O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie.
At christmas, the Christian mind turns naturally to Bethlehem. The non-Christian mind probably does too, being saturated with stories of stables and donkeys and stars and new-born kings, in and among the presents and the office parties.
The turning of the mind to that most specific of places is half of what, I fear, explains a profoundly disheartening sight. Many good, honest Christians of the left, who would proudly boast of having spent their lives fighting racism, not only trooped out on 12 December and voted for Jeremy Corbyn but spent the previous month defending him from accusations of antisemitism. Many also attacked those who have risked their reputations and careers shining a light on this dark side of the new Labour Party.
How did we reach a position where neither an investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission nor an unprecedented plea by the chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth could dissuade these good men and women from voting for a party so utterly corrupted by that ancient sin, antisemitism?
The first half of the answer comes from that first part of the Gospel: from the birth of Christ. From Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. When we, as the bidding prayer to all decent carol services puts it, “in heart and mind go even unto Bethlehem”, we do not just see “the babe, lying in a manger”, but the town now: surrounded by a wall, severed from its arable land, cut off from its nearest major city.
The plight of modern Bethlehem, seen by millions of pilgrims every year, and highlighted most especially in this season, cannot fail to move the heart, and has moved many a Christian to travel into the darker recesses of the anti-Israeli movement, where criticism of the government of Israel slides into criticism of the existence of the state itself, and morphs into suspicion of all Jewish people and a willingness to indulge in conspiracy theory and collective blame.
In the outrage and grief elicited by today’s Little Town of Bethlehem, some Christians are quite inclined to talk of Christ not as a little Jewish boy born there 2,000 years ago, but as a modern Palestinian child, born in poverty and fear. This is a de-Judaising of Christ and is echoed at the end of the Gospels too.
Is it acceptable for this small minority to suffer for the good of the people?
The Jews in the story are the priests, the mob, the criminals crucified on either side. But rarely Christ. He is universalised: an icon of the world’s weak and suffering. He is the Son of the Living God dying for humanity. Ripped out of his cultural and racial context, the Jews are the persecutors and not the persecuted. And yet when the High Priest said, “It is better for one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” he handed over a Jewish man to suffer, for the people.
Which leads to the second half of the answer: is it acceptable for this small minority to suffer for the good of the people? For many of those who voted Corbyn, the question at the forefront of their mind was of the poor: they are outraged by post-2010 austerity. Whether they are right or wrong in their analysis is immaterial; so, too, is the question of whether Corbyn’s plans stood any chance of working. The essential thing is that for many the plight of the poor led them to vote Corbyn despite all of the antisemitic scandals which have surrounded him.
In a straight cost-benefit analysis, the good of the poor justified the risk to the Jews. “It is better for one man to die for the people.” One man; one group. What is the price of the safety of the Jewish minority in Britain?
And do they deserve that safety if they have been party to the smearing of the man who might bring liberation to the poor of Britain?
And this is where the two strands come together: a de-Judaised Jesus cries out from Palestinian Bethlehem and a de-Judaised Christ cries out, weak and oppressed, from the Cross. Both, implicitly, hold the Jews as their oppressor. The ancient strain of Christian antisemitism mutates once more and takes hold of the heart of so many otherwise good and decent people.
This is why the Archbishop of Canterbury came under such attack for his (fairly guarded) support of the chief rabbi. This is why a senior Church of England adviser could resign from the archbishop’s advisory board on race demanding to know, “What gives the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to endorse the chief rabbi’s scaremongering about Corbyn and adopt such a lofty moral position in defence of the Jewish population?”
This is why so many clergy and laity, steeped in the knowledge of Christianity’s shameful history of antisemitic persecution and having heard the pleas of the chief rabbi and their own archbishop, walked into the polling station and voted Corbyn.
How easy it is, for any of us, to hand Christ over to be crucified once more.
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