A Challenging Visit to ‘Kairos Palestine’ in Bethlehem

Posted: July 18, 2013 in General

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was one of my rare opportunities to visit the holy city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in Palestine. The morning hours of the day were spent around the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto Church, the Shepherds’ Field, and the International Nativity Museum. The theologian within me was keen in seeking more evidences in relation to the birth and infancy aspects of Jesus. The appointment I set with the Kairos Palestine executives, at Dar Annadwa, was at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The appointment was arranged by my friend Janneke Stegemann, PhD researcher in the field of Old Testament studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The appointed meeting with the Kairos Palestine executives (i.e., Fr. Dr. Jamal Khader, Dr. Martha Tonsern, Nora Carmi, and Yasmine Khoury) was arranged in a Hotel and we discussed the issues over a span of about one hour. Among the crew, Fr. Jamal Khader, Head of the Department of Religious Studies at Bethlehem University, was appointed beforehand as the spokesperson. We had a fruitful time of discussion and interaction within the one hour period. On my journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem I was wondered to see the huge wall that is erected to border the Palestinian and Israeli lands. Though the journey forward was without any hurdles, in my return journey I had to undergo heavier security scrutiny systems at the border wall. Until then, one of my unpleasant border crossings was occurred in the India and Bangladesh border on my way to Lalmonirhat and Dhaka in the year 2009. I am always mindful of my free journey through Europe (i.e., in Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France) without having any border security check-ups. But, my crossing over from Palestine to Israel was one of the toughest. In my experience, crossing over from Israel to Palestine was easier than from Palestine to Israel.

My one hour period with Kairos Palestine members was pleasant and they extended warm welcome and hospitality toward me. They honoured me as a biblical scholar, an Indian Christian theologian and above all a human being. Fr. Jamal Khader started to introduce the issues that encircle the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis. Their statement can be recapitulated as below as it was well recorded in the Kairos Palestine brochure. The brochure records:

We, a group of Christian Palestinians, after prayer, reflection and an exchange of opinion, cry out from within the suffering in our country, under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land. Inspired by the mystery of God’s love for all, the mystery of God’s divine presence in the history of all peoples and, in a particular way, in the history of our country, we proclaim our word based on our Christian faith and our sense of Palestinian belonging—a word of faith, hope and love.

Fr. Jamal Khader’s face-to-face sharing and their affirmation through the media persuaded me significantly. As a person who continually witnesses the suffering of humanity in the Indian context, I could feel the cry of the people for liberation in another context. It was a time of realization that the Palestinians, i.e., Christians and Muslims alike, are under threat and they are being marginalized and subalternized.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur discussion was circumscribed around the existent issues of Israel-and-Palestine political tensions. The crew explained the goal of the Kairos Palestine in the following terms: biblically-focused interpretations, justice-oriented practice, church-centered witnessing, and internationally attuned propagation. The ultimate aim of the movement is sharing the values within the global kairos by the help of local kairos movements. The Kairos Palestine emphasizes authentic interpretation of the Bible, advocacy, building relations with the churches, reviewing their own theology, and supporting justice. In their view, looking at the issues of Israel and Palestine biblical scholars and theologians must strive hard to exegete and interpret the biblical passages with profundity. The social issues must come into play in our exegetical analysis of the texts of the Bible. In their assessment, churches still follow a kind of fundamentalist pattern for reading the texts of the Bible. They suggest that the scriptures must be looked at from open-minded and liberational reading practices. “How can the Bible help us to deal with the realities of our times?” is an important question to be posed continually. According to them, the Bible is the key to explore the rights and the wrongs. They continually raised the question, “is there any reference in the Bible that supports land occupation?” This question has much significance in the context of land occupation in the Israeli-Palestinian context. The ongoing conflicts in this region are on account of land grabbing and occupation. Yahweh’s assertion that “the land is mine” (Lev. 25:23) is a significant one to refer here. This is amply supported by Hosea’s prophetical statement “the land of the Lord” (Hos. 9:3).

