Everything, from the universe on down, starts with words. That’s embedded in Christian theology, from the opening poetry of Genesis to John’s riff on that poem in his gospel. Words are important. Words can bring things into being. Sometimes these things are dangerous.
Take migration, for instance. The words we use around migrants or refugees have power. If we use words like “Crisis” or “Invasion” or “Hordes”, then that reprograms how we look at our fellow human beings. Language rewrites perceptions, perceptions drive actions. A few years ago, a UK tabloid shockjock wrote of sending in gunboats to deal with Syrian refugees crossing the English Channel; this week the Home Secretary ordered gunboats to deal with Syrian refugees crossing the English Channel. Words create reality and people cheer as other people drown. Words can rob humans of their humanity, words can demonize. But when we demonize, the humanity we reject is our own, and people are not demons.
The Holy Family weren’t demons, it would be the worst of blasphemies to suggest they were, and yet they fled their homeland to seek refuge elsewhere, they head for the border to escape death squads and politics. Three years ago in Montreal, images appeared on bus shelters that remind us that Jesus was a refugee. The Story of a Refugee Family from the Middle East, by street artist Miss Me, is dynamic, Mary clearly Middle-Eastern and heading towards the viewer. It forces a question: what are you going to do? Mary looks tired and desperate, she’s carrying a new-born, and while you’ve been sold a million different stories about refugees and migrants, here’s a family coming towards you, about to look you in the eye. What are you going to do?
We need to be confronted by this, need to be reminded of the reality of the situation. Not a Creature was Stirring, by Ben Quilty and Mirra Whale, is a pseudo-Christmas tree displayed in St. Paul’s Melbourne in 2016. From a distance is looks abstract, colourful but blocky. As you get closer, you realise that this tree is made out of lifejackets, left on European beaches by refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. It’s a vivid reminder that the Christmas narrative ends with a story of escape, and while we remember that Jesus made it to Egypt, we also remember Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. That resonates down through the ages; some of those who used those lifejackets made it. Others didn’t. Very few would take such a risk if they had any other choice.
This is a story that echoes down through the ages. Jews fled the Nazis. Hutus fled the Tutsis. Huguenots fled Catholics. Humanity’s story is one of migration; the dark secret behind a platitude like that is that often those migrations were forced by others, people with more power, more propaganda, more swords, more guns. The Flight to Egypt, by Father John Battista Giuliani, recasts the Holy Family as Native America. This immediately brings to mind a host of associations; the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee… Refugee stories are stories from the margins, stories told by the oppressed and vulnerable. Jesus places himself within those stories, not because he makes them worthy of notice but because it draws attention to those who may otherwise have been ignored. Through this, maybe we need to listen out for the words of refugees from across history, from throughout the world; the Flight to Egypt takes the Incarnation and makes it a story of rehumanization.
Again, that re-humanization shouldn’t be aimed at refugees, it should be aimed at us, the people absorbing the newstype and the political strategies. Refugees: La Sagrada Familia, by Kelly Latimore, reimagines the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt as a contemporary migration; put aside the halos and this could be a family from South America or Syria. Again, we’re forced to confront our own attitudes and prejudices and apathy. With the Flight to Egypt being part of the wider narrative around Epiphany, maybe the story should serve as a revelation to us; not just of Jesus but our own flaws, our own blindspots, our own ignorance and prejudice. Many things are revealed by the stories we tell ourselves; sometimes they aren’t pretty.
I’ll close with RefuJesus, by David Hayward, which originally inspired this post. This is a departure from the other images; it presents Jesus as an adult, a post-Easter Jesus who bears the scars of his crucifixion under bandaged hands, surrounded by a halo of barbed wire that merges into his crown of thorns. He’s weeping, either for a friend he’s lost or for the sins of his people. He looks us in the eye, directly – we can’t avoid his gaze, can’t avoid his scars, can’t avoid the pitiful bundle of belongings he carries. This is a Messiah who stands in solidarity with the poor, the marginalised, the dispossessed, and as he stands before us, he demands to know if we will stand with him, or if we will close our gates. His words created reality. Now we see if they recreate us.