Over coffee and wine…. It’s not just catchy, it’s my life. I need a solid two cups of coffee in the morning to be somewhat functional (sincerest apologies to my running partner who sees me 3x/week@6:30 am sans any caffeine…God only knows what comes out of my mouth!). So, you can be sure that I’ll be holding at least a few of those red Starbucks cups this December. For the second year in a row, Starbucks has been accused of waging a war against Christianity, with its cup design. I have this crazy theory that Christmas is about more than what is or is not on our coffee cups. Here’s how Rachel Held Evans puts it:
The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up—not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble. From Advent to Easter, the story of Jesus should teach us that God doesn’t need a mention in our pledge or on our money or over the loudspeaker at the mall to be present, and when we fight like spoiled children to “keep” God in those things, we are fighting for idols. We’re chasing wind.
The birth of Jesus offers so many lessons. But, the central role of outsiders in the Christmas story demands a second look, as we consider the real reason for the season. And, I pray, the lessons from that look, give us some new ways to celebrate this Christmas.
Foreigners in Bethlehem
Today’s nativity scenes are almost a dime a dozen. We see them and shrug. Mary and Joseph, in a barn with some farm animals standing around and three funny looking guys in the background. Yep. We know the story. But, maybe the story has gotten too familiar?
While Joseph had family ties to Bethlehem, they were visitors in this tiny town. And, they weren’t the only outsiders. We often hear about the three wise men. These magi or astrologers, came from the East. So, these are men from a foreign land, with foreign traditions and faith. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, gifts typically given to a king or royalty….not the typical ‘congrats on your baby’ gift. These are wealthy, well-educated men who had a lot to lose, traveling to Israel, bearing gifts for a new king.
The gifts are not only symbolically significant, but they were likely life-saving financial resources for Mary and Joseph. Herod becomes so paranoid by the news of this baby, that he slaughters baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem. Fortunately, Joseph and Mary escaped with baby Jesus, to Egypt. But, consider all of the times we see an outsider playing a key role in the Christmas story.
First, Mary and Joseph are far from home, having come to Bethlehem at such a delicate time in Mary’s pregnancy to take part in the census. Then, they receive gifts from foreigners from the East. (FYI…unlike the little nativity sets we put up next to our Christmas tree, where the shepherds and wisemen simultaneously assembled in the manger, the wisemen probably didn’t arrive until roughly a year later.) Finally, they become refugees in Egypt for a few years, likely surviving on the resources they received from the magi. It isn’t until Herod dies, that Mary, Joseph and Jesus can return to Israel.
It’s not just this chapter in the Christmas story that highlights the role of a foreigner. The very lineage of Christ paints a picture of a Savior who came for all. For example, not only does the Bible include the names of 5 women in Jesus’s genealogy (unheard of in that day), but among them we find Ruth. Ruth was a foreigner from Moab, whose entire race was a lasting reminder of the incest committed between Lot and his oldest daughter. Over and over again, we are reminded that there’s no sin so big or person so far, that they are beyond the love of Christ. Just in case we missed it in looking at his family tree, or in the story of his birth, Jesus repeatedly shows us that we are to love the outsider. It is in His commandments to love one another. It’s in His stories, like that of the Good Samaritan (despised foreigner). It’s in His blood, which He explicitly states is for all, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free…you name it, it’s there for each and every one of us.
Foreigners in the United States
Even though we are a nation built by immigrants, the present level of hostility towards foreigners is at an all-time high. As a white woman, married to a Singaporean immigrant, parenting bi-racial children, I have some admittedly selfish and personal reasons for rejecting this posture. But, there are reasons beyond decency that should give us pause, before we permit the nativist rhetoric to become normalized speech or worse yet, public policy.
Immigrants thru history
First, a quick history lesson. In a book by Eric Weiner, called the Geography of Genius, he looks at civilizations through the years to identify the places/people that evolved into the most influential and productive centers for their time(s). So, just to clarify, we’re looking across the globe, from the time history has been recorded. And, one of the most consistent catalysts for growth, creativity whether it’s ancient Athens or Vienna and Florence during the Renaissance or Silicon Valley today: the influx of new ideas and perspective from immigrants. Unless you’re Native American, the rest of us were at one time immigrants ourselves. And, until the late 19th century, there were few immigration regulations. There weren’t the visas, lengthy processes and countless forms of today. Today’s undocumented can’t ‘do it the right way’ like our great-grandparents.
Immigrants in America today
So, let’s fast forward to today. The election results do not somehow turn political rhetoric into statistical fact. On the two hot topics of refugees and immigration, here’s the deal: refugees aren’t dangerous and immigration is not bad for the economy. It’s tempting to cut and paste the hundreds of articles and studies validating the importance of foreigners to our own American society and economy – there is an avalanche of evidence. I’ll spare you! But, here are a few actual facts worth considering (don’t worry…..we WILL get back to the Christmas story):
- Entrepreneurs: Immigrants are twice as likely to start a new business. Immigrants (and their children) started such iconic companies as Apple, Google, Intel, Bank of America, AT&T, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Pfizer, DuPont, eBay and Ford.
