Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Feast of the Holy Innocents: Violence, Terror, and the Refugee Jesus

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas murdered by Herod in his maniacal attempt to kill the newly-born Jesus.

Joseph had to quickly flee Bethlehem for Egypt with his wife and child.

It’s safe to assume that other parents ran with their children as well, as men with weapons went house to house, butchering children as they went.

My work as a peace and reconciliation practitioner has taken me to several places around the world where similar atrocities took place.

When I was in Rwanda, I met children- now young adults- who only survived because their parents managed to throw them over a wall into the neighbouring house seconds before they were hacked to death;

In Belfast, I worked with children of families who had fled their homes during feuds between rival paramilitary factions. Some had watched their family members being dragged into the street to be beaten and shot;

In the occupied West Bank, I met families who had their homes bulldozed, their olive farms repeatedly destroyed, their city invaded by the Israeli military over and over, their businesses ruined, their family members shot;

When I was a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin, a close colleague had worked in the Balkans, often with people who fled their homes with only what they could grab in the moments before their towns were overrun…

What I and my colleagues learned over the years is that refugees have very good reasons to run. They run for their lives and for those of their family and children. No one abandons their home, all they own, their job, their children’s school, and their extended families on a whim…

The Feast of the Holy Innocents- and the Matthew 2 texts on which it is based- are our reminder that, at the very centre of the Christian religion is a refugee family;

At the very heart of our faith is Jesus the refugee, forcibly displaced, and the survivor of state terror.

But this is more than simply a metaphorical remembrance; we must remember that at the heart of the Christmas story is the incredible mystery of the incarnation, God invading creation, becoming all that we are, becoming human…

Becoming Emmanuel- ‘God with us’.

We do not simply worship Jesus as the divine Christ;

We worship the humanity of Jesus in his human life- and in the whole of humanity, in the life of every human, the very archetype of the incarnation.

The incarnation of the divine Son, the second person of the Trinity, into the man Jesus is the first act of humanity’s salvation- and of the salvation of the whole of creation.   

From a theological standpoint- particularly those theologies emerging from the legacy of Latin American liberation theology- this is why human life, human value, human dignity, and human rights are so absolutely critical-

Because God became human- and even more critically Jesus retains that humanity even in his post-resurrection/post-ascension being.

We seem to have no problems at all worshiping the divine Christ, with our vaulted church ceilings, pomp, ritual, and declarations of grandeur...

but how do we worship the human Jesus?

We worship the human Jesus by recognizing his incarnate presence in every human being.

At the other end of the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 25, we hear the human Jesus- Jesus the refugee- give his criteria for our salvation:

I was hungry and you fed me,
thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a stranger and you received me in your homes,
Naked and you clothed me;
I was sick and you took care of me;
I was in prison and you visited me.

The human Jesus- Jesus the refugee- also gives his criteria for our condemnation:

I was hungry but you would not feed me,
thirsty but you would not give me a drink; 
I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes,
naked but you would not clothe me;
I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me.

To attempt to honour and adore the divine Christ in chapter 25 while ignoring the refugee family in chapter 2 is absurd and impossible.

What does this practically mean?

The refugees languishing in Calais,

on Lesvos,

drowning in the Mediterranean,

those millions in Lebanon and Jordan…

Those who have made it, by some miracle, as far as Europe and America,

the refugee families in our cities and towns, accosted by aggressive ideologues demanding they go ‘back where they came from’…

They are not quite like Jesus and his family;

They are Jesus and his family.

Let me be very clear:

It is impossible to be a Christian and not feed, clothe, house, and seek justice for those refugees fleeing war, terror, starvation, and injustice.

If we close our hearts- and those arbitrary lines in the dirt that we grandiosely call ‘our borders’- to those with nowhere else to go, we reject Jesus and his family and we pay homage to the satanic Herod.

The choice is hard, stark, and entirely up to us.