Many people in Europe and North America are worried about the current influx of migrants and refugees. One argument used by some of these people is the fear that the arrival of thousands of migrants from the Middle East will somehow erode “Christian values”. I wonder what Christian values they are talking about. Christmas will soon be upon us, and I stumbled on a couple of interesting incidents in the Bible narrative surrounding Christmas. So bear with me as I outline some of the “Christian values” which I see in the Christmas story.
“We three kings of Orient are ...”
In chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we read of “wise men” who arrived in Bethlehem from a country in the east, bringing gifts for the newly born Jesus, whom they described as the “new-born king of the Jews”. We are not told how many wise men there were, we merely read that they brought three extremely expensive gifts. The traditional interpretation in most churches is that there were three (and only three) of them, and that they were kings. This version is re-enacted in children’s plays in churches and schools throughout the western world. But the real surprise in the story lies elsewhere.
Cultural and religious misfits
Jesus was born as a Jew. The narrative of his birth, life, death and resurrection in the Bible is full of references to prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, which churches refer to as the “Old Testament”. But the wise men from the East who came to pay their respects to the little baby were not familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. They got their information from watching the stars. They were not Jews, nor were they Christians. They were astrologists. Their cultural and religious background was completely different from the normal environment which is presented in the Bible. But in the biblical narrative, these differences are not emphasised at all. The central point of the Christmas story is the baby Jesus. People came from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds to honour him. The narrative in the Bible does not build walls between different world views. It simply points us to Jesus as a person.
However, the visit of the wise men did lead to immense political problems. This was because politicians heard about the “new-born king of the Jews” and felt threatened. The king of Judea at the time, Herod, wanted to solve the problem by killing the new baby. He tried to enlist the wise men as spies to help him. And when this intrigue failed, he massacred dozens of babies and toddlers. But he failed to kill Jesus. The narrative in Matthew’s gospel tells us that his father, Joseph, was forewarned in a dream, and that the family therefore fled to Egypt.
A refugee child in Egypt
So in his formative years Jesus lived for a while as a refugee in Egypt. The Bible does not tell us how long this lasted – perhaps a few months, perhaps two or three years. In our modern world, there are thousands upon thousands of refugee children, many of them from the Middle East. I wonder how it affects our “Christian values” if we remember that Jesus was in exactly the same situation. Today there are many refugees who have fled from Egypt looking for a safe place to live in another country. Some of them are now friends of mine in Germany. But in the days of Jesus, Egypt was apparently a safe country which was able to harbour those who were politically persecuted in other countries.
My personal “Christian values”
As a practising Christian, I consider it important to be friendly and tolerant to everybody, as far as this is possible. I am pleased to live in a country (Germany) in which many people say “Welcome” to refugees. I am pleased to be a member of a church which has open arms for people from other cultures. I am always happy to hear other languages around me, even when I can’t understand what people are saying.
What about the problems?
Of course there are problems. Managing the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, even in an affluent country like Germany, is an enormous task. I do not envy the politicians who have to find practical solutions on a day to day basis. And there will always be friction between people with different political and social opinions.
The important question for me is not whether we all agree in the issues of the day. My central concern is our underlying attitude. Are we willing to be open for everyone? Do we want to build walls between people, or do we want to build bridges? We need to know what we want before we can start arguing about how to achieve it.