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'Baby Jesus in the rubble': handle with care



By Teresa Pirola and Julie McCrossin AM


Historically, theologically and morally, the nativity scene of ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ must be handled with care. It can be a beautiful image that speaks of God’s closeness to Palestinian children suffering in Gaza. Or it can become an antisemitic icon.


In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, where Christmas celebrations have been subdued due to the Hamas-Israel war, a baby Jesus figurine rests in a ‘crib’ of broken rubble, as a symbol of solidarity with children in war-ravaged Gaza.


For Christians it is a deeply moving image, widely shared on social media, and in many ways communicates the significance of the baby Jesus, the Christ-child, according to Christian understanding: God enters human history in the form of a vulnerable child born into a dangerous world and, in doing so, embraces the fragile humanity of every person — including vulnerable Palestinian children trapped in the horrors of war.


As a Christian image, then, ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ operates in a similar way to countless nativity scenes around the world which have depicted the Christ-child in the imagery of their culture and time and place. Baby Jesus can be found lying in a cattle trough in outback Australia, in a dreamtime scene of Aboriginal art, in a woven basket surrounded by African tribal figures, in the arms of Mary wearing an Indian sari, and, yes, wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh amid symbols of war-torn Gaza.


While these expressions of inculturation point to the universal significance of the Christ-child and the meaning of ‘Emmanuel’ (‘God with us’), they also harbour certain risks. Universal meaning is not meant to eclipse the particular realities of the nativity story. If not handled discerningly, ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ can end up distorting the Christmas message and doing harm where good is intended.


Before going further, let’s acknowledge that a nativity scene situated in modern-day Bethlehem has its own unique power to share the message of Christmas. It is in Bethlehem that Christian pilgrims from all over the world normally flock to pray at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Set in the Holy Land, it carries sacred memory and leads us to ponder the ancient roots of the church, a community that drew together both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Today, Bethlehem lies in the West Bank which is home to three million Palestinians, of whom a tiny portion are Christians. Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, who live under great pressures (for a range of reasons), are profoundly connected to the nativity story and have a special charism for sharing it with the Christian world. It is entirely understandable and appropriate that they would employ Palestinian symbols in a nativity scene set in their own cultural setting.


However, care is needed in the reception of this image, widely shared around the globe.

Palestinian imagery in a nativity scene should not lead to negating the Jewishness of the historical Jesus and his appearance via the story of ancient Israel. The historical Jesus was not a Christian, not a Muslim, not Greek or Roman, he was a Galilean Jew. Scripture and scholarship continue to impress upon us the importance of understanding Jesus of Nazareth within the framework of first century Judaism: Jesus was born and circumcised as a Jew, his faith was shaped by Torah and centred on the God of Israel, he was raised in Jewish traditions, celebrated the Sabbath and the Passover, frequented the synagogue, went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for Jewish festivals, and engaged as a Jew in everyday discourse.


The Gospel writers themselves never call into question Jesus’ Jewish identity. As theological statements, rather than strictly historical or biographical writings, the Gospels make abundantly clear that the One proclaimed to be Messiah is a son of Israel, enmeshed in the story, traditions, scriptures and land of his Jewish ancestors. Thus, baby Jesus is born of a Jewish mother, “in Bethlehem of Judea” according to the infancy narratives (Mt 2:1; cf. Lk 2:4). Precisely because it was important to the Gospel authors to communicate the Good News while emphasising Jesus’ Jewishness, it is incumbent upon Christians to honour their testimony and to do the same, so as to give faithful witness to authentic Christian tradition.


While the term Palestina was in use at the time of Jesus, it referred to a geographical region in a general way, without precise definition. It did not refer to a specific polity or administrative area. Nor did any national or ethno-cultural group claim it as a form of self-identification. Jesus and his kin did not define themselves as “Palestinians”. The term is not found in the New Testament, but other names, associated with Jewish history, are: such as ‘Judea’ and ‘the land of Israel’. It was only after the bloody, crushing defeat of the Jewish uprising led by Shimon Bar Kokhba, and the mass expulsion of Jews from their homeland in 135 CE, that Judea was renamed Syria-Palestina by the Roman victors. 


As obvious as it is that Jesus was a Jew, it needs to be said, because there are forces at work in the world - whether through malice, ignorance or reinterpreted religious symbolism - that air-brush Jesus’ Jewish identity from the pages of history and from the Christian narrative. In social media feeds in the days of the recent Christmas season, posts by certain Islamic preachers claim Jesus to be a Muslim by faith. Elsewhere, social media is awash, in image and song, with Christians drawing every parallel possible with life in Gaza in order to present the nativity story through a Palestinian lens: “If Jesus was born today, he would be born under the rubble of Gaza”, states one Christian pastor. Yet the writers of the Gospel infancy narratives placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, for good reason. Through the lens of Jewish scripture and tradition, they understood Bethlehem to be the birthplace of Israel’s King David and from where a messianic ruler was to come, from the line of David.


