Three days ago in Bethlehem, I was holding a newborn baby in my arms. He had been abandoned by his mother, found by the side of the road and taken into St Vincent Creche, attached to Holy Family Hospital – along with dozens of other children who had been similarly abandoned, usually because they’d been born to single mothers in what’s often still a fiercly patriarchal and puritanical society. But other stories from the crèche and the wards remind you of some of the even bigger challenges of the region.
The hospital has the best – resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, equal to the best in Israel; we were privileged to be taken into the intensive care unit to see babies born at 25 weeks who had survived thanks to the care offered by the astonishing staff of this institution. But because of the current storms of political conflict within Palestine and the local and international sanctions against the Palestinian government, no one is sure where the next month’s salary is coming from. For the state-of-art equipment, they depend on foreign donations. Keeping a child alive in the neonatal units costs at the very least hundreds of dollars a day; and there is no government budget to help. All of us in our group of pilgrims felt that we were witnessing a continuing miracle of dedication, achieving standards any British hospital would be proud of with next to no reliable fallback in financial and organization terms.
And what stuck in my mind- and I’m sure the minds of my colleagues – was a remark made by Dr Robert Tabash, the medical director as we stood over an incubator in the intensive ward. All of this was important, he said, simply because ‘the poorest deserve the best’ (I promised I would quote him today by name; it’s the least I can do to give him the honour he merits). ‘The poorest deserve the best’: when you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is. They do not deserve what’s left over when the more prosperous have had their fill, or what can be patched together on a minimal budget as some sort of damage limitation. And they don’t ‘deserve’ the best because they’ve worked for it and everyone agrees they’ve earned it. They deserve it simply because their need is what it is and because where human dignity is least obvious it’s most important to make a fuss about it. And – to put it as plainly as possible – this is probably the most radically unique and new thing Christmas itself brings into the world.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that in God’s economy, the overflow of riches happens where the need is greatest; where human dignity is most obscured, grace blazes out in excessive and extravagant ways to remedy the balance. In one famous passage in the Old Testament, God tells his people that they have been chosen precisely because they were the weakest and most helpless community around, slaves and exiles. St Paul – tactful as ever – reminds his converts at Corinth in his first letter to them that they represent the dregs of the urban population. And the one who was born at Bethlehem on Christmas Day rounded on the prosperous and righteous of his times and said, ‘You can look after yourselves; the others can’t’.
The poorest deserve the best. But, as Jesus clearly knew, poverty has many faces. And the great simplicity of the Gospel’s words has to deal with the terrible complexity of situations where different communities experience different kinds of ‘poverty’ and conflicts of interests and priority arise. Nowhere is this more agonising than in the Holy Land. No European can or should forget that the state of Israel exists because the Western powers determined after the last war that the Jewish people deserved the best. Their culture, their history, their lives had been ravaged in ways the rest of us could barely imagine. What could be done for a people whose poverty was such that they had no homeland, who had lived for centuries as largely unwelcome guests among other nations and who, when the nightmare began, had no doors of their own to close against a murdering enemy? Today, behind the facade of a ‘normal’, prosperous Israeli state, that kind of poverty is remembered and felt more bitterly than ever.
Cross the frontier, the frontier marked by the security barrier, and you see the other sorts of poverty: the 60% unemployment, the unpaid teachers and nurses, the people who cannot travel to their farms and olive groves because of the wall. No normality here. And for every young Palestinian passionately committed to staying in the place of their birth to serve their people, there are many whose anger builds daily, poisoning their lives and steering them towards a politics of despair and violence.
The poorest deserve the best. So who ‘deserves’ our support? Never mind the politics for now. As soon as we try to sort out which we give the advantage to we shall be deciding to some extent who we’re against; and that will undoubtedly create another round of poverty and anger and bitterness.
One of the most chilling things on this journey to the Holy Land was the almost total absence in both major communities of any belief that there was a political solution to hand. So step back from that for a moment and ask, ‘What do both the communities in the Holy Land ask from us – not just from that convenient abstraction, the “international community”, but from you and me?’ Both deserve the best. And the best we can give them in such circumstances is at least the assurance of friendship. Go and see, go and listen. Let them know, Israelis and Palestinians alike, that they will be heard and not forgotten. Both communities in their different ways dread -with good reason – a future in which they will be allowed to disappear while the world looks elsewhere. The beginning of some confidence in the possibility of a future is the assurance that there are enough people in the world committed to not looking away and pretending it isn’t happening. It may not sound like a great deal, but it is open to all of us to do. And without friendship, it isn’t possible to ask of both communities the hard questions that have to be asked, the questions about the killing of the innocent and the brutal rejection of each other’s dignity and liberty.
It is open to us; and for us as Christians it is imperative. ‘The poorest deserve the best’ is one of the things that we know with utter certainty in the light of Christmas and its good news. The tragedies of the Holy Land are not the problems of exotic barbarians far away; they are signs of the underlying tragedies that cripple all human life, individual and collective. Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in and that will change us in ways we did not choose or want. Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. Whether we are thinking of security barriers, Trident missiles or simply the tactics we use as individuals to keep each other at a safe distance, the same shadow appears. Defences do something terrible things to us as well as to our real and imagined enemies.
Humanity itself suffers from poverty, the moral and imaginative poverty that time and again reproduces the same patterns of fear and violence. That beautiful carol, ‘This is the truth sent from above’, speaks of our history as one of ‘ruin’ – ‘Adam and Eve ‘ruined all, both you and me. ‘And all of their posterity’, so that ‘We were heirs to endless woes’. The family fortune has been lost. Whether we know it or not, the inheritance of humanity, the birthright of humanity, has been squandered. We were born to glory, to the dignity of being God’s children, free and loving and joyful; but the accounts are in the red, the capital is tied up, we don’t know what there is for the future.
‘We were heirs to endless woes ‘Till God the Lord did interpose.’ The poorest deserved the best in God’s eyes. Not because we had earned it and everyone agreed that it was right and proper, but because God saw the depth of our human tragedy and his power and glory overflowed into that dark space, into that ruined depth. Not one of us, not even the most confident lawkeeping and godly person, can in truth look after themselves. When Jesus has reproached the respectable who complain that he spends all his time with the unrespectable, he lets them know that if they could just recognise their own poverty, he would be with them at once with the same compassion. We have betrayed our dignity and wasted our inheritance. And God does not let us have what’s left over from the grace given to holy and honourable people. He doesn’t look around for some small bonus that might come from the end-of-year surplus in the budget. He gives the best: himself; his life, his presence, in his eternal Son and Word. He gives Jesus to be born, to die and rise again and to call us into full fellowship with Him in the Spirit. He gives us His own passion and urgency to go where human dignity is most threatened and pour out extravagantly the riches of love.
The poorest deserve the best. Our world and our nation are not organised on that principle and perhaps they never will be. But the truth doesn’t change, ‘the truth sent from above’, about our own universal ruin and restoration and about what that lays upon us when we look at the various specific poverties we confront in our human family. We revert so readily to the idea that love must go where merit lies, that help must follow merit and achievement. But God thinks otherwise it seems.
The child I held last Friday had no merits and achievements. He deserved the best in spite of – or because of? – having nothing but his helplessness. We are used at Christmas to singing about the poor helpless child of Bethlehem whom we will rock and keep warm and cradle. But the great mystery of the day, the joy and shock of it is that it is Jesus Christ who picks us up, helpless children, abandoned, ruined, and promises us everything that he can give. And as he gives, he makes us grow, and sends us to make the same promise in his name to all, whatever the conflicts, whatever the guilt. To all he offers the authority to be children of God; from his fullness we may all receive, grace upon grace.
Christmas Day Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, 2006.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
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