In his Christmas message, the head of the United Methodist Church's global mission agency, expressed his wish that Jesus would come and tear down walls of hostility, as he reflected on Bethlehem's walled-in condition more than 2,000 years after Jesus' birth and his own experience with the former East Germany's "Iron Curtain."
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Kemper, who leads the UMC's General Board of Global Ministries, said he is touching on political issues in his message because the birth of Jesus was also surrounded with political messages as well.
"Perhaps you may wonder why I bring politics into my Advent/Christmas letter. Why not carols of hope? Why? Because we need to remember that the Nativity has been about politics from the start – the tyranny of Herod, the angelic songs of hope for peace, the trek to Bethlehem to pay taxes," he wrote.
The Rev. Kemper said he was recently in Israel to celebrate the new Methodist Liaison Office opening there, "giving me a special experience in the place of Jesus' birth to share with you this Christmas."
He said it wasn't Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity "that stirred my heart; it was the looking image of 'the wall,' something that was very familiar to me as a German.
He said that as a German, he has a "special responsibility" to Israel and the Jewish people. He adds that as a German and a Christian, he supports the existence of a Jewish country with secure borders.
"Within this complex awareness, while walking the streets of Bethlehem, my heart was also opened to the Palestinian people and the seemingly endless violence in the region," he said.
He recalled the comments of the Rev. Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
"What might it be like for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem today?" the Rev. Raheb asked, according to Dr. Kemper. "If Jesus were to be born this year, he would not be born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so, too, the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might be born right at the checkpoint."
The Rev. Kemper described the atmosphere created by the walls as "a two-square-mile open-air prison surrounded by walls fences and trenches with no future expansion possibilities."
Dr. Kemper, citing Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic ecumenical teacher, said that the celebration of Christmas is "not a sentimental time of waiting for the baby to be born. It is an occasion asking for history to be born." He also quotes the passage in Romans 8:22-23 noting the "labor pains" of creation and inward groaning of believers "while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
He says that in the words "Come Lord Jesus," is a recognition that there is "in these words an emptiness to be filled, and we look toward a future created by God." He says those words "allow us to look at the big picture of the reign of God, a big picture that keeps us from getting lost in momentary hurts and agendas."
"Even in the shadow of 'the wall' and illegal settlements, God keeps hope alive," Dr. Kemper writes.
He recalled his experience at an ecumenical youth event in 1974 when he first crossed the "iron curtain," calling it a "shocking experience" as he crossed a heavy fence and trenches surrounding the wall. He said that the group sang a hymn the Lutheran Church in Rostock about building relationships and creating bridges to heal conflict.
"We were not supposed to sing a verse about tearing down walls, but we did, never imagining then that the wall dividing Germany would ever come down," he wrote. "Yet, 15 years alter, the wall did fall, and today, the pastor of the Rostock church where we sang is now president of a united Germany. Walls can come down!" he said.
Dr. Kemper said that through the promise of Jesus Christ "we have hope that the impossible is possible. The wolf shall live with the lamb and neither will hurt nor destroy the other. And a Child shall lead them, as Isaiah says."
"Come Lord Jesus come – and tear down all walls of hostility."