In the second half of the eighth century B.C. the Assyrian army was on its way to sack Jerusalem. Nothing good was going to happen. The people called upon the prophet Isaiah who prophesied. “For unto us a child is born, a son is given. And the government will rest upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace.”
The Prince of Peace was born in ancient Bethlehem; a suburb of Jerusalem. I visited Bethlehem for the third time in March of 2008. I have traveled few places in the world where peace seems further away. We entered the city through a gate in an ever expanding 24 foot high wall dividing all things Palestinian from all things Israeli. Razor wire was draped along the wall like the Christmas lights draped above our fireplace at home. After our bus was thoroughly inspected and searched by soldiers we were cleared. Steel doors on a track slowly opened, we drove through and they clanged behind us. It was like being in prison.
Welcome to Bethlehem. In the span of ten feet, we went from digital color to a grainy black and white. 35,000 people live in Bethlehem and about half are unemployed. Political posters stapled to telephone poles extoled the glorious exploits of the young Palestinian suicide bombers they picture. We drove to MangerPlaza and exited the bus at the Church of the Nativity. There was tension in the air as a handful of peddlers rushed towards us and hundreds of heightened eyes quietly watched. The Church of the Nativity is an ancient stone compound with a single entrance through a door four feet tall and the odor of a wet, musty basement. Under the altar is the small cave where some people believe the Prince of Peace was born. We stand in line with impatient tourists to take a quick peek and walked to one of the few remaining tourist traps left in Bethlehem where a literal fist-fight occurred between competing interests for our USAmerican dollars. We quickly headed down the hill to the check point where we were forced to exit our vehicle and walked though a processing center. It is even harder to get out of Bethlehem than it is to get in.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in they dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fear of all the years are met in thee tonight.
My friend Pat Mace wrote me a Christmas letter a few years ago. She said, “Close your eyes and think of peace. What do you see?” Pat anticipated that my images of peace would include tide-swept beaches or snow covered mountains. She pointed out how seldom our images of peace involve people. She went on to write, “Suppose we visualized people when we talked of peace?” She said we must remember that, “Peace will come, if it comes, bumper to bumper, husband to wife, parent to child, in the school and in the city.”
Peace is not a fairy tale daydream about which we sing at Christmas-time; it is a difficult choice we make everyday. When we love without condition, chose to forgive instead of hate and extend mercy we choose peace. When we treat people fairly, tell the truth, keep our promises and insist on being people of integrity we choose peace. So here we are at Christmas. We bundle up, light some candles, sing about a baby born in Bethlehem and speak of peace. But if peace is to come; it must begin right here, right now…with us.
And the angels gathered in the skies above Bethlehem and sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth goodwill toward men.”
-Rev. Shane Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.