A Christmas story

by Chris Bertram on December 23, 2014

And when they [the wise men] were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of by the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. (Matthew 13-14).

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were able to get asylum in Egypt, having, as they did, a well-founded fear of persecution, and when it was safe for them to return, they did. Today, by contrast, wealthy states (like the Egypt of the time) do all they can to prevent those fleeing political or religious persecution from getting across the border. The barriers are such that many people take desperate risks to escape the regimes they are threatened by in Syria or Eritrea, and end up drowning in the Mediterranean. Those that do make it are often disbelieved, stigmatized as “bogus” asylum-seekers, and even prosecuted for using false documents to enter.

Many of the citizens of those wealthy states will take part in Christian religious services over the next few days, perhaps the only time they do that year. Many will be people who vote for parties committed to “clamping down” on migrants and erecting further barriers to the persecuted. Let’s hope that at least some of them notice that the Christmas story is also a story of refugees.

{ 24 comments }

1

MPAVictoria 12.23.14 at 6:36 pm

I wish you luck Chris. Though if Christians gave a shit about any of that stuff they wouldn’t be voting in droves for conservative parties.

/Sigh

2

PHB 12.23.14 at 6:43 pm

Even if it is accepted Mark wrote a biography of a historical figure, Matthew’s nativity is absurd and Luke deliberately contradicts his account.

We know rather a lot about the history of Judea at the time. Had Herod perpetrated the massacre of the holy innocents, someone would have mentioned it as a possible cause of the Jewish wars later.

The text only makes sense a part of a religious allegory. Jesus goes to Egypt because Moses came from Egypt and Jesus does Moses twice. Twice the miracles, etc.

3

mattski 12.23.14 at 7:17 pm

As Jesus could testify, try bringing a message of peace and see where it gets you.

4

AB 12.23.14 at 8:01 pm

Relevant opinion poll: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/11/26/the-jesus-test/
66% say believe immigration rules should be tighter and 10% that there should be no immigration at all; only 5% say restrictions should be looser. But when asked what Jesus would do, most of those who give an answer say he would favour completely unrestricted immigration.
In fairness, practising Christians (even by the weakest definition) are a minority in the UK.

5

engels 12.23.14 at 8:23 pm

I hope that at least some people listening to ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ notice that it is also a song about the surveillance state.

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

6

Abbe Faria 12.23.14 at 8:23 pm

“Today, by contrast, wealthy states (like the Egypt of the time) do all they can to prevent those fleeing political or religious persecution from getting across the border. The barriers are such that many people take desperate risks to escape the regimes they are threatened by in Syria or Eritrea, and end up drowning in the Mediterranean.”

Why – of all places – the regimes in Syria and Eritrea? Because of their Cold War origins and delicate relations with the West?

The big recent problem with wealthy states is not that they try and prevent people fleeing persecution from regimes with which they have strained relations; but that they’ve spent a great deal of trouble attemping to topple them and plunging country after country into civil war. Of course, merely fleeing war doesn’t grant rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Refugee law privileges the religious and their sentiments over mere civilians worried about the indiscriminant harm of civil war. I don’t think persecution for your religion should give you refugee status. This is particularly perverse given how in the last 15 years we’ve seen country after country turned to chaos by religious cults. I don’t think their religious freedom should be respected.

Obvious, I appreciate the broader sentiment and admire the posts on this, but placing a religious gloss on asylum is harmful.

7

praisegod barebones 12.23.14 at 8:37 pm

‘I don’t think persecution for your religion should give you refugee status.’

To be fair, it’s a lot more common for people to be persecuted because of someone else’s religion than because of their own.

8

Bernard Yomtov 12.23.14 at 10:42 pm

“I don’t think persecution for your religion should give you refugee status.”

Why not? Or is it just that you think, as I do, that religious persecution should not receive more favorable treatment than other types?