What is good expected from us must be done in this context. How the church can be prophetic? The practice of non-violent resistance that was affirmed by the Kairos Palestine is a significant move.  It is a move that invites our acumen toward the Jesus Movement of the Gospel traditions and its later manifestations in different parts of the world, i.e., the Gandhian Satyagraha movement in India and others. Palestinians are imprisoned as the huge walls are erected around them. Due to political reasons the Palestinians are banned from going to Jerusalem, the heart of their religious hope. In their affirmation they proclaim that, “Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, symbol of peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divides Palestinian neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims”. This is a clarion call of the Palestinian Christians to the international community to conduct pilgrimages of transformation and justice tourism. According to them, “Don’t come to see the buildings; but to meet the people and their sufferings”. This reminds us the model Jesus followed in his ministry. Jesus was not attracted to the huge buildings in the city inclusive of the building of the temple in Jerusalem, but he was concerned of the people who were undergoing suffering and the marginalization. His mission agenda was transformation of the peoples and the structures. What is really happening in Bethlehem? Israel’s cruel occupation is inflicted through confiscation of land. The Israeli government is not even concerned of this significant spot where several events in the life of Jesus took place.

The Palestinians (inclusive of Christians in the country) who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering and clear apartheid for more than six decades request, with cry of hope, with love, prayer and faith in God, the international community to look at on the issues sincerely. In their website they declare that, “we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sign against God and humanity and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples”. This is the genuine context to which global peace, love and fraternity must be extended. It is not merely a ‘truce’ but a ‘long lasting peace’ that is expected and attempted toward in this region. With this ground reality in mind, the Kairos movement raises its voice, and believe in one God who is the author and finisher of everything, the God of Jews and Christians, and the God of Palestinians and Israelis. They move with hope for a bright tomorrow and extend their love toward their neighbours (i.e., the Israelis). As Paul rightly stated, “there is no longer Jew or gentile [or Arab], there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The initiative of isolating and excluding the Palestinians from Jerusalem and Israel, i.e., the world religious capital and the country, is not done on any divine or theological grounds. God is not an agent of injustice, but the facilitator of justice and harmony.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to the Old Testament, the land/earth is God’s creation and possession. The God-land-human relation is highly affirmed in various passages (Gen. 13:15; 35:12; Ex. 6:8; Lev. 25:23; Num. 32:5, 22; 35:34; Deut. 8:7; Josh. 24:13; Eze. 36:6; 45:1; Hos. 9:3; Acts 7:3; 20:13; 2 Cor. 10:16). Human beings are pictured as “responsible stewards”, “tillers of the ground” and “keepers of the sheep”. The land is a divinely planned sphere where God meets human beings (cf. Chakkuvarackal, 2004 [Mar.]: 76-77). McKeown (2003: 487) states that, “God is cast in the roles of creator and ‘supreme landlord’ in the Pentateuch. The land owes its existence to him, and he creates its inhabitants, continually monitoring and supervising their behaviour”. In a context in which human beings bypass divine commandments, nobody can expect justice, peace and reconciliation.  McKeown (2003: 487) says further, “He [God] allocates land to people: Adam is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:8), Canaan is promised to the Israelites (Gen. 15:16-21) and there are references to the allocation of land to the Edomites (Deut. 2:5), Moabites (Deut. 2:9) and Ammonites (Deut. 2:19)”. It is not mere charity that the Bible looks forward to, but an egalitarian society. Biblical themes and concepts such as shalom, koinonia, jubilee, Sabbath, and liberation assert this fact. McKim (1996: 156) says, “The earth and all land is held as a sacred trust”. The Sabbath and Jubilee institutions were against land accumulation, slave institution, and the social degradation, which put people in marginalization (cf. Chakkuvarackal, 2004 [Mar.]: 76-77).

