Crying for Yee Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
By Saffiya Shillo
We all know the song about Bethlehem. It is sung all over the U.S. in schools, churches, and gatherings of every kind during the Christmas season. “O little town of Bethlehem; how still we see thee lie… The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…” The song was written by Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He wrote the song in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is said that he was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine. He rode by horseback at night from Jerusalem to assist in Bethlehem’s midnight mass in 1865. He is quoted as saying, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”
How often do we think of Bethlehem these days in that way? Do you know the bleak stillness that haunts the Church of the Nativity? Do you know of its people, their history and devotion to Jesus? Do you know of the ugly 24 ft concrete Wall that has desecrated its beauty? Built under the pretense of security, it separates worshippers from their churches and families from each other and farmers from cultivating their land. Did you know that we, here in the U.S., help to subsidize that Wall and all the dysfunction in that region with out tax dollars? Do you know that the Christians living there are Palestinians, Arabs, and they cannot travel for holiday prayer to Bethlehem on Christmas or any other holiday or Sunday?
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict rages on and we, in America, think it has nothing to do with us. This conflict has everything to do with how we identify to Jesus, his message, his birthplace… no matter what faith we adhere to.
As an American, even though I am Muslim and Palestinian, I identify with all that is Christmas—especially Jesus, peace be upon him. I share in the belief of his holy conception and while I do not believe it designates him as God, my faith holds him as a revered Messenger of God—a prophet.
I enjoy the Christmas spirit, the songs, and all the trimmings. I have never felt left out or offended during Christmas. In fact, I feel even more connected as a Palestinian. What offends me is that Christmas has become a marketing event in America not a reflection upon Jesus and the message he tried so hard to instill. Christmas is America. Jesus is universal and he and I come from the same place.
My thoughts go directly to Jesus when I hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I immediately picture him crying as I too want to cry when I see the song being mouthed joyfully as it falls upon deaf ears and empty hearts that sit complacent in its ruin.
I cry for the Jews that fight against the portrayal of being the persecutors of Jesus while Israeli policies enable young Jewish men and women enlisted as soldiers to persecute and oppress the people of the Holy Land. I cry for their sanity and loss of sensibility and consciousness. The humiliation and violence they inflict upon others will no doubt scar their souls and futures.
I cry for the children of Bethlehem and cities of the Holy Land when they learn hate and fear as their homes are demolished leaving them homeless, hungry and alone. They watch as family members are subjected to collective punishment and killed, maimed and tortured. All this within their minds eye while they try to live their lives controlled by another who is indifferent to their suffering and indifferent to their basic human rights.
I cry when I see people, some of my people, in the land where Jesus journeyed participate in violence against innocents; a violence that they themselves are continually subjected to and victimized by; a violence that begets more violence and stains the just cause of the Palestinian people. Israel and Israeli supporters need only ask themselves one question and act upon it: do they want peace or do they want land?
I cry for the children of America and their parents, my neighbors and local church communities that are oblivious to the suffering of fellow Christians on Christmas and everyday.
O little town of Bethlehem… How still we DO NOT see thee.
(Saffiya Shillo is a peace activist, domestic violence/sexual assault consultant and cultural sensitivity trainer on Muslim/Arab issues. Copyright Arab Writers Group Syndication, http://www.ArabWritersGroup.com )