The story is worth telling again, every year, for the good news of divine solidarity. I mean God’s solidarity with all of us, and especially with the most vulnerable, the fearful and insecure, the terrified and lonely ones.
Biblical writers offer more than one way to tell this story, which I take as an invitation to keep retelling it in fresh ways so that we can hear it, and upon truly hearing it, to live differently, and by our living, to glorify God.
However we tell and retell the story, Luke would urge us to remember that Jesus was born in an occupied province of the Roman Empire (Lk 2:1-2). We must tell this story, in other words, with politics, and economics, and the environment in view, and whatever else shapes the bodily conditions of God’s beloved creation, including today’s unprecedented wave of global migration (read about that here and here) as both humans and other animals move and flee toward survival.
It doesn’t matter whether the first century figures of Mary and Joseph qualify exactly as “refugees” in the modern sense. What does matter is the God revealed in their story is the God who is always in solidarity with the migrant poor, the lost and outcast, and the violently oppressed. This is the God who inspired Matthew to refer to Jesus as Emmanuel (“God with us”), and John to claim that the divine Word became flesh, and Luke to write about shepherds–the working poor of the first century–startled by a host of angels.
I’m grateful to Todd Atkins-Whitley, a friend and recent graduate of Pacific School of Religion, who retells Luke’s version of the Nativity with the refugees at the U.S./Mexico border fully in view. I heard the good news of God’s solidarity in fresh ways by reading Todd’s inspired retelling. With his permission, I offer it here and commend it to our shared Christmas contemplation and sacred, incarnational activism:
The Nativity According to Luke (2:1-20), Adapted at the Border
In those days, a decree went out from the Attorney General that domestic violence and gang violence would no longer be considered grounds for asylum and a proclamation went out from the President that denied asylum to migrants seeking refuge through alternate means of entry. These were not the first restrictions on migration issued by various men who served as president of the United States.
Multitudes fled their own towns of origin to seek asylum. José also went from the town of San Salvador in El Salvador to the port of entry at the southernmost border called Tijuana because gangs had threatened to kill his family if he did not pay them. He went to seek asylum with María, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the border crossing was closed and border patrol agents fired tear gas canisters at them, throwing María into premature labor. And she gave birth to her firstborn son in a tent in a make-shift camp inside an abandoned municipal sports complex and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a crate, because there was simply no place for them to go in either country.
In that region there were women working in the maquiladoras, making electronics by day and night for foreign-owned companies seeking cheap labor and lax environmental laws. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of the God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of Tijuana a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a crate.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “¡Gloria a Dios en el cielo más alto, y en la tierra paz entre los que él favorece!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the maquiladora workers said to one another, “Let us go now to the Benito Juarez Sports Complex and see this thing that has taken place, which God has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found María and José, and the child lying in the crate. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the maquiladora workers told them.
But María treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
The maquiladora workers returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…”
I kept returning to those words from Isaiah (35:6) as I prepared to preach on a set of challenging biblical texts this week.
Reflecting on that prophetic promise, it occurred to me that there are some things we actually do not want to hear very clearly or that we wish he had never seen at all.
It has been troubling, to say the least, to hear overt forms of racism in this country the last eighteen months, both on our city streets and at the highest levels of government. Even more distressing in some respects is to see with greater clarity how those eruptions of ire tap into a long tradition of racial bias, a corrosive thread running throughout American history.
A hair-raising account of this appeared just recently in the New York Times. There I learned about Charles Henry Pearson, an Australian academic of the late nineteenth century, who warned that white men would soon be thrust aside by black and yellow races. He urged a concerted effort to defend particular parts of the world against such encroachments so that the “higher races” can live and increase freely, for the sake of their “higher civilization.”
I was dismayed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was rather fond of Pearson’s work, and was actually in communication with Pearson, assuring him of the “great effect” Pearson’s defense of the white race was having on “all our men here in Washington.”
Dismayed and then disgusted by the reminder of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet,” a posture that led W. E. B. DuBois, in those early decades of the twentieth century, to describe the emergence of what he called “the new religion of whiteness.”
I read that piece from the Times while thinking about the passage many Christians heard this week from the letter of James (2:1-17). Quite frankly, I’ve been never been a fan of that biblical letter, and I often agree with Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer who apparently wanted to rip James out of the Bible entirely. But I read James differently this past week, perhaps like I’ve never read him before.
As you may know, those who have trouble with the Letter of James usually complain about not finding any grace in it. That was Luther’s objection, or what’s called “works righteousness,” the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works. But I don’t think James had anything like that in mind.
