Russell Barr: From Bethlehem, comes a new message that matters

A farm called the '˜Tent of Nations' is an inspiration to those working for peace in the Middle East, writes Russell Barr, the former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr
Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr

Glory to God in the highest, sang the Christmas angels, and on Earth peace. And yet the tragedy is that, 2000 years later, peace is something conspicuous by its absence in Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth.

All those years ago, the lives of people in ancient Palestine was subject to a Roman army of occupation, while today the landscape is dotted with illegal settlements and daily life is interrupted by military checkpoints and a separation wall.

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The Rev Dr John McCulloch is the Church of Scotland’s minister at St Andrew’s Memorial church in Jerusalem.

John and his family live in Bethlehem, some seven miles south of Jerusalem, and in a recent letter he described the daily reality of life in that part of the world.

Some weeks back, I took the bus from St Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem to Checkpoint 300, which is one of four checkpoints that lead into Bethlehem.

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The bus drops you just outside and everyone gets off and begins to walk through the metal turnstiles that take you to the other side of the wall.

On the other side, a cacophony of fruit sellers and taxi drivers call out to passers-by in the hope of earning a few more shekels.

What strikes me after being here for the last eight months is how crossing checkpoints and lines of heavily armed soldiers can become so normalised.

And yet, in a context of political structural injustice and military occupation, it is important, as Martin Luther King Jr once said, to remember that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

Amid all the challenges of living and working in Israel, one of the places John draws inspiration from is a farm called the Tent of Nations.

For three generations, the Nassar family has tended their hill-top farm south-west of Bethlehem, harvesting their olive grove and their vineyard.

The Nassar family refuses to be silent about the things that matter and, on a rock at the entrance to their farm, they have painted the words: “We refuse to be enemies.”

In a context marked by conflict, suspicion, hatred and violence, the Nassar family’s commitment to non-violence and their pursuit of a just and lasting peace for everyone who lives in Israel/Palestine is truly inspirational.

The Nassar family shows us something of what it looks like when people refuse to be enemies or keep silent about the things that matter, working instead for a better future.

Their commitment also points us to the deep truth of the Christian celebration of Christmas.

A child lies in a manger, wrapped not just in swaddling bands but in his mother’s love. Shepherds and wise men are among the first visitors and yet as the Christmas gospel unfolds we learn King Herod will soon plot the child’s death.

Light and dark, good and evil, the world at its best, the world at its worst: the contrasts are at the very heart of the Christmas story as Christian people believe God comes among us to show us a better future.

And in this Christmas season, what better gift could we offer the world than to join John McCulloch and the Nassar family by refusing to be enemies or keep silent about “the things that matter”.

The Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr is the former Moderator of the Church of Scotland.