The passing of each Christmas season gives the small but highly symbolic Palestinian Christian community a brief moment to highlight the difficult yoke of life in modern Bethlehem. Some use it to decry the lawless acts of radical Islamic neighbors, others the restrictive shadow of the Israeli security fence.
At a recent holiday reception for the Christian communities of the Holy Land hosted by Israel's Minister of Tourism Isaac Herzog, Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem Munib Younan used his moment to offer a special Christmas wish for "peace and justice, for without justice there cannot be peace."
Such appeals for "justice" have become a familiar refrain from Palestinian voices - Muslim and Christian. For their part, Palestinian Christian clerics often construct their calls for "justice" in biblical terms, with a particular attachment to the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah.
"He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
One influential Arab priest, Rev. Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, has even written a book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict entitled Justice, and Only Justice.
But what exactly do they mean by "justice"?
FOR MANY Palestinian Muslims, it means Israel taking responsibility for and completely reversing the nakba ("disaster") they suffered in the 1948 War of Independence, from which emerged a solidified Jewish state on "sacred" Palestinian land and a festering Palestinian refugee problem. Though Arabs launched that war, they now want Israel to "unscramble their eggs."
When Palestinian Christians cry "justice," many may have in mind the lifting of the IDF closures and checkpoints that are intended to provide security, but nonetheless significantly hinder their daily lives. Some might be thinking of going back to their old homes, like the seven Christian villages evacuated by Jewish forces along the frontier with Lebanon in the 1948 fighting. Several Jewish communities sit there today, presenting Israel with a tough moral dilemma.
More broadly, "justice" to many Palestinian Christians would encompass a one-state solution to the conflict, whereby all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea becomes one bi-national, democratic state in which every Jew and Arab gets one vote - "one state for two peoples and three religions."
Many Palestinian Christians have trouble accepting a sovereign Jewish state for theological reasons, but they also do not want to live in an authoritarian or Islamic state. Thus they would prefer one democratic nation with a slight Arab majority but enough Jews to ensure minority rights are protected, including their own.
To that end, some Palestinian Christian leaders and their allies abroad have championed the Durban strategy of drawing apartheid comparisons to delegitimize Israel. This has spawned the twin campaigns of divestment from Israel and dismantlement of the "apartheid wall." Former US president Jimmy Carter has joined this effort in his new book Israel: Peace not Apartheid, while South Africa's celebrated Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu hopes to do his part by visiting Gaza soon under UN auspices.
Still, at the heart of the Palestinian Christians' cry for "justice" is a struggle over their concept of God. Believing that the Church has "replaced" Israel as His redemptive agent in the world, many have trouble accepting Zionism as the handiwork of a God of mercy, as revealed in the New Testament. Is God just, they ask, to bring the Jews back in a manner that has caused such loss and dispossession for fellow humans equally loved in His sight?
In addressing this question in biblical terms, we must first distinguish between moral uprightness as an individual duty versus on a collective, or national scale. Micah 6:8, for instance, speaks primarily of individual conduct - my obligation to act justly with my fellow human, for which I alone will be judged one day.
As for collective justice, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over the nations and deals with them based on questions of righteousness and justice as He defines them - not in human terms (Jeremiah 18:5-10; Isaiah 40:12-24).
Secondly, God gave Israel as a "light to the nations" to demonstrate the blessings of obedience and consequences of disobedience. Obedience meant the right to live in the land promised to Abraham as an "everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:8), while disobedience - refusal to "hear His voice" - meant exile among the nations (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
Isaiah describes Israel as a "vineyard" planted by God that He then uprooted because "He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help." (Isaiah 5:1-7)
THUS DID a righteous God deal severely with His own people down through the centuries. In fact, Israel has actually received from His hand "double" for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-3; Jeremiah 16:18). This means that if anyone has a legitimate cry for justice, it is the Jews, who have suffered far more than any other people in history.
Yet with regard to Israel's sufferings, the Apostle Paul asks in Romans 3:1-8 the same tough questions being posed by pro-Palestinian Christians today:
"But if our [Israel's] unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world?"
In other words, if God ever did anything to the Israelites that they did not deserve, then He has no right to judge the rest of the world.
In His mercy, this same God also promised a "time of favor" upon Israel (Psalm 102:13), in which "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock." (Jeremiah 31:10)
This promised Jewish restoration is affirmed in the New Testament (Luke 21:24; Acts 3:21; Romans 15:8).
Though the modern-day Ingathering may make some Christians uncomfortable from a humanistic sense, it is actually the ultimate justice of God to recover this people who suffered for the sake of the nations and to redeem them back in the land.
This does not mean that everything Israel does is right or that her moral shortcomings can be overlooked. She does need to act justly - but in His sight and not necessarily at the bar of nations that have always treated her unfairly, if not cruelly.
The writer is media director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (www.icej.org).