Friday 11 December 2009

An Alternative Christmas

The Palestine Solidarity Carol concert at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, so far as I can tell, did not attempt to tamper with the carols and lessons but last Tuesday night, The Actors Church in London (St Paul's, Covent Garden) hosted Bethlehem Now, with “alternative lessons and songs of protest [carols] for Palestine”.

The event was organised by Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-Big) and it seems the BBC wanted to record the event but the vicar, Father Simon Grigg, would not allow the BBC to record any of the carol service. There’s a turn up for the books. Most ministers would give their eye teeth to have a service, or even parts of it, broadcast on the Beeb but an actor turned vicar apparently didn’t want the publicity.

Garth Hewitt, Canon, St George's Cathedral, Jerusalem and Director of the Amos Trust thought the event was a Good Thing: “As we look at the horror of what is being done to Gaza and the West Bank, including Bethlehem, I welcome these alternative carols of protest with their humour, poignancy and prophetic voice.”

Here’s a humourous poignant, prophetic snippet from the carol sheet: The Olive and the Army. I don’t expect it to make the Christmas Number 1:

O the rampaging of settlers
And the rolling of the tanks,
The grinding of bulldozers
As the olives fall in ranks.

I was part of what one congregant described as “a small and rowdy crowd of Zionists shouting abuse at the entrance.” There were about 60 in the crowd, far more, I gather, than attended the service. Some were a bit rowdy but we had been warned by Jonathan Hoffman not to “chant or say anything that your mum/partner/husband/wife/rabbi/vicar/imam would be embarrassed to hear you say…!!”
I wrote to Father Griggs to express my concern:

Dear Simon,

Last Tuesday (8 December) I joined a good-natured protest against the Bethlehem Now event outside St Paul’s Covent Garden.

I did so first of all because, as a Christian, I believe it is idolatrous for a Christian place of worship to allow anyone or anything but Jesus Christ to take “centre stage” (as your Programme put it) in church. The Jewish people I stood with outside were appalled that a Christian church would allow one of the the holiest events in its calendar to be so blatantly politicised. Looking at the “alternative” carols and lessons, I was genuinely shocked to see the church allowing people who are not Christians to vandalise songs of Christian worship and transform them into crude vehicles of political propaganda.

I joined the protesters, secondly, because I oppose the vilification and demonisation of the only democracy in the Middle East. I gained some insight into the nature of the event when I spoke to one or two of the organisers beforehand. According to them, Israel is a non-democratic apartheid state where Arabs can’t own land or houses and can’t marry Jews (at least not “legally” but how Jews and Arabs “marry illegally” was not explained). So uninformed was the person I spoke to that I almost expected to hear that Jews kidnap Christian children and mix their blood with their Passover matzah.

It was truly horrifying to see that Jenny Tonge and Lauren Booth were taking part. Baroness Tonge refuses to condemn the killing of Israeli civilians by suicide bombers and former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has condemned her remarks about the “Jewish Lobby”, which evoked classic Jewish conspiracy theories, as "irresponsible and inappropriate". Last year, Lauren Booth assured us that Gaza was the world’s biggest concentration and that the humanitarian crisis there was on the scale of Darfur and, to prove it, posed while shopping in a very well-stocked Gaza supermarket.

I am the General Secretary of Christian Witness to Israel, a mission dedicated to sharing the gospel with Jewish people. Although more Jews are turning to Jesus than at any time in history, with the possible exception of the apostolic period, Christian demonization of Israel and, by implication, the Jewish people, is one of the greatest barriers that keeps them from their Messiah. Events such as the alternative carol concert serve only hinder the work of the gospel among Jewish people.

The Jewish people I stood with were genuinely distressed and angered by the patently false charges they suspected were being hurled against Israel in the service. One Jewish man approached me to ask if I and the other Christians would lead them in singing some “real” carols. Ironically, while Israel was being vilified in St Paul’s, named after the man who would was willing to be eternally damned if that would serve to save his own people (Romans 9:1-5), outside the church Jews and Christians were singing praise to the “heaven-born Prince of Peace”.

I sincerely hope that in future St Paul’s will not be naive enough to permit Christian festivals to be hijacked for malign purposes.

Yours in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ,

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