Checkpoint at Bethlehem


Rev. J. Mark Worth, interim minister, Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church, Harvard MA


  1. From Micah 5:2, and 5:4-5a, a prophecy of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom: And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathath small among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. … And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.


As I mentioned last week, the New Testament Gospel attributed to Luke says that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth in Galilee, and traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed. But the Gospel attributed to Matthew has no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Rather, Mary and Joseph were apparently already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born (Matthew 2:11). Both gospel writers place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because that is the city of David, Israel’s greatest king, and the Messiah was to be descended from King David. Moreover, the prophet Micah had written that this leader would come from Bethlehem to rule over Israel in that time when people would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Matthew’s Gospel says that when the Magi – astrologers or wise men who had been watching the stars – arrived at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, they asked where the new king had been born. King Herod and his cronies were upset because there had been no birth in his family. Then his advisors, quoting the prophet Micah, said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, that the Magi should look there, and then report back to Herod. The Magi, after finding Joseph and Mary’s home in Bethlehem, and giving gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus, were warned in a dream that Herod was not to be trusted, and they returned to their own land by another road.

The gospel writers, who were not eyewitnesses to Jesus birth, knew that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee. But they designed their narratives to show that the birth of Jesus fulfilled Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem. So we celebrate Bethlehem as the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is a place of pilgrimage for Christians the world over, especially at Christmas.

A political, and not religious, conflict ~

The majority of the inhabitants of Bethlehem today are Arab Muslims, but there is a significant Arab Christian minority in Bethlehem. And, of course, Muslims also have a high regard for Jesus. Muslims consider Jesus to have been a great prophet, and because they say Jesus was God’s prophet, one who submitted to God’s will, he was by definition a Muslim. So both the Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians promote Bethlehem as a tourist destination. It’s good for the local economy.

Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian West Bank, is about five miles south of Jerusalem. Seventy years ago Bethlehem was a small city of about 9,000, and 85% of the population was Christian. Today about 25,000 people live in Bethlehem, and perhaps 15% of Bethlehemites are Christians – most are Eastern Orthodox, some are Roman Catholic, and there are some Anglicans and others. Relations between Bethlehem’s Muslim and Christian population are generally good, but the

Christian population of Bethlehem is in decline.

Times are difficult. The construction of a security barrier, or wall, by the Israeli government has had a political, social and economic impact on Bethlehem. The barrier runs along the north side of Bethlehem, with a refugee camp on one side of the barrier, and the municipality of Jerusalem on the other side. Entrances and exists from Bethlehem are subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. Travel to Jerusalem for Bethlehem’s Palestinian residents requires a permit. Acquiring a permit to go the few miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem has become exceedingly difficult.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, author and speaker, wrote about her 2003 trip to a religious conference in Israel. Religious leaders from many parts of the world and many religious traditions attended.

Muslim Imams from the Palestinian territories were not allowed into Israel to attend the meeting. But there were some Palestinians at the meeting. This is not a religious conflict, both sides said. Instead, it is a political conflict that lacks constructive religious leadership. The political issues are water and settlement, borders and security, viability and freedom. The religious issue, on the other hand, is how to understand the spiritual dimensions of the problem in such a way that it will become imperative for the religious groups to share an ancient land between two ancient peoples.

For almost seventy years, while other conflicts around the world have flared up and died down, this conflict has stubbornly persisted. Why?

Some say that foreign powers fuel the conflict. Some say international bodies have insufficient stake in leading the parties toward peace. Some say that too many people, on both sides, don’t want peace. Maybe so.

But religious leaders see the conflict from a different perspective. As one religious leader put it, “These are cousins; this is a family squabble and only the family can end it.”

And a nun added, “In the [Biblical] struggle between Jacob and the angel, Jacob was wounded. Scripture says that ‘Jacob limped.’ Unless both these peoples are willing to live with a few wounds, unless they both give up insisting on the politically ideal situation, this struggle will never end.”

