Bloodshed in the land of Jesus’ birth

From Nayiri Karjian, Association General Minister
November 30, 2023

The story is complicated. For a long time the world was ruled by empires and colonization. At the end of the 2nd World War, the League of Nations granted France and Britain control/mandates over the former Ottoman territories. France was given Syria; Britain, what became Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan.

The British supported an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, promising self-rule, and they promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine. The Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine mandate continued due to persecution by the Nazis.

In the years after the 2nd World War, the division of the former British Mandate of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel came to culmination in the Zionist movement, whose aim was a homeland for Jews who were scattered all over the world.

In 1964, The Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded, vowing to reclaim their land and destroy the state of Israel. In 1987, Hamas was born and in 2006, this militant group took over Gaza Strip after defeating its rival political party, Fatah. The two-state solution never came to fruition. Instead, the two peoples continue to fight as the extremists on both sides demand the annihilation of the other.

After years of occupation, subjugation, confinement, and continued construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, Palestinians are exhausted, defeated and humiliated. While the state of Israel has become a most powerful state with military power and might, showing no signs of considering a two-state solution.

The state continues to build more Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and experiences unexpected terror, violence and bloodshed at the hands of Palestinian Islamist extremist militants.  So how do we think about this conflict, the heartbreak on both sides, the years of bloodshed and carnage?

I identify with both sides because the Middle East is my birthplace and I have seen Palestinian children of several generations grow up in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. I have witnessed their grief at the loss of their homes and homeland. I have experienced some as classmates in college, and as residents in our church’s basement as they had to flee their camps in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, finding sanctuary in some of our churches. Since the parsonage in which my family lived was on the top floor in the same building, and we ran to the basement when it was dangerous, we got to hear one another’s stories. I identify with Palestinians because many like Armenians have lost their ancestral land and their ancestral homes. They have no country to call their own. 

I identify with Israeli Jews because most of them, only a few years ago, were a people in diaspora, a people who experienced unimaginable holocaust, just like Armenians. Today on Israeli land, they find a place they can call home.

Both sides have and continue to experience grave injustices. Both are in search for justice. Both seek to live ordinary lives with dignity, security and peace.

Yet the issue is additionally complex because this is not only a war between two legitimate states but between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians represented by a “terrorist” group. Hence both sides are not equal in power, not militarily, not economically, not even in having basic necessities of life. So, in some ways, this a war between David and Goliath.  And, Palestinians are not Goliath.

With the support of the powerful, Israel has become a powerful nation militarily and economically, while Palestinians, not considered a nation, continue to suffer the indignity of occupation, humiliation and defeat, mostly by Israeli hands. Without the support of the powerful, with no state and no army, Palestinians wrestle with how to be free from the occupation.

The powerful nation continues to build settlements not only on Palestinian land, but has built them with state of the art amenities, conveniences, and comforts while Palestinian families struggle, just a few minutes away, even in refugee camps on their own homeland, with poverty and lack of resources for basic needs and opportunity.

So, who is right and who is wrong? Who is the villain and who the victim? Who is to blame?

When conflict arises, we humans often ask the aforementioned questions. We like to find the one responsible so we can blame and accuse. We assume that there is always a right side and a wrong side. The polarized and binary frame of mind holds us hostage, especially as it tells us that those who are doing right are good people, and those who are doing wrong are bad people.

As I have shared previously, there are no good or bad people, there are complicated people. There are hurt and broken people. Some “good” people sometimes do bad things and some “bad” people sometimes do good things. Dividing people as good and bad is not helpful. But discerning actions as right or wrong in their context and based on their outcome can help.

In this instance, it seems to me that both sides are wrong and both sides are right. Both have a right to live in peace and dignity without occupation, hate or terror. Both were created for abundant life.

So many of us don’t know what to think and what to make of this all. Do we take sides? Do we sit in judgment? Do we do anything?

A few thoughts:

I write about this because I come from that part of the world, hence it is my calling to tell the story as I know and experience it.

The most important question to me is not who is right and who is wrong, but who are the people, what are their stories, and who is suffering and what do we do to lessen suffering and how do we do justice?

In our polarized society, many of us want the comfort of not taking sides, because we consider taking sides to be “judgmental.” Some don’t want to take sides because they believe that God does not take sides.

“God does not take sides” is true in the sense that God does not play favorites. God loves all and there is no one that is excluded from that love.

But I believe that God takes sides especially when people hurt one another, kill and destroy each other, and stands with the hurting and the victimized, crying with them and wiping their tears away. We see this in the biblical story, in the prophets who criticize the powerful, and in Jesus’ life, who always sides with the powerless and the victimized, and the occupied.

And, why does God take sides? Because the powerful live at the expense and with the exploitation of the powerless.

Sometimes it is helpful to be neutral. Sometimes it is not. Our faith calls us to the side of justice and truth and to the side of the exploited powerless. Isn’t that why Jesus said, the first will be last and the last, first?

We will probably never agree on who is right or wrong in this crisis, but as J. Parks puts it, “We should agree that violence has to stop, killing one another is not the answer, that the hungry must be fed, the sick must be cared for, immigrants must be treated with compassion, Black people must not be killed by the police, and the vulnerable must be protected from ecological disaster,” and the powerful should not exploit or eradiate the powerless.

And, we a people of faith on God’s side, and as God’s hands and feet in the world, should walk in the footsteps of Jesus, not only healing the hurting and lifting up the exploited, but also by speaking truth to power and by working for justice for all.

This year, Christmas will feel like a lament.