It is, as I sit and write this article, only a couple of days before Thanksgiving. The focus is on turkey, stuffing, rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy and every other good thing to overindulge upon. Soon the tables will be set, mountains of food will be eaten, and a horde of people will present themselves at doctors’ offices and emergency departments with gallbladders that have at last thrown in the towel and shouted “I can’t take it anymore!” We all; consumers, shopkeepers and surgeons alike, love thanksgiving, but underneath it all there is another focus, another, more grand American extravaganza lurking under the radar. It may be Thanksgiving on the front burner, but bubbling quietly along on the back burner, in the oven, and everywhere else in the metaphorical kitchen, it’s Christmas.
As always we will turn Christmas in America into a circus, and why shouldn’t we? America is a secular state, or so most of us will tell you. The fact is, however, we worship everything from money to power to sex to individualism to our local sports team, but we refuse to call those things what they really are, which is religion. So when we say that we are secular we mean that we are not a Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, or any other recognized religion-based state. And if that is the case (and that is a proposition open to a great deal of debate, I am aware), there is no real good reason why we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas any darned way that we please, and I will not be one to raise my voice against that proposition.
What I really do want to do in this article is address the issue of refugees in the context of Christmas. The refugee crisis is very much on the front pages and on the internet news sources in the U.S. and Western world, and I would like to view this crisis through this one Christian’s lens and within the context of the Christmas story. I will be quick to point out that these are my own observations as a Christian American and I do not in any way mean to imply that this is the only opinion that an American Christian can possibly have. I am certain that I have Christian friends, dear friends all, who will disagree with me. That is fine. They may be right, or I may be right. I love them anyway and I hope that they still love me too, but I have no control over that. I see what I see, and I will share that with you now.
Christmas, as most of you know, began as a baby born in a stable. There is actually more to the story to that however. This kid named Yeshua bar Joseph, or Jesus, was born in that stable because a politician on orders from a foreign and unsympathetic power ordered everybody to return to their ancestral home base so that they could be counted and more efficiently squeezed for tax revenues. Our President and Congress haven’t tried this yet, but do not count them out! Joseph and his very pregnant wife Mary were therefore uprooted from their familiar home and occupation in Nazareth and forced to travel to the town of Bethlehem, far away.
Clearly there was little real connection between Joseph and Bethlehem. There were no relatives offering to take in the weary travelers, one of them due to give birth at any minute. Forced to go from inn to inn, Joseph could only finally secure lodging in a stable with the animals. Some historians suggest that this stable was in a cave, and therefore at least protected from the cold wind. Others stand by the traditional above-ground stable picture while still others locate the stable in the anteroom of a house. To me it makes no difference. Jesus’ company when He was born was Mom and Dad and oxen and donkeys and goats perhaps (have you ever smelled a goat?) and other denizens of the ancient Near East animal quarters. Suffice it to say, it was not the Marriott.
Some time later, how much later is open to question, another cynical politician got wind of some dumb wise guys going around and spreading rumors about a new king of the Jews being born in Bethlehem. It’s not like the existing king was a poster child for family values; he murdered his own children. But the king was not eager for a rival to his throne and his dynasty to be gaining acceptance within his own kingdom, so he sent soldiers to slaughter every baby in Bethlehem. Being warned of this, the little family shed its persona of economic refugees and took on the mantle of political refugees. Fleeing ahead of the butchers, the family sought and was granted refugee status in Egypt. The rest of the story is known to most people in America, and if you are not familiar with it, just about any church in America will fill in the gaps if you visit there between now and December 25. There is, however, a deeper layer to this story in the holy writings revered by Christians, Jews and to some extent real Muslims, and I propose to write about those today.
In the beginning (important words for those who love the Bible) God told Abram to leave his home and become an immigrant. Abram was obedient and eventually found himself in a land called Canaan. While there a famine struck and Abram and his foxy wife, Sarai, became economic refugees and fled to Egypt. Egypt, fortunately, accepted these refugees, even ones who worshipped a strange God. Abe was far from honorable in this story however, as he knew that Pharaoh would notice his hottie wife, and so he used the old “she’s really my sister’ trick. Bad form, Abe! No huevos, no bueno!” Still, the kindness, or at least tolerance, of the Egyptians saved Abe from the famine, and the chosen line moved on.
Abe’s son Isaac found himself in the same fix a generation later and fled to Philistia where he used the same tired old “She’s my sister” trick. Like father, like son. God didn’t let the Philistine Grand Poobah fool around with Rebecca however, and the Philistines granted Isaac a place to weather the famine, even if many of the ruling class were covetous of the flocks and wells and orchards which God blessed Isaac with. Ultimately Isaac retreated far enough away from anybody who would make a claim on what God had blessed him with, and he made a home there.
Isaac had a couple of sons, and that was a very complicated story. The upshot is that Jacob came our on top and was the head of a large family that was pretty well settled in Canaan. Then, a good long while later, Daddy Jacob’s favorite son Joseph got his uppity ass sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Soon after that, the old bugbear famine reared it’s head again and Jake & Co. were applying to Egypt for help to weather the storm. Well, they would have welcomed a real storm, but let’s not get hung up on semantics. So Jake says “Boys, we’re dying here. Take some money, which we have but can’t eat, and go to Egypt and score some grub” or something like that.
