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Dec 04, 2018

Taking a Lesson from the Annual Journey to Bethlehem and Egypt

By T. Carlos Anderson and James C. Harrington

The story of a pregnant woman on the road in search of shelter is retold and reenacted every December. It is a journey of exclusion, welcome, and sanctuary. The Latino community reenacts this vividly as “Las Posadas” (the inns), originated in Mexico 400 years ago. A group accompanying Mary and Joseph walks door-to-door through a neighborhood, singing a plaintive chant for shelter. They face rejection at each house, until finally one family takes in the tired journeyers and a party takes place.

Retelling this biblical story should remind us of our moral responsibility to provide shelter, care for those in need, and not let our society’s current heightened polarization impede our efforts.

Our country and communities are trudging through moral quagmires these days. The night is dark; the winds are chilling; and the plodding, dangerous. Violence, racial and religious hatred, “demonizing the other,” and inequalities surround us—they are ubiquitous and overwhelming. These are hard issues, and, if not spoken to, they will engulf us.

Demonizing people who are different from us is currently acceptable—whether depicting a caravan of migrants as a hostile force; nonchalantly accepting as normal our entrenched social and economic inequalities; perpetuating the callous fallacy that poverty is a function of laziness; or, dismissing the unconscionably high rate of gun killings (massacres and suicides) by labeling the actors “mentally unstable.”

We know from recent history—1930s Germany, 1940s Japanese “internment” camps, 1980s Kosovo, 1990s Rwanda—that demonizing others is a deadly ideology.

What our society ails from does not originate outside our borders but from within, creations of our own values (or lack thereof). “We, the people” means we have responsibility for dealing with our deficiencies in a hands-on, cooperative way, to build up our society.

Demonizing others is a convenient cop-out which allows us to point fingers at others. Rather than solve problems, it exacerbates them by permitting the misallocation of political energy and societal resources.  

Moral leaders, leaders of religious communities, and indeed all of us have the responsibility to lift our voices, as did the moral and religious prophets who came before us. Religion’s purpose is not to support the state, but to keep it honest and to call our leaders to task when they deviate from the commonly-held values of our faith and moral traditions.

The best of our traditions require that we live together under just laws. Religious and moral teachings help infuse our society with compassion: to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, demand equal treatment for all, welcome the migrant, and dialog constructively with those whom we disagree. The only question about these practices is how we do them, not whether we do them.

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is an example, as are the two hundred Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who, with him, organized a prayer protest outside the detention center at Tornillo, Texas, where our government incarcerates 2500 immigrant minor children in a desert tent camp. Whinston compares the Tornillo kids and migrants with the Israelites who fled an Egyptian pharaoh in search of a better life. 

Brownsville Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores denied access to surveyors wanting to build a border wall on church property in the Texas Valley. For him, construction on church property would severely restrict the church’s mission to serve all of its neighbors. 

These are good steps, but far too few. There are enough religious congregations in Texas to have regular weekend convocations at Tornillo, Brownsville, and in between.  

After the humble birth of Mary’s baby, the story continues with the family having to flee for their lives and leave their country because of the murderous tyrant Herod. The refugees cross a border to find shelter and hospitality—again.

We do not make America great by demonizing other people, but by welcoming and befriending vulnerable persons – that’s the message and challenge of this popular Christmas story.

Anderson isPastor & Community Development Director for Austin City Lutherans. Harrington, is with the Proyecto Santiago Missional Community at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Austin.

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