Sunday, December 18, 2011

Where would you want your child to be born?

Jill and I are grateful to Paul Kim, pastor of One Voice church in Pasadena,  for inviting us to share this Christmas message.   I am also thankful to this church for being so hospitable and welcoming me into its community.

The question I posed for this congregation (and for you) to think about was:
"If you had a choice about where your child would be born, so your child could realize its potential and have a good life, what place would you choose?”
Most people would probably say, “I’d like my child to be born in a good, peaceful neighborhood, with good schools, so he or she will be safe and get a good education.”

The place were Jesus was born was not at all what you or I would necessarily choose. God had a different plan. God’s child was born in a country under foreign occupation, wracked by war and uprisings, in an impoverished village far from centers of power. His parents came from a town with such a bad reputation that when good-hearted Nathaniel was told Jesus came from Nazareth, he said: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Nazareth was clearly not prime real estate It was in the northern part of what is today Israel. It was filled with many non-Jews, mostly Syrians, who had been conquered in a bloody war a hundred years before Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem was also war-torn and poor, a suburb of Jerusalem controlled by a ruthless Roman army. Today the inhabitants of Bethlehem are still under the control of a ruthless army; they can’t come or go without permission of the Israelis. That’s the kind of place that God chose for God’s son to be born into. Why would God want his child to be born in this kind of place under these circumstances?

The Bible teaches us that many great leaders were born in desperate circumstances. Moses was born a slave in Egypt, under conditions so oppressive his parents had to put him into a wicker basket and set him afloat on the Nile to prevent him from being killed by Pharaoh. David was born a humble shepherd during a time when the Israelites were at war with the Canaanites.

Why did God choose for the savior of the world to be born among poor and outcast? In every way Jesus, even at his birth, identifies with the marginalized. That is what gave him authority to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless. And that is what gives you and I that authority. Jill would not be powerful in what she says at the city council if she didn’t know firsthand those who are being affected by the systemic issues and are not being heard or know how to speak to those who allocate the resources.

According to the Hebrew prophecies, a great Liberator would be born in Bethlehem to give folks the grace and power to speak, to free his people from oppression and to end war. Zech 9: 9-10 says,

Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.

This was joyous news for the poor, but bad news for those who live by the sword. When King Herod heard rumors that a Messiah, a King of the Jews, was born in Bethlehem, he felt so threatened he sent his soldiers to kill all the babies. Fear and lust for power controlled him and led him to violence.

Such a bloody, ruthless act revealed the oppressive system that the Jews were living under. The theologian Walter Wink calls this "the domination system," and it's still with us. Whenever the domination system is threatened, it responds with violence: arrests, imprisonment, torture, and eventually the killing of innocent people. We see this around the world today with people rising up in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia. We even see it in our own country with the our police dressed in full riot gear, to clear out unarmed Occupiers exercising their Constitutional rights.

I felt personally connected to the story of the “slaughter of the innocents” when I went to Israel/Palestine in 2005 as part of the Compassionate Listening project. The intifada or uprising of 2000 had just ended. Over 1,400 Palestinian children and 125 Jewish children had been killed—an enormous number given the small size of this country. I met Jewish and Palestinian parents whose children had been killed during this period and it was heartbreaking to listen to them. One of them was a rabbi whose son was murdered by Arabs and found in a cave near his kibbutz. Another was a Palestinian mother whose 16-year-old son was shot in the head at point blank range by an Israeli soldier during a peaceful demonstration. I can't begin to describe the pain of these grieving families.

During this trip I went to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born and was appalled to see it riddled with bullet holes. Inside the church, I found a shrine dedicated to the “slaughter of the innocents." . This was not just a story that happened 2000 years ago. It's still happening today. While there I felt empty and sad. I grieved for the children who had been killed in Israel/Palestine. I prayed for all the children being killed by war, by terrorism, by drones, by airplanes. On average two children a day died in Afghanistan in 2010. Over 500 Palestinian children were killed during the Gaza massacre in 2009.

I have vowed to do everything in my power to end this senseless slaughter. Jill and I both believe there are biblical alternatives to war and violence. God chose to have his son born in the midst of an oppressive system to show us the way.

I had come to Israel/Palestine as part of a nonviolent conflict resolution group called the Compassionate Listening Project. This group was inspired by a Quaker named Gene Hoffman who was my mentor and friend. The idea of Compassionate Listening is to teach people listening skills in places where people have been traumatized by violence. People learn to listen to their “enemies” without judging, to listen from the heart, and this builds trust and hope. While I was in Bethlehem, we did Compassionate Listening training in a school, and nearly 100 Palestinians and Israeli Jews took part. This was very inspiring since Jews were not allowed to go to Bethlehem to talk with Palestinians at this time. It was illegal! But many Jews were willing to break the law in order to build bridges of understanding with their Palestinian neighbors. When so-called “enemies” come together and listen to each other’s stories from the heart, they can become friends.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Palestinian boy named Yousef Bashir who lived under Israeli occupation in Gaza. When Yousef was only 12, he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier as he was walking out of his house. He was critically hurt and almost died. Because the hospitals in Gaza are short on crucial medical supplies, his father somehow managed to get him to a first-rate Jewish hospital where Yousef spent several months recovering. Up to this time, Yousef had never encountered a Jew who wasn’t armed and threatening. In the hospital he met kind Jewish doctors and nurses, and gradually overcame his prejudices and fears. He went on to become an ardent peace maker and even persuaded an Israeli soldier to accept a t-shirt for a camp called “The Seeds of Peace.” After hearing Yousef’s story, the soldier said he would like to become a counselor at this camp after finishing his obligatory military service. Yousef’s story, titled “The Power of Forgiveness,” is being published in a book for children in Russia and Chechnya showing that there are alternatives to violence. (See

Closer to home, Jill and I witnessed examples of what compassionate listening can accomplish when we traveled together this summer to places in our own country where there is poverty and violence. We went to the slums of Washington, DC, and Philadelphia and we saw Christians who had moved into these at-risk communities and listened, deeply listened, to what the community needs and what it has to offer. These Christians had partnered with their urban neighbors to help the community to rebuild itself. Jim Dickerson, this small church has been involved in rehabbing and selling 1000 homes to low income families with an extremely low foreclosure rate. In this work, I saw signs of hope, signs that Christ was being reborn.

Many people today are being kicked out of their homes due to foreclosures, or are finding it impossible to afford a home because of our unjust economic system, where the rich get bailouts and the poor get sold out. Many young people have taken to the streets to protest the economic injustices of Wall Street. As you know, I was part of a religious group that got arrested to protest the war in Afghanistan and also went to Occupy LA to be in solidarity with the protesters. It was amazing to see hundreds of people living in tents around our City Hall. Some of them had come from Skid Row where they were already living on the streets. It was the first time in my life I have seen middle class and poor people living together in tents. What drew them together was the hunger and thirst for justice. I felt as if I was witnessing the rebirth of hope, the rebirth of the Christ spirit.

What about here in Pasadena? Where is Christ being reborn here? How can we be part of this rebirth? Jill can tell you more about this than I can. I am grateful that many of you in this church are helping with programs like Family Promise and are doing what you can to help families like Theresa's family whose children will be living in a church instead of on the street this Christmas. Jill and I are inviting you to join us in a discussion group focusing on justice and peace from a biblical perspective, and discover together the meaning of peace in ourselves, our community and world today.

We’d like to end with a beautiful song about the birth of the Prince of Peace by the great Quaker African-American activist mystic teacher Howard Thurman, who taught at my Alma mater, Boston University. Here's what Howard Thurman says about the message of Christmas:
"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."

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