To the contrary, James is not the one denying divine grace in this letter; it’s those he writes about, the ones who treat the rich and powerful as if they are better than the poor and weak—they are the ones who deny grace. Those who play favorites, make distinctions, show partiality—they are the ones who fail to live their faith. Your faith might as well be dead, James writes, if you don’t treat everyone as equally graced by God, equally loved.
James pushed me this week to ponder favoritism itself, its corrosive, even violent effects, and how it manifests in the notion of “higher races.”
Why do human beings do this? Not all of us make such gross distinctions, of course, at least not publicly, but many do and it would seem many more are increasingly willing to do so openly. But why? Why classify and categorize and make such harmful distinctions?
At least one among many possible reasons occurs to me: we don’t really believe in grace.
Deep down many are convinced—because most of us were taught—that love and affection, even dignity and self-worth must be earned, and earned, and earned yet again.
For some, the fear of not measuring up can make the idea of a superior race seem quite attractive indeed—especially if you yourself could belong to that superior race, just by being born.
I am not proposing a singular origin for racism, nor a simple cause-and-effect mechanism for the complexities of white supremacy. I am, however, urging Christians to consider these cultural dynamics in the context of our faith. Just as James, I believe, would urge us to do.
In a world that is constantly forming us in the fear of unworthiness, shaping us with the anxiety over inferiority, dividing us—often violently—between the chosen and the damned, we need continually to be re-formed by love, nourished by a feast of divine grace.
Perhaps Mark’s Jesus can help (Mk 7:24-37). I mean, the Jesus who called a foreign woman a “dog.”
Let me quickly note that I, personally, do not consider it an insult to be compared with a canine. Given the types of human behavior we see displayed daily in the news, I would be quite happy to be thought of as dog-like.
That said, the current occupant of the White House has made clear on Twitter that “dog” is definitely not a compliment, especially when applied to women of color. The same could and should be noted about this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark who begs Jesus to heal her likewise nameless daughter, a woman who is compared to a dog begging for scraps of food.
Note the details with which Mark describes this scene. It takes place in the region near Tyre, a city well north of Jerusalem, farther north than the Galilee, definitely not a purely Jewish city, but one with deep Hellenistic influences. “Phoenician” names that region more particularly, and the “Syro-” marks the even larger region of Syria.
Mark is evoking a long history of land being carved up by various empires and kings, a history marked with border disputes, conquest, animosity, and violence.
And then—as if this were not obvious—Mark notes that this Syrophoenician woman was a “Gentile,” or a better translation might be simply “Greek.” Not Jewish, in other words.
Sounds to me like a postmodern hybridized identity forged in the crucible of an occupying imperial force residing on contested borders with all sorts of socio-political intrigue and religious anxiety. This ancient text could have been ripped from the pages of the New York Times!
Even more so if we add a bit of economic class to this mix. Typical portrayals of this woman resemble a peasant, or someone at least lower in socio-economic status than Jesus. One biblical commentator, however, has argued against that usual grain of interpretation, suggesting instead that this unnamed woman could have been of significant means.
The combination of the proximity to Tyre and her Syrophoenician ancestry recalls the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in the first book of Kings. There we read about Jezebel, a Phoenician princess condemned to be eaten by dogs—which puts a rather unsavory spin on those scraps falling from the master’s table.
In short, Jesus and this woman occupied vastly different spheres, worlds apart, and this difference was laden with value. Mark makes this clear by tossing in that reference to dogs—the difference between Jesus and this woman is as vast as that between species.
We can recognize these dynamics quite easily by looking to the U.S. border with Mexico, where children of asylum seekers are housed in cages.
Perhaps the point is made best by noting that this woman doesn’t even have a name; she’s a geopolitical marker, an ethnic designation, a gendered manifestation of religious rivalry.
Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.
Even Jesus needed some time to hear this woman clearly, to hear and see the human behind the border.
But he did hear her, eventually, and her daughter was healed.
It’s not just accidental, a bit of random chronology that leads Mark to place another story of healing right after this story of a nameless, foreign woman. Whatever divides us, fragments us, keeps us from hearing the grace of God—all of this wounds us, individually and collectively. And we, just like the man Jesus encountered, need healing.
Blinded by ancient prejudice, unable to hear beyond the walls of hatred, the voices of oppression muted by socio-political forces hell-bent on dividing us—we need to hear again, and then again, and still more the good news of the Gospel: God’s grace extends to all, no birth certificate or passport or green card or bank account or pedigree required.
Christian worship matters in a world carved up with borders, a world of nameless humans seeking to be heard and seen, a world where dogs become ciphers for human disdain and derogatory rhetoric.
Christian worship matters in such a world when we gather around the Eucharistic table, and for a deceptively simple reason:
When we eat well, we see and hear better.