- Individual Mobility/Wages: Immigrant children show extraordinary upward mobility, in terms of income, occupation and education. In addition, studies find that immigrants raise wages for native-born American. Interestingly, cities with the most immigrants tend to support a continuation of pro-immigrant policies. On the flip-side, Rust Belt states with greater resentment at the “illegals” who are “taking all of our jobs” — actually have relatively small populations of them, with fewer than 2% of jobs held by illegal immigrants,” according to Rex Nutting.
- Macro-economics: According to the most-cited anti-immigration economist, Harvard Professor George Borjas, there is a small but positive contribution to the economy as a whole. Even the George W Bush Institute published in the spring, a comprehensive report stating that the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs. Speaking to the macro-economic benefits, they state: “When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “immigration surplus,” and while a small share of additional GDP accrues to natives — typically 0.2 to 0.4 percent — it still amounts to $36 to $72 billion per year.”
- Science/Tech: Immigrants are essential to critical sectors of the economy, including science, medicine and technology. Again, according to the George W Bush Institute, Forty-four percent of medical scientists are foreign born, for example, as are 42 percent of computer software developers. Immigrant workers are also overrepresented among college professors, engineers, mathematicians, nurses, doctors and dentists, to name a few. Research cited by the Harvard Business School indicates that although many tech firms do tend to favor employing younger workers, older native workers are not losing their jobs as a direct result of the immigrants being hired. In fact, hiring young skilled immigrants raised the overall employment of skilled workers in the firm. In a nutshell: we need these people!
- Safety: For those who worry about safety and security more than economics, there are plenty of statistics proving that as a group, immigrants are actually much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
- Refugees: According to national security experts, refugees from war torn places, like Syria, are not a security threat. Treating them as such has turned what should be a humanitarian issue into a politicized policy of fear-mongering.
- Terrorism: If you’re worried about personal safety, check out the CDC website for actual statistics. Unintentional poisonings, traffic accidents and suicide deaths are the leading causes of death (not health-related). You’re actually more likely to be killed by deer, cows, dogs or even falling out of bed – than by terrorists. Back to the CDC, you are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. That means that all those Christmas cookies and egg nog are far more dangerous than the Syrian Refugees.
- Costs: We also can’t ignore the real cost of deporting millions of migrants; estimates range from $400-600 billion, take 20 years to implement, shave $1.6 trillion off GDP and lower economic growth by 5.7%.
Up Close and Personal
Whether you look at the big picture or the individual stories, the take-away is the same: we benefit from welcoming outsiders into our great nation. Here’s one of those individual stories, published in Time magazine, a couple
days ago by Liz Dong. In her story, titled, I’m an Undocumented Immigrant and an Evangelical Christian, she shares how she and her mother came legally, but their attorney forget to attach her papers to her mother’s visa renewal forms – resulting her joining the ranks of the undocumented. Liz’s story is telling on a few levels.
- First, she is Chinese. Trump may rant about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, but according to an article in the Atlantic, migrants from Asia outpace Mexicans in terms of undocumented growth. Chinese, South Koreans, and Indians among the fastest-growing segments of undocumented immigrants. My husband is ethnically Chinese, so the last thing I’d want to do is shift the animosity towards Asia. The point is that it’s hard to fix a problem when you don’t even define it properly. And, the problem is definitely not Mexico sending its criminals and rapists, or Hispanics at large. Nobody disputes the need for immigration reform, but let’s not build policies based on xenophobia.
- Second, I know from personal experience how challenging the immigration process can be, going through it myself, when my husband applied for his green card. I honestly don’t know how we could have done it, without the help of attorneys. And, we don’t even have the added challenge of having English as our second language.
- Third, in many instances, the children of migrants (legal or not) do not even realize they are undocumented until years later. Many will question why someone like Liz doesn’t just go through the visa process, upon realizing she’s undocumented. The reason is that you have to immediately leave the country and then wait 10+ years before you can return (the backlog of cases for immigration courts is in the hundreds of thousands, with wait times of several years to get a hearing). For children who grew up in the US and know no other home, this is insane! And, that’s why Obama signed DACA (after Congress failed to act, even though there was bipartisan support).
- Last point, folks who trusted our government and surrendered their details, should not now have to live in fear of deportation. It is our civic and moral duty to stand up for the 750,000 who jumped at the first chance they had to come out of the shadows and secure the proper permits to work. Immigration has many facets, but this one should be a no brainer-for Christians.
Folks, from a patriotic standpoint, we would not be the country we are today, leader of the free world, without foreigners – we are a nation of migrants. From a faith standpoint, we would not be trimming our trees and preparing for Christmas today, without migrants. Jesus was himself a refugee, who was helped by foreigners. No matter what angle you look at the Christmas story, you see foreigners playing a key part in the narrative. And, as American Christians – we should not turn a blind eye.
