This past May I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land for a week. I did not go as a religious pilgrim, I went to learn about the struggle between the Palestinian people and the Israeli government. But as I traveled through the Israeli-occupied West Bank and parts of Israel, I found myself haunted by the presence of Jesus.
This sense of Christ's presence did not come from my visits to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Those places seemed more like monuments to the Crusaders and the tourism industry than to the simple rabbi of Nazareth. Instead, this feeling about Jesus first struck me in the streets of Bethlehem, which today are part of the occupied West Bank. There I heard a Palestinian man tell how occupation troops came by night to arrest his 16-year-old son and demolish the family home, all because the boy was suspected of throwing a rock at a military vehicle.
As I listened, I realized that this must have been what life in Bethlehem was like when Jesus was born, during the Roman occupation. I could envision Mary and Joseph and the child there today, hounded by their occupiers and made refugees again. It was a vision that lingered and grew throughout the week.
But there was a painful ambiguity to that perception: I also knew that Jesus has relatives among the Jews of Israel, who have endured similar suffering and worse ever since they were driven out of that land centuries ago. I knew that many of them carry out or support the occupation and other oppression of Arabs because they believe these policies are their only road to survival in a world that has proven itself more than willing to exterminate Jews.