Magazine article The Christian Century

Candles of Peace: In the Shepherds' Fields

Magazine article The Christian Century

Candles of Peace: In the Shepherds' Fields

Article excerpt

The Angels' Christmas message of peace on earth still echoes in the fields near Bethlehem where once shepherds were startled by a heavenly message of "peace on earth, good win among all." For the past six years the residents of the small village of Beit Sahour have kept a peaceful candlelight Christmas vigil announcing their determination to keep the eternal message of peace alive. When the sun begins to set each Christmas day -- the time when most Americans are cleaning up wrapping paper and leftover plates of holiday goodies -- these Holy Land residents light a candle to signal that their work has just begun, the work of keeping the Christmas message alive throughout the year.

According to tradition, Beit Sahour, just down the hill and to the east of Bethlehem, is the village of the Christmas shepherds, who found shelter in nearby caves. Several chapels, each built over ancient ruins, claim to be situated on the very spot, and they serve as rallying points for pilgrims and tourists. Daily busloads come and go, yet few people remain behind to witness the everyday lives of the town's inhabitants, and fewer still witness the annual Christmas Day march.

The name Beit Sahour means "the house of staying up all night." This refers to a remembrance of the past -- the long nights of watchful keeping of the flocks-and also signals a commitment for the future-the vigilance that endures in difficult times. When better to enact a symbolic gesture of peace than Christmas?

The residents of Beit Sahour are not new to constructive peaceful demonstration. During the height of the intifada, theirs was the only community that instituted a tax boycott against occupying Israel. Under the slogan "No Taxation Under Occupation," presented a clear challenge to Israel in a pamphlet explaining their position: "We consider the occupation of one people by another people a clear violation of international laws and religions." The residents then detailed the social services not provided to their community, including education, health, water and electrical resources. They concluded: "For these reasons -- and as a consequence of our conviction that the money taken in by the high taxes we pay is spent on ammunition and tear gas used to kill our children -- we have decided not to pay taxes anymore." As a result, stiff penalties were assessed against the community, including strict curfews and house arrest for 40 days. Telephone lines were cut, and community leaders were imprisoned.

Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem's Evangelical Lutheran Church, tells how Israeli soldiers then went house to house confiscating $2 million worth of goods to pay the debt. When they came to the home of one aged widow, she stood helplessly at the door. They carried out her furniture and other valuables and loaded them into the truck. As they were ready to leave, she called out to them, "Haven't you forgotten something?" The soldiers stood puzzled and then listened to her explanation: "You must take my curtains as well."

The residents of Beit Sahour have refused either to retaliate with violence or to sink into passive resignation. The words of this poor widow typify their spirit as they call for justice through peaceful means. That Beit Sahour's population has the highest percentage of Christians of any town in Palestine is evident in the residents' Sermon-on-the-mount ethic which preserves human dignity while turning the other cheek and giving up the second garment. …

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