It is the time of the year again where churches all over the world sing about Bethlehem and affirm that belief in Jesus is a Jewish faith. One old medieval song says “Noel, Noel, Born is the king of Israel.” Another one says “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, o Israel.”
I grew up in Sweden, where some of the old church hymns say even more explicit Israeli and Jewish things. One from 1893 says things like “Zion, meet your king, Jerusalem shall be glad.” A song that I loved as a little kid is “The Star of Bethlehem,” written in 1891, where one part of the lyrics describe “night in the land of Judah, night in Zion.”
These hymns were all written back when the Bible was at the basis of everything in the church, and there was no controversy about Israel, because everyone knew that the Jews don’t own that land any longer, and there was no chance that they’ll ever get it back. It was just some historic old facts that are important for the Biblical narrative and the Christian faith.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, belief in Jesus is at its core a Jewish faith. If you believe in Jesus, you believe in the Old Testament, because that’s what he came to fulfill. The heresy of Marcion, seeking to disconnect Jesus from the Jewish scriptures, was denounced by the church in the 2nd century. As a Christian, you’re taking part in an ancient Jewish faith in the redeeming Messiah. All these hymns are confirming it – Bethlehem, the land of the Jews, Israel, Zion.
It is therefore extremely weird when a church says that Bethlehem is in occupied territory.
I’m not saying you can’t support the Palestinians. I’m not saying Israel always does everything right. I’m not even asking you to take sides in the conflict. What I am saying is – when you claim that Bethlehem is not in Israel, you are denying your own scriptures, your own Christmas hymns, and your own history. It’s one thing if a secular or Muslim leader denies Israel’s historic connection to the land. They don’t rely on the Old Testament as a basis of their existence. But when a Christian church or organization does it – it raises questions.
I am leaving the Palestinian Christians out of this. I can’t blame them at all. They often have to say anti-Israel things to find favor in the eyes of their dictatorship government. I will automatically forgive whatever slander they have against me. I know most of them love me as a brother in Christ, even if we might have deep disagreements, just as I love them. But Christian organizations and churches from democratic countries who have nothing to fear from their governments – would it hurt you to, I don’t know, maybe stop undermining your own faith?
Again – love and help and support the Palestinians all you want. Criticize Israel all you want. That’s not my issue here. Just don’t call it occupied land in one breath while singing hymns about Bethlehem in Israel in the next breath. If you feel you have to go into international politics (and I honestly don’t really understand why a church would want to do that in the first place), and take this side, then you can say it in other ways. Call it disputed territory. Say whatever you want about that. Just don’t call yourselves Christians and then deny biblical history.
I am not worried about Israel. We’ll be fine. I am worried about you, the churches, and your future. “You will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:39). Your very existence as a church or an organization relies on a faith that relies on the Jewish scriptures about the Jewish Messiah being born in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. Undermine that, and you’ve soon undermined everything that’s at the core of your faith, and eventually, your existence won’t be relevant anymore.