The impasse ~

Sister Chittister recalls that a Buddhist monk, who was present at the gathering, said, “When two people coming from two different directions try to cross a raging river over the same log in the same place at the same time, the two of them will meet in the middle and neither one can pass. Unless one of them backs up, neither can proceed.”

Chittester was pondering the impasse, when the monk added what she called “the Zen of the story.” “It is not easy to back up,” the Buddhist said, “but it is the only way that both can cross the stream safely.”

But backing up won’t be easy for either side. Palestinians told Sister Chittister, “Stop the occupation and we’ll negotiate.” The Israelis told her, “Stop the bombings and we’ll listen.”

Palestinians point out that the Israeli army has killed at least three times more Palestinians than the number of Israelis who have been killed by Palestinian rockets and suicide bombers. But to Israelis, that seems irrelevant when they do not feel safe riding a bus, going out to shop, or even eating a meal at home.

Whatever the numbers, Israel has almost always had the dominant hand. Israelis seem to be taking more and more Palestinian land. And Israelis can move about, in and out of the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians can hardly move at all, even among their own cities and villages.

Palestine is treated as a foreign country, but has almost none of the rights of an independent nation. As of September, 2015, Palestine is recognized as an independent state by 136 nations, which is about three-quarters of the nations of the world, representing 70% of the members of the United Nations; and Palestine is “a non-member observer state” of the United Nations, but not a full member of the U.N. They do not have the right to make treaties, or regulate their own airspace, for instance.

Israel requires Palestinians to get permits to visit relatives in other towns within Palestine. At least thirty deaths of infants at checkpoints have been reported because mothers did not have permits to take their children to the hospital.

Checkpoints have become a very difficult issue, as illustrated by Sister Chittister’s attempt to visit Bethlehem. She wanted to spend some time with one of the women who was at the conference, and the two of them wanted to visit some of the pilgrimage sites. They were told it would be simple, as Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem. It would be a twenty-minute cab ride.

Sneaking into Bethlehem ~

But then they came up one of the many Israeli checkpoints. “There a hundred cars ahead of us,” said the Israeli cab driver. “We can’t go this way or you’ll never have time to get back to Jerusalem for your meeting tonight. I will go another way.”

Sister Chittister thought it seemed crazy to take so long to go such a short distance. The cab driver headed back in the opposite direction, toward Jerusalem. At another location the cab driver pulled over and parked in another line of empty cars. He got out of the car, and told the women in the car to lock themselves in. He walked a distance to check out the situation. He showed up a short time later with a smile on his face. He told the women to get out of the car, and he guided them up a hill to a place where they could cross over. On the other side of the hill was yet another line of empty cars. One was a taxi cab with a Palestinian license plate. The women got into that cab, and the Palestinian driver took them over back roads into Bethlehem.

They found Bethlehem dark and empty. Tourism has been severely hurt by the Israeli checkpoints. A few shopkeepers sat in dark stores waiting for the occasional tourist. Most of the stores were closed. Over 70 per cent of the people of Bethlehem are unemployed, the women were told.

The Magi, it is written, chose not to go back to Jerusalem to tell King Herod that they had found the baby Jesus. They went home by another road. Joseph and Mary then took their baby and fled south to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod, according to Matthew. But another gospel writer, Luke, says that Joseph and Mary traveled in safety north to Jerusalem, Herod’s capital, and had the baby Jesus dedicated in the Temple.

After their visit to Bethlehem, Sister Chittister and her friend returned to Jerusalem by the same route that had taken them to Bethlehem, taking back roads and climbing over the hill to the Israeli side. The two women, climbing over the hill, felt that they were traveling much in the style of Mary and Joseph. Then, having found an Israeli cab, they headed toward Jerusalem, watching a group of Palestinian boys smuggling themselves from one side to the other. The cab driver suggested that such smuggling had become a way of life, and that the boys were probably on their way to visit their families – or, more likely, their girlfriends. Surely, Sister Chittister said to herself, there must be a better way.