On the Christmas Story and Refugees.
I’ve got a lot rolling around in my head and heart but before I launch into the specifics I need to sort a few things out. Call this a preface to lay out the ground rules as the issue I’m going to be approaching is political and does seem to be making people tense. Me included in that. So, here’s some things to consider if you are going to read on.
- This post is predominantly about personal conviction rather than the nitty gritty details of national and/or international political philosophy (or theatre depending on how you view the politics playing out around you). How you apply (or don’t apply) what I write is up to you. I’m not here to tell you how to vote (if you are blessed enough to live in a place where that means something).
- Following from this, I’m not expecting to change anyone’s deeply and sincerely held political beliefs with my digital tap of a key. I simply would hope to help us understand and/or rethink our sub conscious aims and the language we use to reflect them (it does matter!). We live in a flattened world so hopefully we all will seriously consider how what flows from our hearts affects those around us (even if they are quite far from us by distance).
- Also, I find it important to wade in understanding the hermeneutical lenses through which we read the biblical text knowing full well that a middle class American likely approaches and reads the text a bit differently than a Syrian follower of Jesus holding on to his gospel text tightly as he drifts in a raft between Libya and Italy.
- Finally I think it’s important to note that a post on the internet will never give the topic sufficient justice. Don’t expect it to. I hope to spawn some honest discussion and introspection. I won’t tolerate personal attacks in the comments here though (personal attacks have no part in honest discussion).
Advent is upon us (soon). Technically starting next Sunday I believe, it’s the time of year where we expectantly look towards the arrival of Christ. It’s a time full of reflection, hope and eventual celebration.
Typically in advent, time is spent between expectation of the incarnation (when God takes on flesh as Christ) and expectation of the parousia (when Christ returns to reign). Typically four key concepts are explored:
- Hope because God keeps His promises.
- Preparation because we must ready ourselves for the coming of Christ.
- Joy because the coming of Christ is something to celebrate.
- And finally love because this is who God is (identified in the act of sending His son to take on flesh).
This is a loose categorization and varies somewhat from tradition to tradition but loosely those that follow advent take something akin to this trajectory culminating in the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25.
There is something here, something in this gift (and its expectation) that should particularly move us today. It’s buried a bit deeper in the Christ story but as we wait expectantly we might uncover it and hopefully we’ll be moved in more compassionate directions.
No Place To Lay His Head
The Christmas story kicks off to some degree with a census. The ruler of the world’s major empire decides it’s time to know a bit more about the lands he controls forcing everyone to return to their birthplace to be counted and measured. Then there is this young couple that gets caught up in the annoyance of this process; it wasn’t ideal traveling back to the husband’s home town, especially considering the impending birth of their firstborn. In this case that town they were going to was Bethlehem.
At that time Bethlehem wasn’t a large buzzing metropolis full of hotels and such. It’s estimated to have had a population somewhere between 300 and 1000. Today it has about 28000 people (but about 20000 Palestinian refugees that have been living in refugee camps since 1948 struggling with a secure place to sleep much like the ancient family we are following). Upon arrival this young couple searched for a place to stay but had no luck finding anything until an open innkeeper let them move into his barn. They could finally settle in for the census. They thought that they might have no place to lay their heads but some one came through with a barn. Finally.
And then a baby came. Incarnation. God made flesh with all of the mystery that that inspires. This baby found security in a trough full of straw though. That’s not really a regal setup. And not really that secure if we think about it. It’s definitely not really what that particular baby deserved. Personally it’s not what any baby deserves if we are being truthful. But it’s what Jesus had because there was no room in the inn.
Jesus Was A Refugee
Fast forward a little bit and we get some newcomers on this delicate and sweet scene. Three wise men from the east came seeking this child. They started with the regional leader - a king - presuming, I imagine, that the child was born in his household. But the Christ child was in a trough and not a cushy bed of a palace. This particular king reacted much like leaders in empires the world over do: not well. Oh he smiled and sent those three wise men on but begged them to come back through him so that he could ki - I mean worship - that child.
Those wise men though found that child and celebrated his arrival. They gave gifts worthy of a king. And having been warned, they left avoiding the empire’s king.
And as it turns out, that family — the couple and their new child - had to go to.
Empire showed its true colors. On discovering the birth of a threat, no matter how humble his abode, empire demanded the sacrifice of his life. Sacrifice is forever a dominate ritual of empire particularly of those that threaten power structures (as that baby born in a humble trough did).
That family had the blessing of a dream to warn them. A lot of other families didn’t. That family left for and found refuge in Egypt. As refugees. Those other families lost every child aged 2 and under.
Just Like Me
Well not just like me. I haven’t had to flee the land of my birth because of persecution. But millions of people roaming the globe today have had to. They have nowhere to turn. The innkeepers have slammed the door in their faces. The empire(s) they flee hold knives to their throats. Their homes have been demolished. Their lives turned completely upside down. Everything about their world has been shattered.
They typically don’t have angels directing their every move. Thank God the wise men did. Thank God Joseph & Mary did.
But God has seeded this world with people who claim the kingdom of that Christ child. People who claim to understand Him and His story and the road that He paved for us to follow. We don’t just follow blindly on an uncertain path - we follow Him. In life into death, we follow.
A Third Way?
Nationalism dictates strong ties and dedication to particular nation-states. These states don’t necessarily align cleanly with the family those who follow Jesus are adopted into. It’s important to recognize that this should create internal tension that we who follow Jesus must deal with on a daily basis. One means of navigating it is by being willing to love that which is other (in this case, that which is beyond the bounds of the nation-state) while processing the relative truths claimed by those speaking for their empire.
