The Message Ringing out from Bethlehem

by Dr. David L. Johnston

I lectured at the Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), founded by Bishara Awad, for the three years the Oslo Peace Process was getting underway (1993-1996). I taught my Palestinian students in Arabic – lots of church history, youth ministry, and some New Testament Greek. 

For my youth ministry courses, I required students to make several visits to the YMCA Rehabilitation Center in Beit Sahour, the village literally down the hill from Bethlehem (also the traditional site where angels told some shepherds about Jesus’ birth). There, they spent time with Muslim young men who had been shot or tortured by the Israeli military. Paralyzed and/or with other disabilities, the YMCA staff was offering physical therapy and professional training in several trades, hopefully increasing their chances of employment.

This was definitely beyond my Christian students’ comfort zone. At the time, Bethlehem was still a “Christian bubble,” and not only were these young men Muslim but they were from refugee camps – a very different world. Yet because they were all wounded in the first Intifada (uprising), they radiated an aura of Palestinian patriotism and courage that my students clearly admired. Once friendships started to develop, we organized an outing. 

About ten minutes from the town is an archeological mound, some four or five hundred feet high, called the Herodium, where Herod the Great, it is thought, had built his own tomb complex (archeologists still haven’t found the tomb!). It was a great adventure for us to visit this site together. I’ll never forget helping to push a 20-year old Palestinian in his wheelchair up the dirt embankment to the top and then melting in my own heart at the sheer joy in his voice and gleam in his eyes as we reached the top! What a view, and what an accomplishment!

The next stop on our field trip that day was the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, where again these disabled Muslim youths were simply elated. As they asked questions about various icons, they got a crash course in Christianity. And don’t forget too that the Qur’an teaches Jesus’ virgin birth. But what stood out most for them was repeated again and again: “we are Palestinians, and Jesus, the great prophet, was one of us!” They never thought they’d have a chance to see this place. And now they had.

Fast forward to 2009 when Jim Hanon at EthnoGraphic Media (EGM) Films wrote, shot and directed the documentary, Little Town of Bethlehem. Sold mostly on the Internet its first year and a half, it officially premiered in 2011 in “the 12 days between the United Nations International Day of Peace (9/21) and United Nations International Day of Nonviolence (10/2) to ignite and facilitate an important global conversation” (see the recent announcement on the EGM site). Simultaneously, a group actually launched into existence by this documentary, “Global Voices of Nonviolence,” organized a multi-pronged international campaign:

  • The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. screened the film, with a VIP reception and a panel discussion
  • It was premiered online at, the most influential interfaith website, providing on-demand downloading of the film, along with panel discussions in a number of churches, universities and even some mosques
  • The capstone event took place in Ireland, at Dublin’s Trinity College

So what was this DVD about? I want you to see it, so I won’t spoil it for you. I'll just say that the film traces the lives of three individuals who in time embraced nonviolent resistance to the Israeli military occupation. It also includes various historical clips, reinforcing in particular the parallels with the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement in the US. You will meet an Israeli army helicopter pilot, a Muslim peace activist from one of Bethlehem’s two refugee camps, and a Christian from Bethlehem.

I’m happy to say the light of Christ still shines brightly in Bethlehem, even beyond its several churches and charitable organizations. The BBC has also continued to thrive in Jesus’ hometown. It now has a tourist guide curriculum and a Mass Media Center. Its partnership with the Bethlehem University (Catholic) allows students to build on their BBC diploma to finish their BA. The only public library in Bethlehem is at the BBC, and its tourist hostel – should you want to stay for a visit – is top-notch and affordable. On a personal note, I’m proud that Bishara Awad in the next year and a half is progressively handing over the leadership of the college to an old student of mine, Rev. Jack Sarah.

Finally, one of Bishara’s greatest achievements is the message of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians he has consistently taught and lived out, often at great expense. As you watch Little Town of Bethlehem, you will hear his story of coming to terms with the hatred in his own heart and forgiving the Jews who killed his father in 1948. His son Sami Awad embraced his father’s message and now lives it out tirelessly through his leadership of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. 

So the common thread of this blog – from my students who learned to serve their Muslim friends at the YMCA Rehab facility to Sami Awad’s work of nonviolence – is that whatever solution comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can never come through violent means. There will have to be some painstaking listening, dialogue, and forging of trust on all sides. Particularly those of us who claim to follow Jesus cannot justifiably resort to force. Listen to how Sami himself argues this in a debate on Fox News

I’ll end with an excerpt from a blog posted by Lynne Hybels (of Willow Creek fame) on the occasion of last fall’s launch of the “Global Voices of Nonviolence.” I’m thrilled that she and her husband found inspiration in what God is doing in Bethlehem and as a result started promoting this DVD even a year before its launch. In her words, 

“My personal introduction to nonviolence was through Christian Palestinian Sami Awad, director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust. Committed to developing young community leaders and to nonviolently resisting the military occupation of the Palestinian Territory, Sami finds his ultimate inspiration in Jesus’s command to ‘love your enemies.’ You can't love your enemy, says Sami, unless you know your enemy. So Sami traveled repeatedly to Auschwitz with a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. These trips helped him understand how every act of violence by a Palestinian perpetuates the Holocaust fear of destruction of the Jews. While Sami longs for freedom and justice for Palestinians, he also longs for Israelis to be healed of their fear. Only a steady and patient commitment to nonviolence can lead – however slowly – to that outcome.”

More by David Johnston can be found at