to think about leaving all this. There’s a group of Israeli soldiers who are doing that. They’re just like you. You can find them. Here's a website. (And he shared it: https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/ ) You don’t have to do this. This isn’t all there is. And you can choose another life.”
It was a stunning moment. Maybe one of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed. A young Palestinian encouraging a young Israeli, conscripted into an occupier’s army, to choose peace, to study war no more, to risk humiliation (and maybe worse) for a higher purpose. Tareq took a brutal situation, another demeaning encounter, and he transformed it into an invitation. You don’t have to do this. You can choose another life. And the Israeli boy said: “I’ll think about that.” And then Tareq and I walked away. To meet his family. Just like that.
Kind of odd, I know, to build a Christmas Eve message around an encounter between a Muslim kid and a Jewish kid – working out conflicts they inherited from their parents and grandparents in the Middle East. But there was something about Tareq’s courage that day (and, frankly, the young soldier showed some courage too)—there was something about the whole thing that revealed the heart, even the substance of faith to me. I’ll never forget it. It stays with me.
You see, Christmas has everything to do with incarnation—with embodiment—with God’s stunning and unambiguous commitment to peace and light and love in the world of human conflict and despair. The story tonight is that the tiny child of Mary is born into a very specific family, at a very specific moment, in a very specific history. When Augustus was emperor and issued a decree. When Quirinius was governor of Syria. And the Roman legion patrolled the streets of little towns like Bethlehem. So the story goes that God is born, that God’s Child is born right there and just then. Into that family, at that moment, in that history.
And what I saw between the two young men in Hebron was something like that—something like God’s Spirit awakened on a gritty street corner, something like God’s Dream imagined in an awful conflict, something like brotherhood evoked between two young men who might have been enemies. Might have been. But didn’t have to be. So Tareq says to the young solider with the gun: “You don’t have to do this.” You don’t have to do this. “You can choose another life.” And I have no idea what became of the soldier with the gun. But I want to imagine that he did. That he went off to do some thinking. That he went off to find some new friends. That he chose another life.
Tonight, my friends, Christmas is both a promise and a proposal. The promise is radiant and glorious, subtle and sweet. God loves the world with a forever-kind-of-love. God believes in us, and in our capacity for compassion and collaboration and peace. And God offers all of God’s mercy to us, holding nothing back—that’s the story of Mary in Bethlehem, and the story of Tareq in Hebron, and the story we claim for ourselves in 21st century America. God loves us with a forever-kind-of-love. All of us. And all the world!
And then the proposal: we can, we must, we will choose another life. It requires some sacrifice. It means some change. Almost a century ago, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that Christ’s grace is ‘costly grace,’ not cheap, but costly grace. And that makes sense to me. You see, the Child born to us this night—in the midst of all the challenges we face—offers a very specific path, a very concrete practice. It’s another life. It’s a different life. A life of neighborliness not contempt. A life of abundance not angst. The Child born to us this night—you can look it up—offers a way of peace, of love, of nonviolence and joy. Not the life of assault weapons in our schools; not the life of hatred and distrust in our cities; not the life of treason and mutiny in our capitols. We celebrate tonight. We’ll celebrate tomorrow. But then the work of Christmas begins again. Begins in earnest. Costly grace, indeed.
So you see how the proposal follows the promise? We can, we must, we will choose another life. All of us together. Turning our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. Multiplying loves and fish and setting a table of plenty for all God’s children, for all God’s families, for all God’s lovers everywhere. Making common cause with peoples of all faiths, of all political persuasions, from all walks of life, and building a strong body politic for migrants and neighbors and friends and foes. Because—and this too is right out of the book—we’re all in this together. And that’s the piece that my friend Tareq showed me—with his courage in conflict, with his calm spirit and compassion. We’re all in this together. Muslim and Jew and Christian. Agnostic and atheist, believers and doubters too. We’re all in this together.
Friends, the truly good news tonight is this. Mary’s Child is born to shake us up. Mary’s Child is born to rekindle our hope. God is once again dreaming a dream of human community. God is once again—even in the darkest night—breathing bright light into those whose hearts break with sorrow and despair. Mary’s Child is born to renew your faith in all that’s possible, in all that can be good and holy and beautiful in the world. Let that birth bring delight to your soul tonight. Let that birth bring joy and wonder to your home tonight. Because Christ is born for this. Christ is born for this.
Amen and Ashe!
Note: Looking for a great read as you turn the corner to 2022? Check out the novel Apeirogon by Colum McCann. The story revolves around many of the conflicts referenced in this Christmas Eve meditation--and focuses on two fathers (one Israeli, one Palestinian) who have lost just about everything, but found something like hope and resilience together.