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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unholy Witness--The Bethlehem Brawl

I had to laugh when I saw the small article in the most recent issue of the Christian Century (January 25, 2012) detailing a brawl that erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.  Then I had to wince---what a witness of the Christian faith to the world--a brawl at the birthplace of the Prince of Peace by those who claim to be followers of his.

The Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use, commemorating the birthplace of Jesus Christ.  It is the holy turf of three Christian denominations who each have a part of the church that they claim as their own.  The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic churches each have a claim to the church and the church is under all of their care.  Each year, after the Roman Catholics have their Christmas observation, the two orthodox branches have a cleaning of the church before the start of their observance of Christmas.  They have been doing this for many years.  The issue, it seems, is that one group stepped over the line into the other group's turf.  The result?  An all out brawl.  A regular turf war straight out of the classic West Side Story with the Jets and Sharks going at it.

The only difference, maybe, was that this was some sort of "holy" battle being waged.  To me it was too much like a bunch of little boys getting into a fight over one crossing the line drawn in the sand.  It was like a bunch of silly, immature kids fighting over something that didn't amount to a hill of beans.  Can you hear the monks and priests explaining the brawl to their superiors?  "Well, they kept stepping over the line and so we hit them!"  But a brawl is a brawl and the brooms and mops were swinging--of course it was done out of Christian love for one another. 

It began simply enough--two groups of monks and priests from rival gangs gathered for the annual cleaning of the church.  In the beginning everything went as planned with both sides taking care of their own turf . . . but boys will be boys.  Soon the taunting began, "I dare you to cross that line?"  To which the quick reply was a defiant, "Yeah, and if I do what are you going to do about it?"  "I'm going to hit you with my broom or mop--how do you like those cookies?"  "You wouldn't!"  "Try me!"  Then WHACK!  The brawl was on the Orthos versus the Apos-- a regular Jets versus Sharks ordeal.

Of course the Church of the Nativity sits in a pretty volatile location in the Holy Land and such outbreaks of infantile brawling is not tolerated by the local law enforcement.  It was not long before the local Palestinian police came and broke up the fight. There were no major injuries.  There were no arrests.  "No one was arrested," stated police officer Khaled al-Tamini, "because all those involved were men of God."  Apparently the police are used to this as it seems to almost be an annual occurrence just like the Christmas cleaning.  "It was a trivial problem that ... occurs every year," said  al-Tamimi.  Makes one wonder whether or not the police keep December 28th circled on their Day Planners and plan accordingly.

As I read the little article I couldn't help but to imagine this whole brawl between the two groups of "holy men" being played out as a skit on Monty Python or Saturday Night Live.  You got to admit that it has potential . . . but, at the same time, is this the sort of witness the followers of the Prince of Peace want to portray to the rest of the world?  Makes one wince.  I imagine that Jesus would not be too pleased---he would probably wince too.

It is good to know that after more than than two thousand years we Christians of differing varieties have quit fighting over the "big" stuff to focus on the more important stuff . . . stuff like, touching one another or stepping over an imaginary line!  Seems a little childish doesn't it?  Like two little kids fighting over one touching the other.  Jesus doesn't just wince, he weeps. It is so pathetic we, the faithful, have to laugh . . . then we can cry.

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