What you can do
Mindset: Abby Odio, of Menlo Church, shared a beautiful Quaker definition to the word repentance: to think differently after being with. Maybe this Christmas, there are some things we can think differently about, after seeing either old stories or present realities with fresh eyes. Is it possible you’ve let the messy, scandalous version of the Christmas story be usurped by a cleaned-up, Norman Rockwell version?
There are also some really practical steps for ways we can help those among us, especially the undocumented, who are entering this holiday season with a lot of fear.
Risk: The shepherds had to leave their sheep to go see Jesus. The magi said ‘no’ to Herod in order to say yes to Jesus. The shepherds could have lots their flocks. The magi could have lost their lives. We can’t claim to say YES to God but then a polite no to the people and places He calls us to love. (Thanks, again, to Abby for these ideas.) Are you willing to put some skin in the game? Jesus never promised us safe or easy. In Luke, he says: Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. It wasn’t meant to be cliche – it was meant to be made real in us.
Gifts: Your holiday shopping and gifts can this year be a gift to refugees abroad. Check out Sisterhood Soaps. Their gorgeous soaps, candles and crafts are handmade by refugee women, and help to fund job creation efforts in Iraq.
Just Ask: These last few weeks, I’ve started stepping outside of my comfort zone. Whether it’s nannies, cleaning ladies, construction workers or landscapers, I’ve decided to move beyond pleasantries and just ask the simple questions: how are recent events impacting you and how can I help? I want to hear their stories. I want to learn. So far, the consistent response is, ‘we’re afraid’…regardless of whether they’re documented or not. It seems so inadequate, but I tell them that if there’s anything I can do to help – they should just let me know. And, in an effort to bring substance to my words, I’ve begun looking for resources I can pass to them. Here’s an example of an information sheet anyone can print and share (post-election-community-info-sheet-nov-2016-final.
Prayer: Prayer is a double-edged sword. To be clear, I believe strongly in the power of prayer. But, I almost hesitate to list it because so often we say a half-hearted prayer and then move-on….even for me, it’s often a one-way conversation with God. If we way, let’s commit to the tw0-way….let’s promise to listen to God’s answer back.
Make a statement: Wear the pin. Yes, it’s imperfect and incomplete. But, it’s a start! I wear it each day, as a reminder to be a safe person for someone else.
Connection: There are many evangelicals who have actually been very vocal in their support of Syrian refugees. Consider connecting with groups like, World Relief, who are actively working to engage churches and evangelical communities to come alongside refugees with vital services ranging from legal help to housing or education and employment. Another great resource/organization is Red Letter Christians, whose goal is to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings, tackling issues like racism, poverty, justice, immigration and more. My prayer is that when folks think of Christians, they think of a people who stand for love, justice, grace, mercy, compassion…..folks who come alongside the broken and hurting. Let’s start connecting the dots and building bridges with likeminded churches, organizations, business leaders, stay-at-home moms, community leaders…you name it, let’s rally.
Christmas is for the broken, the rejected, the powerless, and, yes….the outsider. Christmas, in every way, says that there’s no distance too far, sin so egregious, place so dark, that Heaven can’t find you. Are we more holy than Him, that we can claim some offense that He’s somehow immune to? It’s fine if he wants to shower the world with his love, grace and mercy….but, we’ll take a pass. Should not the people of God mirror His love for the world?
I remember learning that the Biblical definition of humility has more to do with how we see the world, than it is some kind of self-loathing or ‘woe is me’ posture. In the same vane, I don’t think during the holiday season, God is as offended by our tinsel and lights, Santa’s and silly songs, as He is our ease in forgetting what Christmas is really about and who it is really for. Put another way: I’m not suggesting that loving God means walking away from things we love (though there’s often sacrifice) – it’s about walking towards others; we are to share the love and joy of Christ, in ways that are meaningful and life-changing.
There’s this beautiful song about the name of Jesus, and in it there’s the line:
You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
If Heaven wants each of us so desperately, that the son of God would come down to our broken world, why can’t we find it in our hearts to love one another, regardless of where they were born? And, as the people of God, aren’t we now called to bring heaven to earth, each and every day of our lives?
The most famous cup ever mentioned in the New Testament, is the cup Jesus raised on the night of the Last Supper. Jesus set the tone for that evening, by washing the feet of his disciples. Then, he raised a glass and broke bread, telling those at the table that this was his body and his blood. I don’t think anyone was fretting over what was or was not on the cup. What mattered was something much deeper…something so much more profound. He not only commanded them to love one another, He gave them the most perfect picture of the love we are called to emulate. Maybe, this Christmas, we can celebrate by loving others beyond our normal circles or typical traditions. Maybe, this Christmas, we can take Christmas to the corners of the world that most desperately need His love, joy and peace.