Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem

""Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"
A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you want to speak to the people of the US, you need to address them where they're at.

Often, this means going to the movies.

This is especially true during the Christmas season. Watching Christmas movies is a holiday ritual in the US, and many families have their list of favorites. For instance . . .

It's a Wonderful Life

Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol") (Alastair Sim version, please!)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The Nutcracker

 . . . plus about 30 more, at least in our family. (Elf is a recent addition.) For the full gamut, refer to the "List of theatrical Christmas films" on Wikipedia.

When I visited Palestine in March, the question came up: how can we more effectively communicate the plight of the Palestinian people to ordinary people in the US? My immediate response grew out of a lifetime of watching Christmas movies . . . .

Bethlehem Without Christmas

The Grinch
"Simple," I said. "First you've gotta get their attention . . . "

". . . so . . . cancel Christmas!"

I definitely had the Grinch in mind when I said those words.  You know -- the Dr. Seuss character who snuck into Whoville and stole all the presents so that Christmas couldn't even happen?

And it wasn't hard to make the connection after spending the previous week learning the facts of the occupation of the West Bank by Israel, and of Israeli settlers trespassing on Palestinian land, of obstacles to movement, and the Wall, and harassment by the IDF, and on and on. At each step of the trip, one half of me had been thinking, "I'm actually standing on the ground that is the site of Biblical events," while the other half of me was thinking, "This is a human rights catastrophe."

Another reason the Grinch connection leaped to mind was that my visit coincided with elections in Israel - the infamous 2015 elections in which Benjamin Netanyahu whipped up Jewish voters by announcing, "Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves."

So, yes, the Grinch. And also Mr. Potter. And a sprinkling of Scrooge thrown in for good measure.

At the time, some people were taken aback by my suggestion.  Um . . . cancel Christmas?

Admittedly, I was suggesting a bit of agitation. Yes, perhaps, it might even have seemed like a little too much agitation: no matter what, people have to have Christmas, right?

Regrettably, the situation in Palestine has become so dire in the intervening nine months that people there are, in fact, now recognizing the impossibility of having the usual celebrations at Christmas. "Hanna Amireh, who heads a government committee on churches in the West Bank . . . said the government has asked the municipality of Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born and where official Palestinian celebrations of Christmas take place, not to set off holiday fireworks this year and to limit the festive lights and decorations that traditionally adorn the town to two main streets." (See "Palestinian Authority limits Christmas celebrations in West Bank")

Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem

Scrooge (post revelation) with Tiny
Tim. In the end " . . . to Tiny Tim,
who did not die, he was a second father."
So Christmas -- at least "Christmas as usual" -- has been canceled this year in Bethlehem.  But I don't think the story (or the agitation) ends there.

In order to reach people in the US and educate them about the situation today in Bethlehem and the rest of West Bank, there does need to be an actual film made!

And why not? I know for a fact that there are talented young filmmakers right there in Bethlehem that could do a wonderful job with this.

As for treatment, there are lots of ways such a film could go, but IMO there are several "musts":

* The story needs to be told from a child's viewpoint.

* Be sure to give the place a co-starring role. The tragic geography of Bethlehem -- its proximity to Jerusalem, the Wall and checkpoints, the Aida refugee camp, the Israeli land seizures -- can be communicated clearly in the medium of film.

* Don't be shy about working in the hordes of (US and other) tourists who come to Bethlehem to get a taste of the Holy Land, but who are often insensitive to the situation of people there today.

Of course, I'll put in a pitch for a role for Christmas Church. (How many people know there's a large Lutheran congregation in Bethlehem?)

Every Christmas film -- especially (but not limited to) my "top 5" listed above revolve around the theme of finding the true meaning of Christmas, and of not settling for the world as we have let it become but instead reshaping the world be be what, in our deepest hearts, we want it to be. (Doesn't that sound like what Bethlehem needs?)

As for how the film should end . . . well . . . that's up to all of us . . . .

Coming in 2016: Bringing Christmas Back to Bethlehem!

I'm sure audiences will be lining up to see it.

Related links

Opinion piece by Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah (with whom we met on the March, 2015, trip) in Haaretz, December 23, 2015: "Bethlehem Celebrates Another Occupied Christmas." "Israel’s Christmas gifts to Bethlehem this year serve towards consolidating the separation between Bethlehem and its twin city, Jerusalem; the city where Jesus was born and the city where he was resurrected – the essence of the Christian faith. Aside from the daily violations that the besieged Bethlehem suffers as a result of the occupation, Israel issued a military order last week announcing that it has confiscated 101 dunams of Bethlehem’s northern lands. In the same week, the Israeli government approved the expansion of the illegal settlement of Gilo - built on privately owned lands of Bethlehem - by 891 new housing units." Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem between 1987 and 2008.

"Days before Christmas, Bethlehem erects ‘resistance tree’ outside Nativity Church" on Mondoweiss -- Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said, “We plant our roots and we are rooted to this land. Olive trees are the trees of life. We see our people’s eyes and the hopes of our women and the dreams of our men reflected off this tree.”

"Tree of Resistance in the courtyard of the Nativity Church Bethlehem, West Bank."
(Image: Middle East Monitor)

Related posts

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

(See A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film)

There is no question in my mind that justice in Israel/Palestine is fundamental to peace and justice throughout the Mideast, and in the world. And there is also no question in my mind that, just as it was a group of people who considered themselves very serious about the Bible that got us into the present situation in Palestine, it is those of us who have inherited that tradition of seriousness about the Bible that need to "own" the consequences of our tradition, and work for a rectification of wrongs we have inherited.

(See Palestine: enough with 'the Lutheran both/and' already . . . !)

"Inhumane treatment of young men and boys, arrests under cover of night, unjust torture while in police custody, missing husbands and brothers and sons, children stripped of internationally agreed upon human rights. For these Palestinian boys and men, we weep with the women."

(See Palestine: The Women Weep (34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk) on the Working Group on the Middle East (MCS, ELCA) blog.)

“Now, you all know about Palestinian hospitality,” said Angie. “At the time Mary and Joseph came here, there were many travelers who had come for the census. I don’t think anyone would turn away a woman large with child! So of course they would say, ‘Come in, we have room for you,’ even if it meant they had to be near the back where the animals were!”

(See "The Gospel According to Angie" on the Faith in the Face of Empire blog.)