12/21/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

The Bethlehem Wall

After traveling to the Holy Land for two occasions, one of the places that I looked forward in visiting was the site of Jesus's birth. In a brief query to our tour director, I realized that the present-day story of Bethlehem is of a sacred place now enmeshed in concrete and barbed wire, where the humanitarian situation deteriorates and not only compromises human dignity, but also puts at risk the long-term welfare of both Palestinians and Israelis who long for a just peace.

One cannot help but be reminded of the words from the Gospel of Luke: "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened" (2:15).

This Christmas season, the story of a miracle birth in a quiet manger seems impossibly distant from the little town of Bethlehem that we know today.

Two millennia after the birth of Christ, this ancient, holy city is quite literally being strangled in the shadow of the barrier wall.

When we read the Christmas story and when we sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem," this isn't what we picture. We love the Christmas-card image of a sleepy little town with open streets and gentle, rustic stables. The fact is, though, that while there was no concrete wall around Bethlehem in the first century, there was no less stark a contrast between the poor of this little village and the powerful holding court in Jerusalem and, even more so, in Rome. The emperor, Augustus, ruled over most of the Mediterranean world. Augustus was called "a man of peace," but his definition of peace was that of every empire that has ever moved across the face of the world. For Rome, for Augustus, peace was about victory -- about military and economic security.

Augustus killed the opposition, occupied foreign lands and called it peace.

He taxed those conquered peoples heavily in order to fund his military, his building projects. and his personal needs and called it prosperity.

Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and out, those who were rich and poor, and those who lived and died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.

Interpretation for those of African Descent Communities of Faith: God's glory is revealed to those on the other side of the Wall.

What we miss when we boil down the Christmas story to a once-a-year celebration of mangers and mall-shopping is the stark truth that Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall. The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth, nor did the rich and powerful just up the road in Jerusalem.

Note that the angels didn't appear in Rome, or in the temple in Jerusalem. They didn't perform a concert for the emperor or invade the dreams of wealthy merchants or military leaders. When the angels came, they came to Bethlehem -- on that side of the wall. And they gave their performance for a group of shepherds, who in a place of poverty were the poorest of the poor. It was to them, the lowest of the low, the insignificant and forgotten people of the empire, that God chose to reveal his grand plan for the world.

Jesus may have left Bethlehem, but he lived his life fully on that side of the wall. The baby born in a cave, in a manger, grew up preaching and embodying a message of the coming kingdom of God -- God's reign and rule on the earth, a kingdom that would bring justice and well-being to the whole world. He healed the sick, touched the untouchable, called people to share their wealth, and fed the hungry. He spent his time with outcasts, loved the unlovable, and washed the feet of his disciples like the lowliest servant.

This is what James Cone means when he writes in God of the Oppressed that the task of theology is to create a theology that speaks to black people and others on the other side of the wall and uses their history, literature, and other indigenous sources. "Black theology is a theology of and for black people, an examination of their stories, tales, and sayings. It is an investigation of the mind into the raw materials of our pilgrimage, telling the story of how 'we got over.'" Yet it also entails a dethroning of the exclusivity of white theology. Or theologies that highlight the privilege and stories of the rich instead of addressing the realities of the walls that separate and divide.

Somewhere along the line, the white approach to theology became the right one; the white experience of living on the other side of the wall with a distorted view of peace became the universal experience, and any theologizing that did work not under the guise of the status quo was dubbed illegitimate. Here Cone points out that "other people also have thought about God and have something significant to say about Jesus' presence in this world." This is what I believe has happened to the understanding of Bethlehem in the Christmas story that we have lost touch that the one we celebrate as King of Kings was one that lived and identified with those who resided on the other side of the wall. These are those who are undocumented workers that are deemed illegal that know about what it means to live on the outside of the wall.

Theology, Cone argues, is human-talk about God. It is inseparably tied to one's historical and cultural setting and is limited by the language and experience of those espousing it. Hence, Cone concludes that theology is "anthropology." Accordingly, these "anthropological undergirding's" should be acknowledged by all, for "[w]hat people think about God cannot be divorced from their place and time in a definite history and culture."

Maybe we can view the anthropological understanding of Jesus in breaking down walls in his understanding of his humble origins in Bethlehem. Jesus breaks down walls -- walls of violence and injustice, walls that separate rich and poor, walls that define who's worthy and who's not, and walls of sin and death that separate us from knowing the love, peace and justice of God in this world. In Jesus, God showed that empires cannot and will not have the last word in this world. That word belongs to the true King, the one for whom the angels sing -- the true Son of God, the one called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father" and ... the true "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

To celebrate Christmas, then, is to celebrate hope; not the kind of hope that's printed in a Christmas card but the kind of hope that challenges empires and changes lives. It's not a hope that ignores the pain of the world in favor of looking forward to heavenly bliss, despite the words in "Away in a Ma Instead, it's about following Jesus in a mission that breaks down the walls of this world and makes God's kingdom a reality. It's a call for us to be living and working as if God is on Caesar's throne. The promise of God is that it will one day be so. That's what hope is on the other side of the wall.

Our task as African Descent persons of faith is to live out that salvation by doing and calling for the things that will make "Peace Be with you" not just a wish but an affirmation. Every time we serve the poor, fight injustice, speak for those who are voiceless, serve a meal to a hungry person, spend time in a prison teaching an inmate a new way of life, we break down walls of separation. Do that enough and even concrete walls can begin to come down?

After feeling uneasy about the realities of Bethlehem and the utopian dream that I sing during the Christmas season, I realize because of Jesus, even behind the wall, there is hope.

That's what Christmas is about: peace on earth -- a peace with no more walls.