Listening to the Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Butros Sfeir giving the noon Christmas mass today in Beirut, confirmed what I was thinking of yesterday. At some point in the unfolding of the celebration, Sfeir tells the story of the birth of Jesus and so mentions his birth in Bethlehem. “In the city of Bethlehem, in Palestine, where he was born”. He seems unperturbed, and swiftly moves to another subject. Worse, as he shifts his discussion to abstract concepts of love and tolerance (as noted, a classical rhetorical strategy amongst modern privatized Christianity), he manages to extract from it an even shakier concept of ‘love for the nation’. He then manages to mumble something like the birth of Jesus which symbolizes this message of love actually teaches us about how one should ‘love his nation’. Fortunately, he does not elaborate further. Bethlehem is a couple of kilometers away from where he is giving his mass. It is under the control of a political entity (Israel) that causes much injustice and oppression, and has probably no respect for Sfeir’s tradition (i.e. Christianity). To add insult to injury, a significant number of people from Bethlehem and from around it live within the nation that Sfeir wants people to love, although these people are neither loved by those people Sfeir is concerned with nor given any form of ‘love’ or ‘tolerance’. Well maybe if Jesus was the messenger of ‘justice’ it would have been better. Love as such stripped out of social realities is a monster-like fantasy causing more wreckage than healing.
In Christian festive times, Al Manar TV uses such rituals in order to focus attention on a political cause either pertaining to internal Lebanese issues (Jesus and messages of co-existence), regional (usually related to the Palestinian cause) or even international. On Christmas Eve for example, the seven o’clock news broadcast has most of its content devoted to the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and the various political performances around that event: Interviews with Palestinian leaders, review of the history of Palestine and specifically Jerusalem as center of Muslim and Christian co-existence. As a comparison, if there is a mention of some Christian symbolism in Christmas, and not just the usual global-market-legitimated consumerist style in the event of Christmas, it is in general simply about abstract concepts of love and tolerance that Jesus is supposed to have upheld. How many times have we watched on LBC and other Christian affiliated channels the different Hollywood productions of the life of Jesus and other figures of his time? When was this guy born? Bethlehem? Where is Bethlehem? In occupied Palestine. Where did Jesus make his most important appearance? Jerusalem. Where is Jerusalem? In occupied Palestine.
Why haven’t Lebanese Christians, so proud of their “Christianity” never made this link when celebrating Christmas? Whenever focusing on Christian related rituals or when simply referring to Jesus’ legacy, Hizbullah’s related media operationalizes these concepts in order to derive political engaged statements about certain forms of injustices in the world. When “Christianity” isolates itself in Lebanon by becoming a localized, privatized, and a-historical form of thinking ethics, some ways of re-thinking Islamic heritage shakes Christianity out of its torpor and tries to put it back in one of its historical continuum.