In preparation for Christmas, and in light of the world’s greatest refugee crisis in my lifetime, our family has been reading these words as we pray each night for those who flee before violence and seek refuge among foreign people:
Do not do bad things to foreigners living in your country. You must treat them the same as you treat your own citizens. Love them as you love yourselves. Remember, you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God! (Lev 19:33–34; ERV)
We might ask why it is necessary to specify whom the Israelites must love, since v. 18 of the same chapter has already famously commanded, “love your neighbor as yourself.” If the foreigner is my neighbor, the application should be obvious, right? But I suppose vv. 33–34 anticipate our capacity to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”—the question posed to Jesus when he quoted v. 18—in whatever way we please. And remember, to answer the question, Jesus also told a story about a religious other. God had already clarified, though: your neighbor is not just the people you call “us.” You will love, as you love yourself, precisely those who are different—culturally, religiously, or in whatever way you might want to highlight in order to characterize the threat they pose to “our way of life” and justify their marginalization. You will love them.
But why in preparation for Christmas? Because, first, having returned from Peru, we are resisting reintegration into the easy consumerism of American Christmas. Rather than simply refusing to spend money on things we don’t need, we’re looking for a way to celebrate Christmas by giving that money as a gift, because giving and receiving gifts is a part of Christmas the culture still gets right. But how best to give a gift to Jesus, in the spirit of those first gift-givers who honored the arrival of the king? There are undoubtedly many ways, but we have chosen the one that reminds us that God was born not only into human life but the life of a refugee.
This is the second reason that our reading of Leviticus 19:33–34 is preparation for Christmas. We are preparing our hearts to meditate on this bewildering truth: we see Jesus in the terrified, exhausted faces of our Syrian neighbors. We see Mary’s tears and Joseph’s desperation. We see the body of a child washed up on the shore—and the mangled bodies of many others if we dare turn our eyes on the war—and we know indeed which flesh it is that the Word has taken on.
The Savior born to us is born as a refugee. The king we honor flees before violence, into Egypt, and recapitulates the story that Israel was prone to forget. “Remember, you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God!” Incarnate God himself begins his life as a foreigner in Egypt, a refugee from the politicians who wield the sword and enforce a different law. What else could Christmas be about this year?!
I’m sickened by those who call themselves Christians but also align themselves with the interests of politicians whose rhetoric has nothing to do with this story. And in this case, the American church’s problem is exactly that we do not live Israel’s story as our own, and so the word remember is meaningless. “We” were not foreigners in Egypt. The only thing “we” remember is privilege, so we fear it might be put at risk by the intrusion of those who are not “us”—to say nothing of the cost of loving them as we love ourselves. But this is what the Christian calendar is for: we cycle through holidays not to recall the warm memories of Christmases past but to induct ourselves into the memories of the story we take on in Christ. We are the people of the refugee king! We celebrate the arrival of God in the flesh—the flesh of a refugee—a flesh descended from the children of Abraham, who were once foreigners in a hostile land. Who learned to do to others what was not done to them. Who were commanded to remember these lessons. Who are commanded, in Christ, to keep the law of love at whatever cost to themselves. For God so loved the world that he became a refugee.
John Mark Hicks wrote an article yesterday that I would recommend to anyone considering how, this Christmas, to bring together love of the foreigner among us and our celebration of the incarnation. He offers a theologically rooted but practical approach to Christmas budgeting. But more specifically, I pray that many Christians will seek to welcome and bless Syrian refugees in such practical ways. Of all people, we are not those who will turn them away. That is not our story. Let’s pray that they become our neighbors, so that we might keep the law of love with courage and generosity.
If you’re wondering what to do once you’ve redeemed some Christmas funds, look for organizations that already know what they’re doing. In the Los Angeles area, for example, the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service has a co-sponsorship program. (If you’re interested in co-sponsoring with us, let me know!) Such organizations exist throughout the country (but due diligence to make sure they’re legit is essential).