An informer passes on a message to an Israeli man: the local authorities have heard that he and his family have been connected with subversive activity. Father, mother and their toddler son have to leave all that they know – immediately. Heading over the Egyptian border, they are at the mercy of strangers. Later, they hear that due to their actions all the boys under three from their area have been murdered without mercy; a group-sanctioned mass killing of an entire generation. How do they go about their lives with that kind of guilt? How do they face the trauma of their fellow parents and friends when life is finally stable enough for them to return?
As I consider the Nativity story again this season, I am struck by the fact that the sanitised, Western-centric Christmas story bears little resemblance to this tale of displacement and infanticide. I am also struck with how modern, or perhaps, how sadly universal this story of the depths of the human condition is. When he fled for Egypt with his family, the boy Jesus was most likely a similar age to Syrian toddler Alyan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found washed up on a Turkish beach just a few months back. While photos of Alyan's dead body horrified the world and symbolised the scale of suffering undertaken by those fleeing the Syrian conflict, his image is fast fading from our consciousness.
In June the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calculated that approximately 60 million people were displaced last year, predominately as a result of conflict. This is the greatest displacement of people from war and conflict since the Second World War and globally represents one in every 122 people. Half of these are children. Two-thirds have been in exile for five years or longer; four-fifths are living in the developing world, in nations which can least afford to house them.
Amidst all the tinsel, it is easy to forget that the Christmas story is about a refugee God fleeing conflict. How can we celebrate this story but forget our own very real refugee crisis which continues right now?
While I welcome the New Zealand government's decision to take in 600 refugees over the next three years in addition to our annual refugee quota of 750 people, against this backdrop of such staggering displacement, isn't there more that we can do?
Prior to this year, New Zealand's annual refugee quota had not been increased since 1987 and we lag – per head of population – many developed countries, include Australia, in terms of the number of refugees we welcome each year. Germany expects to take in 800,000 Syrian refugees this year alone. Against this, isn't our contribution slightly embarrassing?
Following the Paris attacks, an increase in fear and suspicion against refugee populations has emerged and this is making it more difficult for our leaders to make courageous decisions. Although the perceived terrorist threat to New Zealand may be small, we all live in fear of one sort or another. Maybe it's our sense of economic or social security, maybe a fear of competition for employment; maybe just simply a fear of the 'other'.
This morning I read the story of a group of Muslim and Christian Kenyans travelling together by bus who were ambushed by al-Shabab gunmen. Ordered to divide so that the Christian population could be shot, the Muslim travellers insisted that the gunmen either 'kill them together or leave them
alone'. Faced with this solidarity, the attackers stood down. In reading their story, the words of Australian poet Michael Leunig come to mind:
There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear.
As New Zealanders, how do we want to respond to the refugee crisis this Christmas? With love or fear?
In late February we will likely welcome the first of the Syrian migrants to Wellington and in March the government will review our annual refugee quota. This is a fresh opportunity to look at how we as a country provide sanctuary and protection for the most vulnerable of our world. As innkeepers, can we adopt the attitude that there is always room for more? As wise men and women, can we offer the gifts which will support these families? What is our gold, frankincense and myrrh?
Ultimately, the Gospel story is about the gift of new beginnings: offering new hope and new chances to those in need. This Christmas, let's consider as a country who we can make room for.
Right Reverend Justin Duckworth is Anglican Bishop of Wellington. He will speak on this theme at a 10.30pm service on Christmas Eve at Wellington's Cathedral of St Paul. All are welcome.