A cartoon image of Joseph and Mary outside a refugee support centre.

Ever got fed up with the usual schmaltz on your Christmas cards?

Ever thought about the fact that the Christmas story is also a refugee story?

Its tough to celebrate one refugee refugee story while ignoring thousands of others though, isn’t it.

As part of my Alternative Advent project for this year I’ve commissioned some ‘alternative’ Christmas card images, to remind us of the blood and guts in the original story and to raise some cash for refugee charities.

So if you send Christmas cards, get your hands on these limited edition prints of original artworks that I’ve made into very special Christmas cards, each of which reflects something of the real Christmas story.

Artwork is courtesy of Dean Rankine (Simpsons comics), Steve Beckett (The Beano), Stu McLellan (book illustrator) and Siku (The Manga Bible), and profits will be handed over to Safe Passage, a charity which works with refugee children.

There are about 80 million “displaced people” around the world today, and the United Nations say that more than half of all the world’s refugees are children. That’s a huge number however you choose to look at it, it works out around one percent of the entire world population.

Christmas is a refugee story, and Jesus was a refugee. His family fled when they knew that soldiers were on their way to kill him, it’s an experience that too many (any is too many, but in this case we’re talking millions) children and their families continue to have.

Meadow flowers (Creative Commons) GospelMessage on Morguefile.com

It took some time for the Christian canon to be agreed, but eventually it was – sort of. Except that it wasn’t. Different branches of Christianity ended up with slightly diverging sets of texts, but there were some key similarities – in particular there were the gospels.

Four short books, each of them on the same subject, each with the same (or very similar) set of characters, and crucially with the same central story arc. There’s really only one problem with these four texts – they’re all different.

The gospels somehow reflect the wider Bible in microcosm, written for different audiences, from different perspectives at different times and in different places – of course they were going to diverge. Of course. Duh.

This is the pattern of Christianity, indeed its the pattern of the Abrahamic religions more generally, they are multiplicitous. They are multivocal. These are people of story – people caught up in something that draws them towards a greater goal. They don’t need to agree on the details, they are travellers on the same road.

When I started to think about the “Liturgy in a Dangerous Time” project, I knew that if we did it, it would have to represent that truth somehow. In a very small and very imperfect way, it would need to acknowledge that there are various points of view, even in one small corner of Christianity. So it was important straightaway to try and ensure that a range of voices were included, not to represent different ‘sections’ of the church as if one person could hope to speak for thousands of others, but to be honest about the fact that we don’t all agree on everything, and no more should we. As a former chief Rabbi once put it, “in heaven there is truth, on earth there are truths.”

This can make it difficult to curate, you have to avoid placing jarring perspectives too closely without thinking carefully about them, and it remains important to not try to qualify or edit people’s contributions, let them stand, so that people can hear them from their perspectives.

After all, the gospel writers didn’t agree on everything, there are clear differences (from my perspective at least) in the way that they understood Jesus, how they wrote about him, and what they expected to happen next. And we, the readers, some 2000+ years later don’t agree on how they saw things, after all, it would be extraordinary if we all agreed on much beyond the absolute basics. And lets be honest, we don’t even agree on them.

While the lockdown has been on, here in the UK, some groups have begun to argue with each other about their sacred beliefs, is a Eucharist performed at a kitchen table valid? Should priests be going into church to pray? Is the church in retreat, or is it entering a new era? Of course people have different views about this, people disagree about everything – everything! Important things and unimportant things. We even disagree on whether things are important or not.

The point is not to try and achieve a homogenous set of views, as if we will all arrive at a place of consensus on these issues given time (we can’t even agree on what should or shouldn’t be in the Bible, never mind what the words mean), rather we should accept that our views are plural, and in so doing, celebrate it. We are one people, but people is plural. We have many voices, we have many perspectives, this is to be welcomed. Many of the greatest evils in history have been accomplished because of a wish to remove plurality, to get rid of difference, and to enforce a single point of view.

By engaging positively with our plurality* we begin to recognise it’s beauty, we come to see that we can see much more if we look at things from a variety of perspectives. As long as it continues, Liturgy in a Dangerous Time will try to include various perspectives and approaches, from conservative to progressive, from protestant to catholic, from kitchen table to high altar. Because that’s who we are, and that’s what we’re like.

*I’m not unaware of the fact that the very pluralism of this approach is itself indicative of a particular stance, but at least it’s a generous and accepting stance, one that welcomes the wisdom and insight of others, and gently asks them to recognise that others have important things to say too.

Created with GIMP

Image result for #meetooA recent article doing the rounds concerning the sexualised nature of the the violence Jesus experienced at his crucifixion, the controversy surrounding the gender identity of the first Gentile convert to Christianity, and a brief reminder of the possible implications of Mark 14:51, have reminded me of one of the most obvious pointers towards progressive sexual politics in the Gospels. The #MeToo women in Jesus’ genealogy.

Generally speaking ancient genealogies don’t include women, they are a tool of patriarchy. But something interesting occurs in the genealogy of Jesus found in the New Testament book of Matthew.

There are five women in “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Of these, four were definitely what we might now consider to have been sexually exploited.

Tamar, was a widow in a very precarious social and economic condition (no status or inheritance and in danger of remaining unmarried) and at the mercy of her father in law, Judah. The patriarch was reluctant to let his third son Shelah marry his twice widowed daughter in law (She’d already been done out of conception by her second husband the now infamous ‘Onan’). Without any other obvious means of survival, Tamar tricks her father in law into impregnating her by posing as a prostitute.  The self-righteous Judah at first condemns Tamar, but when he realises that he is publicly on the hook for her condition relents and acknowledges his paternity. One might say that Tamar is hardly a ‘victim’, she was clever enough to trap Judah after all, but she lived at a time when women were little more than property, what choice did she really have? (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38)

Rahab “the harlot,” who assisted with Joshua’s invasion of the promised-land. Rahab was a ‘genuine’ prostitute, a foreigner living in Jericho, a woman who used what little she had to try and get by. I don’t imagine she grew up looking forward to a life of selling sexual services in order to survive, but she had a family to care for, and she was certainly keen to escape from Jericho when she eventually got the chance. Needless to say the male Hebrew spies took advantage of her ‘hospitality’ when visiting the city. (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2)

Then there’s Ruth, another gentile and another widow, who was desperate to find a way to survive. Her route to survival was to effectively seduce her future husband (Rahab’s son), Boaz. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and eventually proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her, but not before uttering some tell tale phrases: “Stay here for the night” and “No one must know…” (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3).

Then there’s the woman who is not even named in her own right: “Uriah’s Wife” aka Bathsheba, the victim of sexual assault or coercion by King David who then arranged for the death of her husband. There’s a weirdly distorted view of the power dynamic in the day to day reading of this story, poor old King David, just lost control of himself when he ‘saw’ her bathing on another roof,and then ‘they committed adultery’, as if she were complicit. Yeah right. In reality the most powerful man in the country saw a woman having a bath, summoned her to his house, had sex with her and got her pregnant, and then killed her husband. Then we victim blamed.  (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).

The final woman in Jesus’ genealogy is his mother Mary, a young woman, probably only a girl by our standards who was betrothed (not yet married) when she found herself pregnant. What message we are supposed to extract from her inclusion in this #MeToo list, one can only speculate on. For whatever reason, Jesus often found himself referred to as ‘Mary’s son’ – in a patriarchal society there’s something odd about that…

 

Starting on Easter Monday (2nd April 2018) my new ‘Email Meditations’ series. Weekdays only, maximum of three paragraphs each day, on some sort of thought provoking topic. Sign up here (it’s free) if you fancy coming on the journey with me.