9

Collin Street 12.23.14 at 11:15 pm

It’s IME a good rule-of-thumb to assume that statements which under even slight examination would lead to absurd conclusions are not meant “literally” but are instead encoded, overemphasised for rhetorical/clear-communication purposes; “people must X” is [often] really meant to convey the meaning, “X is more important than is often thought”, and so forth.

Under those circumstances, pressing people to defend/explain the “literal” meaning of what they say is basically putting words into their mouths, expecting them to defend things they don’t themselves believe and never intended to convey.

[it’s worth remembering that, in general, people say not what they think, but how it differs from what [they think that] you think; if you keep this in mind it becomes a lot clearer to see why the above happens.]

And with that message of peace and tolerance, merry christmas.

10

Abbe Faria 12.24.14 at 12:39 am

“Why not? Or is it just that you think, as I do, that religious persecution should not receive more favorable treatment than other types?”

15 years ago I was vehemently in favour of religious freedoms, but then I thought at most there’d be some largish terrorist incidents. I didn’t realise that Jihadism would prove powerful enough to cause several countries to descend into chaos. I don’t think there’s much precedent for what’s happened in the Maghreb, Middle East or Afghanistan.

Jihadism absolutely is not the only cause, and I’m not advocating the rubber hose and electrodes treatment. But why not straight up jail people for preaching their religion. There is active ideological support for Jihadism, so why not just directly criminalise it and remove preachers? Just as stirring up racial hatred or glorifying terrorism or holocaust denial is a crime in some places.

It frankly seems very odd that those a hair breadth away from various charges of incitement are given refugee status precisely because their motivation for that behaviour is religious, and has lead to their ‘persecution’. Whereas if their motivation was just mere jingoism, or misogyny or homophobia they’d be out of luck and no one would have much sympathy.

11

maidhc 12.24.14 at 5:19 am

In the Old Testament people fled to Egypt when there was a famine, so presumably there was some assumption that the Egyptians would feed them. In exchange for work, maybe.

I realize it’s not a historical account.

12

js. 12.24.14 at 5:29 am

But why not straight up jail people for preaching their religion. There is active ideological support for Jihadism, so why not just directly criminalise it and remove preachers?

Well, it’s been tried and it doesn’t work. I mean, Egypt (in the non-Biblical sense) is not irrelevant here.

13

Glen Tomkins 12.24.14 at 6:23 am

Good luck trying to use the Book to soften the hearts of folks who consider themselves People of the Book. They’ve already stumbled on these passages that might give their worldview a bit of a tumble and long ago figured out how to explain away any resulting cognitive dissonance.

14

clew 12.24.14 at 9:08 am

engels:

He hears you when you’re sleeping
Surveills you out of doors
And when that doesn’t get the goods
Well, he’ll use provacateurs!

15

Maria 12.24.14 at 9:45 am

There is more than ONE flavour of Christianity, people. Some of us would-be Christians take the New Testament as a manifesto for social justice. You may or may not be allergic to any formulation of social justice that isn’t wholly secular in its roots, but it motivates a lot of people out of the pew and into the food bank, asylum seeker campaign, etc. etc.

Chris is right to point out – as many do at this time of year – that the holy family were essentially asylum seekers. A precious few people may well have their minds changed and their compassion ignited by the Christmas story, even if most just go along for the carols.

A few months ago I was talking to Australian friends – who, like many of their generation, got involved in Labour through the Catholic social justice movement of the 1960s and 70s that Ratzinger et al did their best to kill. They passed on the advice of a Jesuit priest who’s spent his life working with Asian boat people trying to get into Australia: ‘use every chance you have to convince people who DON’T agree or care about asylum seekers. Don’t waste your time on those who already do.’

+1 Chris.

16

Chris Bertram 12.24.14 at 10:27 am

Thanks Maria. Obviously only a very small proportion of Christians are active volunteers for social justice, but of the people who do actively volunteer, a very high proportion have Christian or other religious beliefs. Purely anectotal, but my experience is that of the people active in supporting refugees in the UK, there’s a high representation of Christians and of people with a vaguely greenish-anarchist ideology. Mainstream secular politcos, whether far- or social-democratically left, not so common (too busy focusing on the revolution or the next election).