While each social media post has to be evaluated individually, as a collective dynamic the obscuring of Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity and cultural-religious context poses a serious problem in societies where religious literacy is waning, and in churches with a long history of supersessionism, that is, of spreading the erroneous idea that Israel is “replaced” by the Church and therefore Judaism rendered obsolete. A single social media post featuring ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ as a Palestinian infant is one thing; but a deluge of the same, circulating in a cyber ‘bubble’ with no balancing reminder of Jesus’ actual Jewishness or of the Jewish perspectives employed by the Gospels, is alarming. Distortions of the Christian message are inevitable, which feed into toxic theologies and then into the hands of extremists who seek to do terrible harm to Jewish people. Outright denial of Jesus’ Jewishness is already a tactic of hard-core antisemites today. We would do well to remember that negation of Jesus’ Jewishness was a manoeuvre in Nazi Germany where Christian supersessionist theologies were manipulated by Nazi ideology to redefine Jesus as an Aryan, and where the so-called ‘Aryan race’ was championed in violent opposition to those with Jewish ancestry.


Following the end of World War II, as the horrific crimes of the Holocaust came into clear view, the Catholic Church and other mainstream Churches took decisive strides to address the antisemitic errors and sins of their past. They repudiated false notions such as an Aryan Jesus or a Jesus who rejected his own people and tradition. They embraced the Jewishness of Jesus as core to the Christian proclamation: to speak of God’s word incarnate in Jesus, is to say that the infinite God took human form in the flesh-and-blood earthly life of a particular Jew, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). God’s gift of liberating love is offered universally by way of a particular people, the people of Israel—their history, homeland, traditions, stories and sacred texts.


It is imperative that this corrective path of understanding continue to be walked by present-day Christians. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism” (Mainz, 1980).


The French Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger (1926-2007) once wrote that “Christ himself, the figure of Christ in its reality, can assume every face of humanity, but that can happen only because he is first of all the individual who was born in Bethlehem of Judea”.[1] It is when the historical and biblical particularities of the Jesus story are denied — or downplayed in such a way as to the obliterate Judaism from the Christian narrative — that ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ becomes counterproductive as a Christmas image. We are not suggesting this is the intention of the creators, but in a social media age there are myriad ways for it to be used and mis-used around the world.


‘Baby Jesus in the rubble’ is also problematic when accompanied by the words of a sermon or a social media post that lack compassion or, worse, express hatred, for Israelis and Jews. Here, the keffiyeh ‘swaddling clothes’ becomes a politicised symbol of support for Hamas and rejection of the state of Israel. Jesus is presented as identifying with suffering Palestinian children, but not with suffering Israeli or Jewish children attacked, tortured, kidnapped, murdered by Hamas. In effect, this denies God’s justice for and loving embrace of all Israeli and Jewish children at a time when they most need to feel it, for their lives too are deeply traumatised and affected by the conflict in ways overlooked in much of the public discourse about the war in Gaza.


Further, there is an insidious religious problem that lurks when ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ is weaponised politically. If Jesus is identified with Palestinian children killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (comprised mainly of Jews) in fighting Hamas, then it can be a dangerously short slide for faith-based analogies to say that baby Jesus is killed by the IDF (mainly Jews), which would seem to echo the age-old deicide charge (“the Jews killed Jesus”), one of the most toxic distortions of the gospel message in church history.[2]


This is the way of antisemitism. It is a virus that mutates. Defeated in one era, it re-emerges in another time and setting. It is the same poison in a different guise. It is violence towards Jews dressed up as something seemingly innocuous, or even noble — in this case, as a Christmas message about God’s love for Palestinian children. No one is doubting God’s love for and closeness to Palestinian children! It is the subtle distortion and manipulation of that message that is being probed here.


To sum up, we recap the following points:


Christians are called to be discerning in their use of Christmas symbols, truthful about the historical origins of Christianity, and awake to the Jewishness of their Saviour which leaps off the pages of their bible.


Christians need to be theologically aware, knowing that the universal ‘Good News’ they proclaim is inseparable from the particularity of the Jew Jesus, born a son of Israel, of a people with an ancient tradition and a long-established bond with the land we call holy.


Christians have a moral responsibility to inform themselves so as to better understand antisemitism, what it is and how it is manifested, and to be alert to its ever-mutating guises. If they do not, they run the risk of unwittingly buying into well-worn antisemitic tropes and dynamics. Jews end up being betrayed and harmed, yet again, by the Church.


Historically, theologically and morally, the image of ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ must be handled with care. It can be a beautiful, poignant and challenging image that speaks of God’s saving love and closeness to all people in their human fragility, including Palestinian children suffering in a war zone. Or it can become an antisemitic icon and a travesty of the Christmas message.

****************


 

Teresa Pirola, ThD is a Sydney-based Catholic writer and faith educator. Julie McCrossin AM is an Australian radio broadcaster, journalist and speaker who lives in Adelaide and is a member of a Uniting Church community.


Image: ‘Christ in the rubble’ nativity scene at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.


Notes:

[1] J.M. Lustiger, Choosing God – Chosen by God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 64. Quoted in Achim Buckenmaier, ‘Not Just Any Child, But That Special Child’, Jewish-Christian Relations: Insights and Issues in the Ongoing Jewish-Christian Dialogue, 30 April 2016, accessed at the website of the International Council of Christians and Jews, https://www.jcrelations.net/articles/article/not-just-any-child-but-that-special-child.html


[2] Massimo Faggioli also raises this concern in “The effects of the Israel-Hamas war on Jewish-Catholic relations”, La Croix International (4 January 2024), https://international.la-croix.com/news/signs-of-the-times/the-effects-of-the-israel-hamas-war-on-jewish-catholic-relations/18960.


(c) Light of Torah, 2024. This article may be freely reproduced with for non-commercial use with acknowledgment.

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