We do this by listening. We do this by not jumping to conclusions. We do this by not assuming the worst of those who aren’t like us. By not accepting wholesale the myths fed to us as truth. There are a lot of these myths floating around. The christmas story should be tugging at us as an internal compass saying ”there is something more here” but if social media is to be believed, it’s not actively doing this, at least not in any significant way. But maybe the advent season will change this.
Let’s look at some of the more common truths claimed by those in power. These quickly crumble into myth when examined a bit more closely:
- The US borders are overrun with Syrian refugees. How could we take anymore? The truth is that the US has accepted just over 2000 since conflict began in Syria in 2011. We have committed to an additional 10000 in the coming year. But that is nowhere near being overrun, particularly considering There are millions in the middle east (some estimates put the number in Jordan around 1.3 million, 2 million in Turkey and another million in Lebanon - oh and I guess this addresses another myth, that they aren’t being taken in the middle east) and hundreds of thousands in Europe.
- The US doesn’t vet Syrian refugees. This outright lie is being spread far and wide. The US has one of the most stringent entrance program for refugees. It’s actually easier to get into the US via a tourist visa. This is why we’ve only accepted just over 2000 refugees while the middle east and Europe has been flooded with millions. Read here for specifics on this from the US government. Another great resource is this post by a Christian immigration lawyer that deals specifically with refugees. A long story made short: the vetting process takes between 1 and 3 years and involves multiple checks in every possible direction.
- It’s only fighting-aged men that want to come into our country. This one comes from blogs and social media and seems to have originated from mis-reading UNHCR data. The actual data says that 22% of all Syrian refugees are military-aged men (and this number is only 2% in regards to Syrians in the US).
There are additional myths that elected officials and politicking candidates promote at every turn these days. Read here for further information on the 3 above and others. Much of the above info was sourced from this link and it includes detailed references for those 3 (as well as other myths).
Now lets consider some truths as well:
- Syrian refugees flee with guns at their backs. I sat with one Syrian family whose shop was destroyed by bombs (that also filled their sons arm with shrapnel). I sat with another who saw half of their family, fleeing in a separate van, riddled with machine gun fire near the Syrian-Jordanian border. Young and old, male and female, they are fleeing because they have no other choice. There choice would forever be Syria but that’s not an option available to them currently.
- These refugees aren’t as welcomed as they should be and/or have little hope for a sustainable life in the gulf countries. Those that are taking them in allow them to exist but not much else (no work, no school, etc). The designated UNHCR camps are overflowing. Still millions have settled here (to lead a very unsettled life, at least for the moment).
- They have little to no good choices for those clamoring that the men ”stay and fight!”. That response sends them mostly straight into the arms of daesh as there is little in the way of alternative choices. Daesh found reasonable success in Syria as they were fighting the dictatorial regime that many in the country hated. A friend met one refugee that spoke of this reality: he said if he went back he’d have no choice but to fight with daesh rather than Assad. There are other options out there that require a ton of courage, like joining up with the white helmets or taking Jesus into the war zones, but few know of these or are willing to take the risk they necessitate.
- They want to survive most of all. This doesn’t mean that a transition will be smooth but subverting host cultures isn’t nearly as high as a priority as many people think. Most people are longing to sleep with both eyes closed, work with their hands to support their family and walk outside together without having to dodge the bullets.
- Their world has been shattered and they are questioning everything that they’ve ever known to be true. The first Syrian family I sat with spent about 3 hours asking question after question about Jesus. My friends and I didn’t even bring it up to begin with. They feel that what they’ve always known is lacking in some way. That doesn’t mean that they will all follow Jesus or live like a European or American but it does mean they are open to other expressions of life in ways that they weren’t before. And I don’t know of one obsessed with destroying American or European ways of life.
- And I’ll add one more: The Syrian refugees I’ve met are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. We sat with them where they were living in their poverty (no furniture or household goods) and they served us out of their lack (mostly tea) and engaged us in the most open and honest conversations. It was an honor to spend time with them (and is one I hope to repeat one of these days).
So does this all mean that US borders need to be open to millions of refugees? Not necessarily. That’s a question for the American people and their elected officials to decide. I wish we were more open to the opportunity to host and influence this people for the name of the baby born near their territory so long ago. But others have different concerns and that’s OK. There should be honest discussion around legitimate issues.
We can’t, however, use the above myths specifically as an excuse to fear or as an excuse to keep people out. The carefully constructed myths created by politicians and pundits are nothing more than lies and lies like these should hold no sway for those trying to follow in the footsteps of the Christ who was born in a trough because there was no place else and who then had to flee as a refugee escaping persecution.
This Christmas story should embed deeply within our hearts. It should create an openness to the refugee - to those with no place to rest their war scarred heads, to those fleeing intense persecution. It should change the language we use to talk about them. They aren’t roaches or vermin or dogs or rats (as I’ve heard those who claim the name of Jesus say of them). It should make us crave truth over the myths offered to us (and which we so often blindly accept). Ultimately it should move us to compassion, whether that’s creating local space to welcome the refugee or seeing that they are cared for in their nearly locals spaces. We should intrinsically know that fear doesn’t protect us but that instead perfect loves drives out fear.
In this season as we build anticipation for the incarnation and the parousia of Christ, anticipate meeting Him in the refugees spreading across the globe.