When we gather at the Table of divine grace, we see ourselves and each other better.
When we feast on grace and love, we see ourselves and each other better, though this can be difficult, especially when we hear the voices of our own racial bias and see our own complicity with forms of discrimination.
And that’s exactly the point of grace and love—to notice all those hateful borders that divide us, and then work together to tear them down.
And that’s the work, James would say, that makes our faith lively.
Everyone migrates, whether a few short blocks every day or across continents over many weeks, and the land we cross doesn’t actually belong to anyone but God.
That claim scrambles how most people organize the world we currently inhabit. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to live its implications – a borderless world with no political boundaries, let alone gated communities, designated wetlands, national parks, secured parking garages, and countless other spaces marked with painted or fenced lines.
But I am sure of this: modern Western society perfected a system of belonging that has very little if anything to do with actual land and terrain and nearly everything to do with political allegiance and religious affiliation. And this, too: navigating that system – migrating – carries enormous economic and cultural consequences, often life-and-death choices. And one more thing: belonging is never clear and absolute, despite both legal and political rhetoric to the contrary; it’s always ambiguous, intentionally.
I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. I was fascinated by the behavioral patterns of different species of animals, including the mind-numbing treks whales take across oceans and the ones managed by butterflies over vast fields and mountain ranges. Canada geese caught my attention every fall and each spring, their honking migration punctuating my walk to school.
I grew up in a settled suburb in one house for my entire childhood. Migration is what other species do, I thought, not humans. But of course, our species migrates constantly and always has. We began somewhere on the continent of Africa and then walked, for a long time, and filled the planet.
We migrate for many reasons – wanderlust, better resources, fleeing violence, escaping tyranny, following a lover who got a great job offer. But these movements are rarely unfettered.
Those people are taking our jobs. We don’t have enough resources for them. Our cultural heritage is being destroyed. They bring chaos and violence.
These are not new concerns. The ancient Israelites worried about “exotic” cultural practices staining their religious life (we find this in texts supposedly condemning gay men like me). Early Christians worried about “pagans” and gentiles corrupting their newly gestating faith (which would include, well, gentile men like me).
And yet, sacred texts likewise declare the primacy of caring for the stranger and sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:34 – the same book, ironically, that worries about exotic influences); insist on pilgrimage as a vital characteristic of faith (Hebrews 13:14); and portray Jesus himself fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his parents, presumably without a passport (Matthew 2:13).
I keep wondering why migration so quickly provokes anxiety and panic, and I keep returning to money and power.
Even in an age of multi-national corporations, Cavanaugh insists that corporate entities require national boundaries to regulate the flow of human capital – think Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California picking the fruit I buy at Trader Joe’s. Think as well on the fear they live with every day, which keeps them willing to work for wages I wouldn’t take and under conditions I would not accept.
That’s the money part. The power part is drenched in white supremacy. “Whiteness” is no less an invention of Euro-Americans than the borders defining nation-states; both will be defended to the death. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the regime of Jim Crow made this perfectly clear: “Whiteness” depends on the proximity of a subservient “other,” a vast underclass of colored people against which “Whiteness” itself is defined. Equality is the presenting heresy in this worldview, not the mere presence of people of color.
“White nationalist” rhetoric would seem at odds with this view, but only at first blush. White nationalists do want to be separated from people of color, but not so far away as to lose reasons for their superiority. I recoil at the crudeness of this, its vulgarity.
Perhaps I recoil too much, sitting on my heap of white, male, economic privileges. I’m not talking about guilt – though it does linger unhelpfully around the edges. I mean: how many borders and boundaries am I willing to let dissolve and fade away in the light of the Gospel? How much do I rely on all those demarcations for my own sense of self and safety?
I struggle with these questions and can’t imagine trying to respond by myself. That’s why I keep going to church, to the Eucharistic Table, to that borderless access to divine life. There I can be reminded, or try to be, that we’re all in this together; that there is no safety in isolation; that our shared distress is rooted in powerful forces that would keep us separated. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t risk what I must, without others.
Protesting at rallies, lobbying Congress, advocating for policy changes, resisting the totalizing effects of global capitalism – all of that matters. These matter, too: dinner parties with our neighbors whose names we don’t know and who speak with an “accent”; noticing the people we work with whose skin color is different and whether everyone makes the same wage; stopping the car and talking with the fruit sellers on the corner, the day-laborers at Home Depot, the imam down the street.
We get to know people, care for them, find ourselves happily in solidarity with them, and we might suddenly decide to chain ourselves to a DACA deportee; if they go, we go. Because we, all of us, are a migratory species.
