By Patrick Scriven
Two immigration-related stories caught my attention this week as we move through this season of Advent together.
The first involved a United Methodist Church in California that drew quite a bit of attention with its nativity display. Outside of the building, the nativity provocatively featured the Holy Family, each separated and locked up in chain-link cages—an explicit critique of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy.
The second story involved an executive order from President Trump, giving states and cities the power to refuse refugees. The first county to consider this new authority was one in North Dakota where a larger-than-normal crowd gathered as the county commission discussed the matter. While the county narrowly approved the receipt of up to 25 refugees, allowing a resettlement program managed by Lutheran Social Services to continue, the virulent public sentiment against refugees was both new and shocking to several persons involved.
When I posted a link to the story about the nativity on the PNW Facebook page a few days ago, people responded with very different perspectives. While I’m rarely surprised by the reactions people arrive at, I was disturbed by some of the comments, two in particular. The first:
“They were not refugees; therefore, this is misleading and inaccurate.”
And the other:
“NO. That is a horrible way to depict our Jesus. Satan is certainly working overtime. Shame”
Political? Theological? Both?
The nativity display at Claremont UMC in California is clearly intended to make a statement, one the church’s pastor defined as “theological” rather than political. I suspect that honest people could disagree with that given the politically-evocative imagery.
Yet, it isn’t uncommon to hear criticism in local churches that a pastor has become “too political” even when their intent is faithful proclamation. One might ask: “What good is preaching that doesn’t intersect with the world?” And while I do believe that is possible to be “too political,” what it usually means is “I don’t agree with what they said.”
Sometimes what people are objecting to is that old, old story we call the Gospel.
Matthew’s Gospel relates that in a dream, an angel warns Joseph that the Holy Family is in danger, threatened by a paranoid King Herod (Matt:2:13). We learn a few verses later that Jesus spent years of his early childhood in Egypt, displaced by the violence. And even when the family returns from Egypt upon Herod’s death, they choose to resettle in Galilee for fear of Herod’s son Archelaus (Matt: 2:21-23).
If this doesn’t qualify Jesus as a refugee, what would?
For some people, it doesn’t matter that Jesus and his parents were refugees, just as it doesn’t matter that the Bible repeatedly demands that God’s people offer hospitality to the stranger.
“That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt (Deut. 10:19).”
They have their minds made up—or made up for them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We are all guilty of reading the Bible and interpreting the world around us in ways that reinforce our existing biases. But something different is at work here. As evidenced by the suddenly concerned citizens in North Dakota, and in the increased vitriol targetted online and in person at immigrants, refugees, and others identified as the “other,” knowledge gaps are being exploited to stoke fear and animosity.
The Many Blessings of a Diverse Church
Encountering different understandings is one of the blessings of being in a diverse church. As a global denomination, United Methodism has not adopted much of the xenophobia that is increasingly pervasive in our culture, yet. But that doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels, or that our members are immune to the toxic messaging at odds with the generosity and hospitality God calls us to. We all need help in uncovering the blind spots and flaws in our thinking.
So as we celebrate the arrival of the baby Jesus this year, let’s not shy away from the fact that He was a refugee once too. For if we are taking Jesus’ teaching seriously, should we not look for Christ precisely in the face of one fleeing danger and seeking sanctuary and hope (Matt 25:34-40)?
And if we find ourselves in places too monolithic, let’s challenge ourselves to start the new year stepping out of our comfort zones, whatever they might be.
You can find the official positions of The United Methodist Church on migration and several related resources gathered together on UMC.org.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.
Image Credit: Karen Clark Ristine via Facebook. Original post below.