The idiom “the other side of the tracks” usually refers to a line of demarcation and separation, often actually railroad tracks, between the more affluent part of a town from a more impoverished area. The separation is often both economic and racial/ethnic. Depending on which side you are on, you either have an acute awareness of the other side—its influence and control on your life—or you have some vague stereotypical ideas of a place you rarely go.
Palestinians know and understand the idiom well, simply by changing one word, “tracks” to “wall,” referring to the separation barrier/wall that Israel began to build in 2002. The separation is also psychological between Israelis and Palestinians. Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the barrier is a 30-foot high concrete wall.
As we turn our focus to the “little town of Bethlehem” in these weeks of Advent before Christmas, we recall that, in the Biblical accounts, “little” is an appropriate description of the city in the time of Jesus’ birth, as it had become a small, herding village, occupied by the Roman Empire and cut off. Jesus the Christ was born in modest surroundings, on the edges of society—even within Bethlehem, born in a stable. His earthly ministry began when he was baptized by John at the lowest place on earth—the Jordan River. But his presence and impact did not go unnoticed—by Herod, by the shepherds and Magi, and ultimately by the world.
The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and Bethlehem-born Palestinian Christian theologian, points out that Jesus’ “entire ministry was devoted to the villages….At the center of Jesus’ attention were…those who were marginalized, those who were possessed by demons, people who were not in control of their lives, people who had to fear for their lives, people who could not walk upright because they were under so much pressure and oppression.” Jesus ministered among them because he “believed that liberation started with empowering those who were marginalized.”
Writing from “the other side of the wall” [also the title of his new book], the Rev. Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who is pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, wants to “amplify the voice of my people and my church…communities who are dehumanized, discriminated against, and rejected by the actions, attitudes, and theology of the dominant and powerful.”
Whether talking with and engaging with those on the other side of the wall or the other side of the tracks, encounter involves risk, but also the possibility of real benefit. To afford oneself the opportunity to break down stereotypes by engaging with people, to hear the authentic perspectives and realities of neighbors, and to take those perspectives to heart in how we act is essential if we wish to see real change in the communities and world in which we live and that we share.
2020, with the global COVID-19 pandemic has revealed inequities in vulnerability and “pre-existing conditions,” both in the U.S. and around the world. The struggle for racial justice in the U.S. has made possible exposure to voices of people who have been silenced, and has made more visible the connections of systems of injustice that oppress people across physical and psychological barriers, including Black Americans and Palestinians.
Rev. Isaac, in thinking about hope, writes, “Beyond that ugly wall, there is an empty tomb, which reminds us that life will overcome death, light will overcome darkness, and love will overcome hate.” From the “other side of the wall,” he looks to the other other side of the wall, to Jerusalem, and the hope of Christ’s resurrection.
Two millennia after the birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, the lives and stories of the marginalized deserve attention. Jesus committed his attention and ministry to them, and so must the Church. As we look to Bethlehem and prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, may we be mindful and attentive to voices we don’t always hear, remembering how Jesus elevated the downtrodden, and in the words of Rev. Raheb, be inspired to live an “imaginative faith [that] rises to discover endless possibilities,” and maintaining a hope that is “living the reality and yet investing in a different one.” May it be so. Amen.
Gracious and loving God, in this time of preparation, we venture to the other side of the divide, to the stable, to witness glory and love. We confess that we are ignorant of, and often deliberately ignore, the circumstances of our siblings, who are your children. We bring ourselves as offerings, with hearts, minds, and souls ready to be filled with your spirit and to be prepared for new relationships, and open to change, so that with new solidarity and strength, work for justice in the world, and by doing so, to participate in your son’s ministry of peace.
The Other Side of the Wall, by Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, Intervarsity Press, 2020.
Faith in the Face of Empire, by the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Orbis, 2014.
This devotion is provided by Dr. Peter E. Makari, Ph.D., Area Executive for Middle East/Europe, United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
This year, we were pleased to ask members of our Board of Directors to share their liturgical traditions around the Advent season and reflect on the importance of community and working across faith traditions. The devotions reflect a variety of communions and personal perspectives that support CMEP’s work toward peace and justice in the Middle East. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.
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