On East Jerusalem’s Nablus Road lies St. George’s School. I would pass it on my walks to the Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, during my short visit in early May.
The school has two especially notable alumni. From 1933 to ’36, Wilbert Vere Awdry, after obtaining his diploma in theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, taught at St George’s. Ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1936, he went on to create “Thomas the Tank Engine,” the beloved train that spawned countless children’s stories and toys as well as a television show. And in the late 1940s, Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said attended as a young teen.
Writing later in The London Review of Books, Said recalled how his Anglo-centered education, while clothing him with the cultural uniform of the British Empire, emphatically disabused him of any notion other than that he “was an alien, a non-European Other.” Said had been born into a community associated with what he referred to as a “Nazareth Christian clan” and baptized in Jerusalem’s Anglican Cathedral. Membership in the Anglican Church, he wrote, “where the singing of bellicose hymns like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ had me in effect playing the role at once of aggressor and aggressed against. To be at the same time a Wog and an Anglican was to be in a state of standing civil war.”
As a fellow Anglican, I shared a similar sense of disjuncture because of my adherence to a faith that is historically part of an empire and my lived experience of oppression. I felt much ambiguity about the Holy Land and pilgrimages to the birthplace of Christianity. Cape Town, my hometown, while geographically distant from Palestine, is viscerally bound to its story because of its small but influential Muslim and Jewish communities and the different ways it lays claim to their respective identities.
Cape Town’s Christian majority tends to support Israel’s claim on the land — a sentiment informed by an uncritical recall of Sunday-school Bible stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. Our general view of Arab Palestinians is colored by “encomiums about Israel’s democracy, achievements, excitement,” Said rightly wrote, as well as by sympathy and guilt for Jewish victimhood after the Holocaust. Its theological and related political response to Palestine was guided by a post-Auschwitz complex of culpability and its problematic progeny, guilt.
The church acknowledged the contribution to anti-Semitism by the Gospel of St. John, which cites the Jews as murderers of Jesus Christ. This was a necessary correction but an accommodation that undermined the rights of Arab Palestinians, who “slipped into the place occupied by Nazis and anti-Semites,” spoilers at the Middle East feast of occupying generals and their armies. Said’s telling lament: “We have had no Holocaust to protect us with the world’s compassion.”
While in Jerusalem this year, I was part of a small group of Christian pilgrims who were welcomed by the soft-spoken, unassuming Bishop Suheil Salman Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. By way of introduction he told us, “My ancestors date back to the Pentecost.” I had never met a Christian who could include that in his curriculum vitae. Palestinian Christians can.
Smaller in number than they have ever been, they are the faithful and suffering remnant of community whose existence is rooted in the founding moment of Christianity, the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the 12 apostles and other followers of Jesus. My colleagues and I visited Palestine for a short course on the Palestine of Jesus to, according to the description, “explore the roots and traditions of the Christian faith as they were formed in the Holy Land.” The trek included visits to the cities associated with the three significant markers of the Christian faith: Nazareth, the city of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary of her conception; Bethlehem, where Jesus was born; and Jerusalem, where Jesus was executed and where the Resurrection took place.
Since returning from Jerusalem, I have dedicated a new and deep place in my prayers for the people of Israel — Jew, Muslim and Christian. Today we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child and his promise of peace for all creation. So too do our Christians brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and beyond.
Yet for them and their Muslim compatriots, in a particular way, it is still the Good Friday of their oppression. The wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the cross of the daily crucifixion of their searched, scrutinized and humiliated bodies as they pass, when permitted, through the security complex of Israel.
In all this, the life of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 while giving Mass, still reminds us that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world. Likewise, we are called, now especially, to be Christmas Christians — light bearers when all seems dark.