I like to imagine St. Paul nodding his head vigorously as he sits in prison, in chains, writing from his detention cell. That saint who insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female (Galatians 3:28) – no green-carder, no passport-holder, no citizen, no refugee, no ESL graduate. There are only creatures of God, all of us longing for home, to belong.
I see this – not always, but often enough – as I migrate to the Table.
Two images have been haunting me of late. I don’t mean that each has, but rather what one has to do with the other. A Methodist minister helped me see their entanglement; it haunts me.
The first image is a massive fence jutting out from the west coast into the Pacific Ocean right at the U.S./Mexico border; that fence marks the border itself. This fence also sits in a place rather hopefully called “Friendship Park.” First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated that park in 1971 and declared her hope that one day the fence would come down. Imagining a First Lady saying that today is not only difficult politically but also logistically as the Department of Homeland Security has been dismantling the park to build a better fence.
The second image is a religious fence, the kind that marks the boundary between the Eucharistic Table and the rest of a church building, where the lay people sit. Not every church building has one of these, but many do, and while the meaning of this kind of fence varies, its message is uncomfortably clear: Access to Holy Communion, just like access to the United States, is restricted.
These two images share something else in common for me. They represent a significant change of heart and mind concerning immigration and Eucharist. Again, I don’t mean a change concerning both, separately. I mean a change concerning both, together.
To be clear, I used to approve of fairly restrictive approaches to both immigration and the Eucharist, and for much the same reason: my appreciation for systems, logic, and law – or more biblically, what Paul described as doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
It made no sense to me that people here in the U.S. “illegally” should have access to health care or education, just as it made no sense to me that the “unbaptized” should have access to Holy Communion. I used to care so much about making sense for multiple reasons, not least these: the urge to manage for fear of chaos and the need to control for fear of scarcity.
I can’t say that I changed my mind about these things at exactly the same moment, but I did so for mostly the same reason: God’s outrageous generosity and scandalous grace.
Think of it this way: “illegal” immigrants are the wrong kind of recipients for services intended for citizens, just as the “unbaptized” are the wrong kind of recipients for food intended for the initiated. Now think about the Hebrew Bible and its exhortations about treating “aliens” in the land with hospitality (Lev. 19:34, among many other references), and think about the Christian Testament and its stories about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-11, among others).
More simply: Christian faith began with stories about Jesus eating with the wrong kind of people. This radical social practice continued with the earliest Christians, who frequently found themselves in jail for disturbing the status quo (Acts 16:19-24, among others).
It’s high time Christians got in trouble again, at both our Eucharistic tables and our international borders. And indeed, at least one Christian minister does both at the same time. When DHS began dismantling Friendship Park, the Rev. John Fanestil, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, started crossing construction lines every week at that park, presiding at the Eucharist, and passing the elements of Communion through wire gaps in the fence.
It’s hard to imagine a better image of God’s border-crossing grace than that. And I do think the stakes are high here, as I suggested in my recent book Peculiar Faith:
Imagine someone completely unfamiliar with Christian history. Imagine this person reading for the first time these ancient [Gospel] stories of extravagantly if not wantonly hospitable meal sharing. Then imagine introducing that same person to the institution that preaches from those stories yet regulates and governs who may and may not participate in its shared meals. Would this not seem bewildering? Who could blame such a person for failing to see any connection between the ancient texts and the contemporary institution?
Now imagine someone unfamiliar with American history and politics. Imagine taking that person to visit the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and reading the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on its pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Would that person really believe that the statue in New York and the fence in southern California belong to the same country?
All of this has been resurfacing in my thoughts recently for two reasons. First, the 2016 presidential election has already begun and we have to listen to debates about whether people like Columba, Jeb Bush’s Latina wife, “belong” here but not whether folks like Canadian-born Ted Cruz do. And second, alas, this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church narrowly defeated a resolution that would have established a task force to address the question of an “open table” – receiving Eucharist without first being baptized.
That resolution at the General Convention was actually quite modest. Its explanatory text suggested that while the pattern of moving from baptism to Eucharist remains normative, sometimes God calls people into communion in the other direction, from the Table to the Font.
I mean, seriously, of course God can call anyone into Communion in any way God chooses. In fact, there isn’t any “normative” pattern for such calling anywhere in the Bible! Not only do the Gospel writers present Jesus as dispensing entirely with religious rules about shared meals, the Acts of the Apostles depicts the Spirit being poured out rather scary people who weren’t even baptized (Acts 10:44-47 as just one example)!
Thus I’m haunted by that morsel of bread passed through the wires of a chain-link fence – an image rich not only with God’s border-shattering grace but also God’s challenge to border-keeping institutions.
Open tables and open borders – why are these so scary? In Part 2 of these reflections, I’ll suggest some reasons why, especially the reasons that used to scare me.