O Little Town of Bethlehem

Move beyond  the “first naiveté”(Ricoeur)

The first naïveté refers to the interpretation of scripture (or religious belief)  where everything is taken at face value. This is the same as saying that  the person in the first naïveté believes everything about his religion literally.

A socio-political reading of the gospel.

To be “good news” the gospel must be contemporary, speak to us in our historical situation.

The mighty symbols of the birth stories—Herod,no room at the inn, following the Star are in Michael Dowd’s words “night language”, spectacular images of emotional truth. They are metaphorical, not to be read like “day language” of everyday discourse. Here is my latest attempt. It reflects Jesus under occupation as he was in antiquity by the Romans. Today Jesus alive in the oppressed Palestinians lives under Israeli occupation.

These prose-poems I have penned for over 40 years  are consistent in that they take seriously the idea that the Christmas stories are not for children. Christians have for far too long treated the Infancy Narratives as either myth or as pretty harmless legends for kids. They are anything but. They are evangelical dynamite, brilliantly polished nuggets brimming with radical theological import. They challenge the Roman claim that the powerful Emperor Augustus is Lord and rules as “dominus et deus.” a common inscription of the time. In an absolutely outrageous claim, the evengelists point to the itinerant rabbi, murdered by the state as “dominus et deus.”

Roman writers of antiquity could not grasp the dynamic spread of the Jesus Movement. Men like Tacitus quoted here, were  beside themselves as the exitiabilis superstitio (pernicious superstition ) continued to make inroads in the vast empire long after Jesus’s public execution. The description  of, this great Roman historian, is typical of the time—shocking disbelief that a “dominus et deus” could come out of Galilee, part of  a backwater Roman province.

My prose poems  attempt to unpack the good news for our time. In the words of the great German theologian Johann Baptist Metz, these are “dangerous” stories.  I have simply tried to let them speak to our era. Each year demands a new interpretation. If the four gospels do not reproduce a “fifth” for our age, they are simply “old news” and not “good news.” I have  tried to be faithful to the contemporary manifestation of the  Spirit, the Divine Disturber.  I am indebted to my great teacher in England, Hubert Richards  who set me on this path in 1971.

 Christmas 2013

Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:11.12


And on the way they came upon the “apartheid wall”.

Dumbfounded they asked Samir who was weeping nearby in his destroyed olive grove.

“See for yourselves,” he said through his tears, ”twice as high as the Berlin wall, criss crossing Palestine, 4000 miles of concrete hatred.

It rips neighbourhoods, isolates us from friends and family, steals productive farmland and water supplies—all illegal under international law.

We are imprisoned in ghettoes much like Lodz, Lublin and Vilna were in the Shoah.

Settlers from Russia and America are connected by “Jews only” roads, free to travel to loved ones—1660 kms. Such a democracy!

Our holy city Al Quds is encircled by this monster squeezing us into 5 ghettoes.”

Repression continues. Herod has not died. But the baby lives and his Spirit surely will cut through this wall.


1 Comment »

  1. 1

    So they returned to Bethlehem–since they couldn’t climb the wall–, and they sat down in a cave, grabbed a scroll, and wrote the following:

    “All is quiet in Bethlehem. On Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity stands in the pale gloom of dusk, its doors open to passing pilgrims. But inside, the nave is empty of visitors and the collection boxes depleted of coins.

    In the candlelit grotto downstairs, a silver star marks the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born.

    It is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, but there are no tourists queuing to see it.

    Just 500 yards down the road, Joseph Canawati is not looking forward to Christmas. The expansive lobby of his 77-room Hotel Alexander is empty and he says: “There is no hope for the future of the Christian community.

    “We don’t think things are going to get better. For us, it is finished.”

    Life for Palestinian Christians such as 50-year-old Joseph has become increasingly difficult in Bethlehem – and many of them are leaving.

    The town’s Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.

    There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs (you thought only British colonists behaved like that, eh?).

    Meanwhile, the breakdown in security is putting off tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.”

    So the wise men said to Joseph: “You have to make your way to Israel. Your rights will be respected there, you will be safe from persecution, and your wife will be safe too.”

    Joseph asked: “Are there Muslims in Israel?”

    They said: “Yes, there are, and they are treated very well. The secular Jewish state of Israel recognizes fully the rights of Christians and Muslims and prohibits any discrimination based on religion (except against Conservative and Reform Jews, but that’s another story!) Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel (of which there are more than a million) have the right to vote and have elected members of the Knesset, some of whom even oppose Israel’s right to exist. There is an Arab member of the Supreme Court, an Arab member of the Cabinet and numerous Israeli Arabs in important positions in businesses, universities and the cultural life of the nation. A couple of years ago we attended a concert at the Jerusalem YMCA at which Daniel Barrenboim conducted a mixed orchestra of Israeli and Palestinian musicians. There was a mixed audience of Israelis and Palestinians, and the man sitting next to me was an Israeli Arab, who is the culture minister of the State of Israel. Can anyone imagine that kind of concert having taking place in apartheid South Africa, or in apartheid Saudi Arabia?

    There is complete freedom of dissent in Israel and it is practiced vigorously by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. And Israel is a vibrant democracy.”

    “I find that hard to believe” said Joseph.

    “Why?” asked the wise men?

    “Because I read Theology in the Vineyard, and that blog leaves no hint that what you say could possibly be true”, said Joseph. “The prophet Ted who is behind the blog was anointed by Hubert Richards”.

    “Oh, that explains everything”, said the wise men. “He up and left the priesthood when the hierarchy began to question his reductionistic theology. In other words, he sees himself as smarter, more brilliant, more insightful, than the entire 2000 year old wisdom of the Church that Christ established through his word and through the power of his promise (the Holy Spirit).. That’s the difference between the true prophet and the false prophet. The true prophets are, for example, the official Doctors of the Church (Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, Theresa of Lisieux, Ligouri, etc), and they all made it clear to their readers: “If anything in here conflicts with the judgment of the teaching office of the Church, adhere to the judgment of the Church”. The false prophets say no such thing. They say: “The hierarchy of made of up hypocrites who fear truth, who make deals with those who have money, who persecute the enlightened ones, like myself, so if they condemn my words, you condemn them, leave their Churches in droves, and follow me”.

    “What should I do?” asked Joseph.

    “Follow Jesus”, they advised. “Listen to his words, his message, his actions, and ask yourself whether he saw himself as a political revolutionary. Others did, even one or two of his disciples–before Pentecost altered their perception. Read Acts, and see if the early Church saw herself as a political voice. If Acts sounds like that blog, if the gospels sound like that blog, then follow that blog, follow that prophet named Ted. But if what you read in the Scriptures (the gospels, Acts) has a completely different message, one richer, larger, fatter, thicker, sweeter, lighter, more exhilarating, more inspiring, more empowering, more lasting, then turn your back on that blog, shake the dust from your feet, and move on”

    “Thank you, wise men. You’ve given me something to think about–and pray about.”

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