Early today I bought vegetables from the farmers who bring their goods in from nearby villages to sell on Bethlehem’s main street. Shops were beginning to open. It was quiet. The apparent calm, though, masked the intense emotional, psychological, and spiritual tension people in Bethlehem are enduring because of the catastrophic war in Gaza and the increase of violence on the West Bank.
For example, at Bethlehem Bible College, two faculty lost family members among the fourteen Christians killed when one of the historic churches in Gaza was partially struck by an Israeli missile. The loss cast a pall upon the college community. Yet, classes still had to be taught, and administrative work completed. Sitting down to lunch with a colleague recently, she burst into tears when she looked at her full meal. “How can I eat this when people in Gaza have nothing?” she cried.
We sometimes forget that the college age students at Bethlehem Bible College did not live through the last Second Intifada from 2000-2005. In fact, they are called the Intifada Generation because many were born during those terrible years which my wife, Karen, and I lived through in a village north of Ramallah. The students need extra encouragement. Karen, who is teaching the students English as a second language, has helped them respond to crisis by writing prayers. Rose prays:
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
JESUS, I want you to be the sunshine of our life.
We ask you to be with our people in Gaza,
to protect them under their broken homes.
Please be with the mothers, fathers, and their children.
Our hearts are broken because so many people have died. Amen.
While the world’s attention is on Gaza, violence has been increasing in the West Bank. Since October 7, 225 Palestinians have been killed. Armed and lawless Israeli settlers have attacked Palestinian families while harvesting their olives and driven shepherds entirely out of their villages in the Hebron and Ramallah areas.
There are efforts, though, to affirm life and hope. A college staff member invited us to her home for a Palestinian meal with her husband and three children. Our host said, “We need to celebrate life!” Her intelligent eldest daughter, fluent in English from attending an American school in Bethlehem, chattered away about her career goals – at nine years of age! The afternoon was such a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of terrible news. Palestinians Christians are trying to hope.
Shortly after that pleasant day, I interviewed Lisa Loden, an influential Jewish follower of Jesus in Israel, for the Global Peacemakers Speak series of the Bethlehem Institute of Peace and Justice. Her ministry touches both Palestinians and Israelis. I asked her how she could bear the strain of caring deeply for both communities. She said, “I pray, and I weep.”
There is certainly reason to pray and weep. The specter of death is always at hand.
For the last two weeks, we have been able to travel to Jerusalem, where we lead the East Jerusalem International Church. The roads out of Bethlehem are almost entirely closed to vehicles, but we now can walk through some checkpoints. A church member picks us up on the other side and drives us into Jerusalem.
Last Sunday on our way to Jerusalem we passed through an established Israeli checkpoint on the highway. Our friend driving us greeted the young soldier who checked our papers and said to him, “Jesus loves you!” The soldier was memorable for his warm smile in response. As we drove away, we discussed how important it is to remain civil and seek to bless the “other.”
Three days later, Palestinian militants attacked that checkpoint. There was one Israeli fatality. We were stunned and saddened to recognize the victim in the news: the soldier who had smiled at our Christian greetings.
The apostle Paul taught, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12.21, NIV). Many Palestinians and Israelis are trying to believe that good will overcome evil, but it is a daily, uphill effort.