So most of the boys go to Egypt to buy food, but Daddy’s real pet, Benjamin, stays behind. He was kind of a sissy anyway. When they got to Egypt however, who do you think they found sitting on the seat as the Secretary of the Interior under Pharaoh but Joseph himself, the son whom they had sold years ago to the slave traders! Now, Joseph’s life had pretty much sucked most of the time since he had been sold; unfairly accused, stuck in the Gray Bar Hotel, and so on, but Joe had kept his cool and eventually had begun to get some pretty good rolls of the dice. God blessed him with position and authority in Egypt, and now he sat in front of his clueless brothers.
“So what’s up?” he asked them. “What’re you boys doing in my neighborhood? My guess is that you’re a bunch of spies.” “Uh Uh!” cried Reuben,the oldest. “Ain’t so. We’re just hungry, and our daddy and the families are dying of hunger, and we’re here to buy a little food.” “I doubt it” replied Joseph. “You look like spies to me. Might be terrorists too. Maybe I should just drone your asses right now.”
“No, man, it ain’t so! We’re just ordinary guys trying to buy some groceries for the fam. Look at me; I’m so skinny that if I stand sideways and stick my tongue out I’ll look like a zipper.” You probably didn’t know that they had zippers back then, but they did. “Ummm, OK. I’ll give you that one” said Joe. “But I need some proof. Are all of you boys present and accounted for?” Now Joe knew that his brother Bennie from his own mother Rachel was not in the group, and he wanted to twist the knife just a little. “No boss, said Reuben. Daddy’s sissy little boy Ben is back home.” OK then, that’s who I want to see. Bring me the little punk or go home and starve.”
Joseph gave them enough food to hold the over for a while and sent them on their way. When they got home they told Daddy Jake the story but he wasn’t ready to roll with it. Soon, however, the food ran out again and now Jake bowed to the inevitable and sent Bennie along with the Gang of Ten to buy food. Long story short, Joseph monkeyed with their heads for a while but ultimately obtained Pharaoh’s permission for the whole family to settle in Egypt, even though the possibility that they might have been spies for foreign powers could not be ruled out. Unless you were Joseph, that is.
Fast forward to Israel a few hundred years later. A guy named Elimalech and his wife and kids are economic refugees who seek refuge in Moab, the ancient enemy of Israel. Refuge is granted, but the family’s luck sucks and soon the widowed wife Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth are returning to Bethlehem. Fine for Naomi, but Ruth is like a Sunni Muslim in Iran, or a Shiite Muslim in Saudi Arabia, or a Tutsi in Hutuland or an Oakland Raider fan just about anywhere other than Oakland or, well, you get the picture.
The thing is, however, that the qualities of this Moabite woman are noticed by the people, who in turn elect to put up with her. Ruth, the Moabite woman, is loyal to her mother-in-law and willing to do whatever is necessary, even if it means getting raped while gleaning in the fields, or poverty and starvation if no work or help is extended to her and her mother-in-law in this land which views her people as ancient enemies. Ruth’s purity of heart, aided by Naomi’s understanding of the system and Boaz’s willingness not only to allow this undocumented alien work in his fields but also recognition of her humanity and value, results eventually in King David and ultimately Joseph, the human father of Jesus our Lord.
So where does this all take us in the context of the current refugee issue: one that will be with us long after Christmas of 2015? I suppose that my answer is this: The story that Christians subscribe to is one of dominant powers imposing their wills upon weaker people, and somebody being there when the crunch comes to help those people through the tough times. The Bible, to me at least, is God modeling through defective and very fallible people (like yours truly and, in fact, like you too, reader) what He wants us to be, and the multiple examples of people being hospitable, for whatever personal reasons, to people in need up to and including God (Jesus) Himself, speak clearly to me about the attitude that we should take towards the alien and the refugee. And that attitude, for me as a Christian, is acceptance and aid.
The people fleeing ISIS’ terror in Syria and other places come to us just as Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Jacob and Ruth and Joseph and Mary and Jesus came to us; human, weak, hungry, devious, and perhaps none with a guarantee. The Jew bleeding along the side of the road may have eventually stabbed the Samaritan who helped him in the back. The Jews of Bethlehem might have consigned Ruth to a brothel, where she would have sold herself to provide for Naomi and both would have died impoverished, diseased, despised and alone. Joseph, pissed off at his brothers, could have had them killed or let them starve in the desert. None of that happened however and it provides a roadmap for those of us who call upon God as our Savior.
Which of those thousands of refugees are emissaries from God? Which one will bring the world to a greater acceptance of each other and the blessings of peace which flow from such acceptance? Which one will bring a bomb belt and an AK-47 to a concert or a Super Bowl game or a high school senior prom? I don’t know the answer to any of those very good questions, and I do not disparage those who place security at the top of the list of things that we must strive for in this dangerous and complicated world. The thought of a terrorist action taking my son or daughter or grandchild from me makes me nauseous. Nevertheless, as I read the whole story of God and His interaction with His people on earth, I cannot ignore the fact that he loves us all, and the degree to which we love each other, even when there is risk, reflects the degree to which we love Him.
So this year I will pray that ISIS will either crumble into ruin or will be blown into atoms. I will pray that all of the innocents will escape the demonic claws of the twisted people who serve the worst form of evil in the world today, and I will pray that those of us who live far from the face-to-face confrontation with the very face of Satan itself will not snuggle in our consumerist comfort and say “their problem. Let them deal with it.”
God said “Let Us make man in Our image,” and I say let us be hospitable to all of those made in the image of God. Perhaps not with the meekness of sheep but definitely with the mercy of God, let us welcome the refugees.