It was the sort of juxtaposition that provides an open goal for social media users, and the ball was slotted home, by many thousands, with evident enjoyment.
Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, supported by Governor Greg Abbott would have no doubt got opposition from liberals any time of year after deciding to sue the federal government to prevent Syrian refugees being resettled in the state. But to make the decision on the first weekend of advent offered the sort of powerful crystallising image that plays so well on Facebook and Twitter. Variations of the line ‘Texas government too busy preparing for Christmas to worry about homeless Middle-Eastern family’ became almost wearisome for a couple of days.
We might, however, ask whether this was merely an amusing and arresting cultural juxtaposition, or whether in fact it was a proper invocation of the Christmas story. I have spent some of the last few months training people to preach. I talk a lot about engineering arresting collisions between Bible and culture in those sessions, but also draw a distinction between those collisions that are proper applications of the text, and those that are merely coincidental. We talk about the difference between ‘exegesis’ (reading out of a text what is in fact in it) and ‘eisegesis’ (reading into a text ideas that are foreign to it).
Is drawing a link between the plight of Syrian refugees and the gospel story exegesis, or eisegesis?
In my Theos report The Politics of Christmas, I argued that it is exegesis: the political resonances of the text are not just coincidental, but intentional. The biblical writers are being self-consciously political in their telling of the nativity stories. Matthew shows us the panic of Herod and the thought of a new king being born – and his horrific violence in response. Luke’s angels raise the challenge even higher, borrowing imperial titles in their announcement to the shepherds. Mary sings of what we have to describe as social revolution:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Lk. 1:52-3)
God’s concern for displaced people is not just clear in Scripture, but it is woven together with the narrative of salvation. Deuteronomy 10:12-22 comes at the culmination of Moses’ retelling of God’s saving acts in the Exodus, and demands Israel’s obedience as a result of all that God has done. Remarkably, in the middle of all the general commands to faithfulness, the one single specific demand we find is “you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (v.19) When Matthew shows us Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing Herod’s violence to Egypt he links their time there as refugees back with the Exodus story, quoting the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Mt. 2:15, quoting Hos. 11:1).
I have no knowledge of particular conditions in Texas and no involvement in political decisions there. Our own government avoided a similar Twitterstorm by announcing its limits on refugees from Syria back in the late summer. Churches have been very critical of what they see as a fairly parsimonious response and indeed have set up an umbrella organisation to campaign for more government action, and to coordinate private action.
There are millions of displaced people in the Middle East, and millions more elsewhere in the world. It is, of course, the case that neither Texas nor the UK can accept them all, and there is a serious political debate to be had over the best ways to help, and what can be done without doing unacceptable damage to host communities. I am a theologian, not an economist or an expert on housing policy, and even if I had the expertise, such questions could not be answered adequately in a brief blog post.
That said, before such questions there is one of basic orientation: should we be straining to help as much as we possibly can, or is offering such help an optional extra? I suggest that the Texan social media users with whom I began perhaps tweeted more truly than they knew when they proposed that the Christmas story is relevant to answering that question.
Steve Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology at University of St Andrews and the author of the Theos report The Politics of Christmas
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