At this time of year Christians tell and retell the story of the Nativity: Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, where the infant Jesus is born in a manger. However, most Christmas pageants neglect the part when Joseph is warned in a dream to return to Nazareth by another way in order to hide from Herod’s soldiers. So Joseph takes his vulnerable family, now Middle Eastern refugees, and emigrates to Egypt, where they are welcomed and cared for until it is safe to return.
The similarities between Joseph’s search for safety and the current plight of Syrian refugees makes the story of Christmas timeless and universal. And, sadly, there are modern historical parallels: In July 1938, representatives from 32 nations gathered in France for the Evian Conference to discuss the growing concern over hundreds of thousands of Jewish Germans and Austrians made stateless by the Nazi regime. With the exception of one nation, the small Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic, 31 countries, including the United States, proved unwilling to ease immigration restrictions. Instead they established a commission to study the problem. Four months later, the sound of the shattered glass of Kristallnacht awoke the world to the dire fate awaiting millions across Europe.
The decision made by American leaders at the Evian Conference reflected the fears of many Americans. In a country slowly emerging from the Great Depression, many feared that an influx of refugees would compete with them for jobs and overwhelm the new social programs designed to support the poor. As we watch a new wave of desperate refugees, the possibility that history may repeat itself is a grim and all too possible prospect.
Many in Maine, in the U.S. and across the world live amid increasing uncertainty about their future. Add to that the fear of unspeakable mass shootings and acts of terrorism, and it is not unexpected that people’s hearts turn in fear toward the stranger.
This atmosphere of fear and hatred is compounded when those who put themselves forward to serve as our leaders call for restrictive policies that are deeply at odds with the values of our country and of people of faith. It becomes even more alarming when millions of Americans appear to support such egregious proposals.
Though the fear is real, it can be irrational, misplaced and dangerous. Fearing our fellow Americans, whether immigrants or not, based on their religion or ethnicity doesn’t address terrorism or gun violence, but makes enemies of innocents.
We two hold to two historic religions, Islam and Christianity. Welcoming the stranger is at the core of each of the Abrahamic faiths. Mohammed, when persecuted in Mecca, leaves in search of safety to go to Medina in order to establish the young religion. In Genesis, Pharaoh gives the immigrant Israelite Joseph great responsibility and Joseph, in turn, saves Egypt from a terrible famine. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”
Based on these common values we call on all Mainers, from different faith traditions and across class and political divisions, to refuse to let fear dictate our actions and attitudes toward others and to welcome those who are displaced into our midst. The true character of a people is made known when they show compassion toward those whose voices are not heard.
See the reflection of Jesus in the faces of the young children arriving in Europe and Mary and Joseph in the terrified expressions of the mothers and fathers who are risking everything to protect their children from harm. Acting as neighbors to one another creates the light necessary to battle the darkness we fear. Standing together is the only way to ensure that we never again, as we did in 1938, deny entry to people running for their lives.
Reza Jalali is a Muslim scholar, teacher and writer from Falmouth. He is the author of “Homesick Mosque and Other Stories” and “The Poets and the Assassin,” a play about women in Iran and Islam. The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, which comprises 60 congregations across the state.