17

Scott P. 12.24.14 at 2:59 pm

The reason they were able to travel freely is that they lived in a world empire. If we want to draw a lesson from that myth, it might be that a world government ought to be a major goal if we seek social justice.

18

nothingforducks 12.24.14 at 4:14 pm

This is too apropos not to bring up. Chris, maybe you had already seen this and it’s what motivated you to post, but in Worms, Germany, a pastor tried to stage a Christmas pageant at the Christmas market that explicitly drew the parallel you made above and to draw attention to the miserable plight of refugees in present-day Germany. A regional court, however, ordered that the pageant couldn’t be staged there, either out of acquiescence to far-right forces in the town or out of a slightly more legitimate concern that the Christmas market is not the proper setting for “politicized” speech. (Sorry, I can’t find any English-language news items on it.)

http://www.migazin.de/2014/12/18/kein-krippenspiel-ueber-fluechtlinge-auf-dem-weihnachtsmarkt/

19

engels 12.24.14 at 9:58 pm

“Among the joyous celebrations we will reflect on those very Christian values of giving, sharing and taking care of others,” [Cameron] said.

“This Christmas I think we can be very proud as a country at how we honour these values through helping those in need at home and around the world. On Christmas Day thousands of men and women in our armed forces will be far from home protecting people and entire communities from the threat of terrorism …

20

hix 12.25.14 at 1:08 am

@18: More accurate please. The court did not ban the play. The court rather upheld a ban implemented by the city adminstration, which appears to have banned the play in her role as operator of the market. So the court merely did decide that the ban could not be overturned on free speach grounds due to the aviability of alternative locations. Sounds like a very proper court decission to me. Now the city adminstrations` decission, thats a different story. That a German court would ever make a decission based on acquiescence to the far right sounds rather outlandish to me.

Also, i got to say, while my rich libertarian christian relatives do manage to explain away inequality within the German population*, they do still have a soft spot for asylum seekers largely based on religious grounds. So the rethoric does work.

*that government statistic claiming every 6th child depends on welfare must be fake -_- sigh

21

Ze Kraggash 12.25.14 at 10:43 am

It would help if they stopped meddling, wreaking havoc. Stopped trying to dominate by creating their ‘controlled chaos’, or whatever the hell it is they’re doing these days. The failure to mop up properly is a secondary issue. Well, there is no chance of that, I’m sure, and the bible has no objections: Not Peace But Sword.

22

Brett Bellmore 12.25.14 at 11:19 am

“If we want to draw a lesson from that myth, it might be that a world government ought to be a major goal if we seek social justice.”

I’ve long thought that a world government would be a great way to eliminate refugee problems. Because there’d be no refuge anymore, of course, but it WOULD eliminate the refugee problem…

23

Neville Morley 12.27.14 at 2:44 pm

Further on Germany: the sermon I heard in an Evangelische church last Sunday was *very* explicit about the Christian duty to welcome refugees, with links to the Christmas story and direct condemnation of the anti-Islam/anti-foreigner Pegida movement. Given that all localities, including very conservative rural ones, have recently been told to take in more refugees (as I understand in, the responsibility for refugees is spread across all Länder and all local authorities, rather than concentrated in a few cities), it seems likely that the churches have decided to take a common line.

24

Philip 12.29.14 at 7:00 pm

I have recently started volunteering with a charity working with asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. In the city where I do the voluntary work the only charities that support asylum seekers who have exhausted their appeal rights and are not eligible for support and therefore are destitute are a local church based charity and the Red Cross, although the Red Cross support is usually only for up to 4 weeks. I’m not religious and don’t subscribe to any particular ideologies but I’d agree with Chris’s anecdotal evidence but add that a lot of volunteers are people who are going through, or have gone through, the asylum process and might not be religious or have a greenish-anarchist ideology.

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