Embedded in the Christmas story is God’s desire for peace on our planet. Luke announced that “peace on earth” was the theme that the angels heralded over the skies of Bethlehem on the night that the Savior was born. We can conclude from their celestial anthem that God yearns for peace on earth.
But can we also be in agreement that God longs for the peace of Palestine and of Israel – for serenity in Jerusalem and Bethlehem?
Many give biblical or political reasons for the absence of peace in the Middle East.
Some people point to verses in the Old Testament that reflect the frustrations of ancient Hebrew prophets with prevailing injustice and quote these verses to prove that peace is unattainable. They cling to the words of Isaiah. “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22).
Yet they ignore Isaiah’s commitment to peace and the significance he places on the subject in much of his book. He wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” (Isaiah 52:7).
The apocalyptical perspective of some Christians regarding the “end of the world” causes them to shy away from serving the cause of peace. By their apathy, they declare, perhaps without making a public confession, that he that is in the world is greater than he that is within them. They sit with their hands folded while the enemies of peace work relentlessly.
Still others misunderstand one or two of Jesus’ statements relating to the subject of peace. They interpret them out of context and use these passages to undermine God’s deep longing for peace. They forget that the Gospel message is God’s “good news of peace” (Acts 10:36).
Many Christians have given up on the possibility of peace in the land of the Bible for political reasons. They reference the timeline of failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the last 25 years as evidence that peace in the region is impossible. They claim that Palestinians and their leaders serve as the chief obstacle to peace.
However, most people who make such claims have not spent time in Palestine and know very little about the Palestinian position. For example, if they visit Bethlehem, they may hear the story of Mark*, a professor at Bethlehem Bible College who is not able to develop his family’s land because it is located next to an area that Israeli settlers are planning to develop for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers.
Or you may meet Nancy* who also serves at our college and whose family has been struggling for years to keep their land from confiscation by Israeli settlers.
These are just two of thousands of examples of injustices inflicted against the Palestinians. As people invest time in learning the realities on the ground, they will discover that the group most hurting due to lack of peace and that made the greatest compromises to settle the conflict is the Palestinian people.
They will also discover that Palestinians are the ones who lost more than 80 percent of their homeland in the last 60 years and are the ones who are about to lose what little is left.
Moreover, despite continued expulsion from their land, daily harassment by Israeli settlers, and a number of oppressive measures, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has opted to follow the path of nonviolence and engage in negotiations to achieve peace with Israel.
Some would say that the United States is the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Certainly, U.S. unconditional and uncritical economic, military and political support for Israel is not helpful. Nevertheless, we must not forget that half a dozen U.S. presidents and scores of U.S. envoys have invested much time and effort in resolving the conflict. It would be remiss to interpret their failure as signs that the U.S. has not put forth an effort.
Some say Muslims and Arabs charged with Islamic fundamentalism and radical fanaticism are the chief hindrance to peace. Surely there are Arabs and Islamist minorities who resist the current peace process.
However, it must be noted that all Arab states and most Islamic countries endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. If Israel had approved this initiative, it could have resulted in peace between Israel and her neighbors. For certain, Arabs and Muslims are not the obstacle.
Who, then, is standing in the face of justice and obstructing peace between Israel and her neighbors?
This Advent, while millions around the world are praying for peace and many governments are exerting genuine efforts to end the conflict, Israeli right-wing settlers and ultranationalists continue to thwart all possibilities of reconciliation.
Come and see what they are doing around Bethlehem. Look at the land they have stolen from Palestinians, and how, in spite of international law, they continue to build Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands within the West Bank with the full backing of the Israeli army. These settlements have become the mother of all obstacles.
Can Palestinians sign a peace agreement with those who continue to forcefully take their lands and build on them segregated settlements? Discovering the prime obstacle to peace is helpful but addressing it is the greater challenge.
As we consider this challenge, let us remember that the angels in skies over the fields near Bethlehem did not proclaim the message of peace to kings, rulers and politicians. Their anthems did not address the religious hierarchy. They came to shepherds – average, humble, hard-working people who became the bearers of the message of peace.
Perhaps we should not wait on presidents or prominent religious authorities to serve the cause of peace. Rather, every one of us who receives the message, regardless of his or her status, can discover ways to contribute to the cause of peace on earth without the exclusion of peace for Israel, Palestine and the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.
Alex Awad is pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church and professor at Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine. This column first appeared on his website.
*Names have been changed.
Awad lived and served in Palestine for decades, serving as pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church as well as professor, dean of student and direct of the Shepherd Society at Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine.