“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” the carol begins. Except it’s not so still in Bethlehem, and while the “silent stars go by,” the little town is surrounded by a 28-foot-tall wall, a concrete (in both senses of the term) metaphor of the Israeli settler-colonial ethnic cleansing of Bethlehem’s people.
“Silent night, holy night,” or, in German, “Stille Nacht, heilege Nacht.” Except it’s not so silent, nor is it so stille “round yon virgins, mothers, their children, and their families” in Bethlehem and throughout Palestine, and Palestinians in Israel, too – harassed, displaced, imprisoned, tortured, and shot.
It’s our prayer for ourselves, for the world, each Christmas, that we find such stillness of spirit, a centeredness, the peace of the season; for Christians, an incarnate presence in a baby boy birthed in Bethlehem.
And yet, even with all the obstacles our Palestinian friends face, even with their anger and frustration at a world that plies their oppressors with billions of dollars annually, negating their very existence as a people, and even when fellow Christians refuse to recognize their kinship in the faith, and theologize their being ethnically cleansed from their historic lands – even in the face of all this, and even in their resistance, even with their pounding hearts, look at their faces—I mean really—look deeply into their eyes, and what do you see? Neither evil intent nor despair, No! You see a resilience and resolve that transcends the present momentary suffering. In a word, you see stillness.
Our Palestinian friends, and their partners all around the world who stand with them – we, too – relearn the secret: that you can work and move and act and change and still be still, that standing still and being still are two different things. Being still doesn’t mean not moving, not moving forward, not changing, not resisting; it’s to be and move and work and act inspired and motivated from within a centered sense of a deep groundedness and peace, even in the midst of tumult.
So when I think of our friends in Nabi Saleh and Bil’in, in Nablus and Jenin, in Bethlehem and the Hebron hills, places where I and so many others have stood with them in demonstrations against dark and deadly forces, where week in and week out, under the most oppressive conditions and often without the world caring a whit - where our Palestinian friends remain steadfast in their creative, non-violent resistance, I'm reminded of those profound and moving words from the Second Canto of T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Resistance, creative and beautiful - the dance!
Which brings me to the other meaning of "still".
As in, “yet,” “however.” If something that has not yet happened could still happen, it is possible that it will happen; if something that has not yet happened is still to happen, it will happen at a later time.
There’s an element of hope in “still.” There’s a future orientation, a belief that things can change, assumptions altered, conversion of the heart possible, ancient distrusts and hatreds healed, that yesterday’s history is not determinative of tomorrow’s reality. Even more, it recognizes that the moral arc of the universe does not naturally bend toward justice, but that we all have a role to play, that the application of human creativity to mend the wounds afflicted by human injustice, even in the face of horror and tragedy - as Daoud Nassar’s Tent of Nations proclaims, “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” or creative resistance, “beautiful resistance,” as the Aida Camp’s Al-Rowwad Center calls it, or as Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, says, “Beauty will save the world.”
And "still” is a statement of faith, too, faith in the power of God, faith in the indomitability of the human spirit, or whatever you identify as the source of your faith, your hope, what stirs your being, your guts, your resistance to the powers of injustice, the eternal, universal Eros that stirs your spirit.
“Still” means “in spite of everything.” In spite of everything.
Or, let’s let Maya Angelou have the last word, “Still, like air, I rise.”
Still. The dance, the creative dance of hope, the joyful dance of resurrection, a resurrected people.
And in this season, still, a child is born, the Child is born.
A happy holiday, Merry Christmas to you all.
On behalf of all of us at ICMEP,
p.s. A gift, from the Voices from Bethlehem, The Little Drummer Boy