In the New Testament, a continuation of the Old Testament promise and regulations is obvious. Jesus’ life and work in an agrarian society and many of his parables in relation with the land/earth are peculiar for our understanding of the gospel message. The saying “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) brings a message of God’s salvific activity through Jesus Christ for a radical transformation (i.e., cosmic salvation and redemption). Janzen and Boraas (2009: 591) say that, “…he [Jesus], not Jacob’s well, is the source of living water (John 4:7-15); he, not the land, is the believer’s inheritance (Gal. 3:29-4:7), in whom the promise of Abraham is fulfilled (Gal. 3:15-18)”. The aspects such as land, sowing, harvest, soil, trees and grass are all common imageries that recur again and again in Jesus’ parables. There are references in the gospels which may suggest Jesus the nomenclature “son of the soil”. Jesus, the one who was “schooled in the nature” during his earthly days is considered as the agent of creation and its liberation from clutches. The Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus was a proclamation for liberation of the land and the people (Lk. 4:16-21). The Kingdom of God introduced by him is a “place of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17; cf. Chakkuvarackal, 2004 [Mar.]: 77).

We need to consider human dignity as our ultimate concern. When we accept the divine ownership of the land, then only we can accept our neighbours as our brothers and sisters. When we accept the dignity of other inhabitants of the world, then only we can acknowledge the divine ownership of the land. When we accept the divine ownership of the land and acknowledge the dignity of others, then only we can fulfil our appointed task as the stewards to safeguard the entire creation and to have peaceful life on the earth. The nation of Israel is walled and fortified at the Palestinian borderlands to keep the immediate neighbours away from the nation. Can a wall bring safety and protection to a nation? The exclusion of the birthplace of Jesus and the act of distancing Bethlehem by means of a wall are done with Jewish intentions. This attitude shows how the government of Israel approach Christianity (and other religions including Islam) and their religious sentiments in its philosophical framework. As Israel is the light of the nations it must shine for all instead of erecting huge walls around the nation and isolate the neighbours from the country. It is ironical that while they isolate others from them, they themselves are being isolated from the surroundings. We need to see Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together in this region and thus attempt to establish justice, peace and harmony (cf. Chakkuvarackal, 2004 [June]: 435-44). It is important to see that Jerusalem remains forever as the hope of the people groups and the nations around the world. The Jewish community across the world must experience peace, safety, and protection. But, at the same time we need to see the Palestinians get justice and liberation. Let us dream and strive hard for such a world. I thank Kairos Palestine for this new challenge.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amo. 5:24)

For Further Reference:

Chakkuvarackal, T. J. [Thomaskutty, J.], March 2004. “Biblical Perspectives on ‘the Land’”. Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly. Vol. XXX. No. 1: pp. 61-78.

Chakkuvarackal, T. J. [Thomaskutty, J.], June 2004. “Biblical Perspectives on ‘Peace’: A Paradigm for the Multi-religious Context of India”. Vidyajyoti, A Journal of Theological Reflection. Vol. 68. No. 6: pp. 435-44.

Come & See: A Call from Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem: PIEF/ECOT/Kairos Palestine.

Israeli Land Grab and Forced Population Transfer of Palestinians: A Handbook for Vulnerable Individuals and Communities. Bethlehem: BADIL, June 2013.

Janzen, W., and Boraas, R. S., 2009. “Land”. Harper Collins Bible Dictionary. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India: 590-91.

Kairos for Global Justice. Bethlehem: Kairos Palestine, 2011.

Kairos Palestine. Bethlehem: Kairos Palestine, 2012.

McKeown, J., 2003. “Land, Fertility, Feminine”. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP: 487-91.

McKim, D. K., 1996. “Land, Theology of”. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press: 156. 

Palestinian Christians: Ongoing Forcible Displacement and Dispossession… Until When? Bethlehem: BADIL/Kairos Palestine, Dec., 2012.

Promoting Pilgrimages of Transformation to Palestine/Israel. Bethlehem: ATG, 2011.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

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