Among the most affecting, timeless stories known to us is that of a heavily pregnant, very young Jewish woman, barely more than a girl, making her way towards a town called Bethlehem, in an area of the Middle East then called Judea. She was accompanied by her husband, Joseph, although, as the story tells us, it was not he but the Holy Spirit who was the father of her child. This may be difficult to comprehend; it was for Joseph also, despite the reassurances of angels. What is far easier to grasp, even from the distance of two thousand years, is that these two courageous young people were far from their home – and urgently in need of shelter.
Approaching an inn – a place of welcome for those who could pay – they were turned away. “There is no room for you here,” they were told. Again, it is not difficult to imagine their distress, perhaps panic. The girl, Mary, was about to give birth. Her vulnerability was extreme. Surely her husband’s concern matched that? Someone, though, was touched by their situation and didn’t simply shrug and turn away. Or loudly justify their harshness. They were shown to a stable and there the young woman gave birth. In Luke 2:7 the description is stark: “She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no space for them in the inn.”
The story of “no place for them” reaches from that time to this. On a daily, hourly basis, women, men, children in great need are told that no one is willing to take them in, even into a stable. “We will decide who comes to this country,” said John Howard on 28 October 2001, “and the circumstances in which they come.” Seventeen years later, Australia remains a nation in which attitudes towards those seeking safety arouse extreme defensiveness and aggression, despite the fact that every day 34,000 people leave everything behind – home, safety, family, future – to escape conflict, persecution, or the violence of extreme poverty. (I’m thinking also of those who don’t or can’t leave, of their utter despair or perhaps their profound and realistic mistrust of the world’s welcome.)
That so many millions are displaced by violence, prejudice, ignorance, torture and torment, and must then face the further violence of rejection, racism, loss of dignity as well as hope, is largely seen as a political problem. It is that. It is a profound political problem. If we had the slightest collective common decency or sense we would be bringing our best minds to the realities that cause people to flee, including the grotesque influence of the weapons industries in which Australia seeks to play an increasing part, and the conflicts they anticipate or justify. We would look at those realities. And we would address them.
Perhaps it is a version of cognitive dissonance at its most extreme that allows leaders of nations, as well as a majority of religious leaders, to simultaneously claim and proclaim a religious identity while also failing – utterly – to address and remedy the injustices that cause conflicts, sustain and profit from them. It is also cognitive dissonance at its most pathological that allows people to believe that human problems and conflicts can best be solved by further violence, including the state-sanctioned slaughter that war is. This way of making sense of life can only be sustained by extreme “otherness”: not seeing those currently identified as “enemies” or merely “the shunned” as like or as one with yourself; instead seeing them as utterly unlike yourself – undeserving even of life, never mind a welcome. Even a stable is too good for them.
This is a global political problem. It is also an intensely intimate human problem. Each individual who flees or is then turned away feels that. Their emotions must surely echo those of Mary and Joseph: exhaustion, panic, fear. It is a global political problem and it is an unavoidable spiritual challenge – not for “nations” only or even for “religions” only, but for every human being who can begin through our species unique gifts of consciousness to grasp that the hour really is near when we need to choose between the ready allures of aggression, conflict and conquest as expressions of power, or a far greater power: a willingness to play our small but essential part in bringing peace to our world. How? Through our individual, self-and-other respecting acts of consideration and thoughtfulness. Also, through our collective acts, our politics if you will, of facing courageously into the causes of injustice and conflict – and meeting them without worsening them.
This is unwisely called and dismissed as “soft politics”. In fact, to choose for life rather than death, to choose for respectful, practical care rather than demonising and shunning, takes exceptional strength. That we are capable of it must be true because consideration of other people and especially “strangers” – expressed as sacred hospitality – is a call central in every one of the world’s faiths. In Isaiah 55 in the Hebrew Bible the words are sublime: “Come, come all of you who thirst. Come to the living waters. Though you have no money, come! Come and have your fill. Have all that sustains you without cost. Listen, listen to my words, and you will be filled with what nourishes you. Listen and come to me.”
Towards the end of his three years of ministry, that child born in a manger two thousand-plus years ago expressed it powerfully: “Slaves are never better than their masters; messengers are never superior to their senders.” As though that radical, inescapable call to egalitarianism was not shocking enough, Jesus also said, “Love one another. In the same way that I have loved you, you are to love one another. Then everyone will recognise you as my disciples – if you love each other.” (John 13: 16, 34-5)
In my own experience of bringing spirituality to my politics and “politics” – social justice activism – to my spirituality, I have also been utterly sustained by learning and practising what it means to offer inner hospitality and welcome to some ideas – and not others. To keep ourselves alive, we need vision, energy, inspiration and immense hope. Denying hope to others is, in my view, deadly. To bring hope to others, in contrast, is also to sustain hope within ourselves. We cannot benefit others without benefitting ourselves. We cannot benefit ourselves without the profound, unceasing nourishment that the quote above from Isaiah speaks of and exemplifies. To face into the world’s sorrows and address them, we also and at least as passionately need to face into and receive from the world’s astonishing beauty, joy, awesomeness and wonder. Hospitality to what nourishes our own souls and the world’s soul? The choices are ours.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is an interfaith (spiritually inclusive) minister, ordained in 2005. Her many books include Seeking the Sacred, Everyday Kindness, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love and The Universal Heart. You can find her on Twitter and also on her public Facebook page.