It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best way to survive Christmas gatherings is to dedicate the event to feasting and studiously avoiding any talk of politics, which is likely to spark a domestic blaze between famously liberal Aunty Jane and once-committed-leftwinger-now-increasingly-conservative Carrie.
And after 2013’s very public debates around women’s reproductive autonomy as well as the continuing deadlock over refugee policy, there’s plenty of fuel to ignite the tempers of these characters (or your family’s version of them) rather than promoting festive cheer. But perhaps both conservatives and progressives have more in common than they think because, in a way, for them to sustain their positions on these issues requires a curious case of doublethink that treasures life at the same time as trampling upon it.
It’s a cliche that those on the conservative side of politics tend to care for life in the womb but are considerably less compassionate when it comes to life outside it. So conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, for one, can rail against “pro-abortion savages” and yet totally ignore the strife and persecution asylum seekers face in their own countries, preferring instead to link refugees with crime and claim that they want to sponge off Australia’s “welfare paradise.” That’s why he argues it is crucial for the Australian border to be maintained: to prevent the arrival of “thousands of uninvited migrants … [coming] to help themselves to what others have created.”
Those at the progressive end of the political spectrum are the reverse: passionate about life outside the womb but less so for life within it. Small “l” liberals tend to be unwavering in their support of justice, equity and the welfare of minorities, which is why they raise their voices on behalf of refugees as well as champion women’s reproductive choices in the first place. Concern for the welfare of women and the enormous difficulties they face when confronted with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies has led many progressives to speak up against the passage of Zoe’s Law II in the NSW Lower House. Clementine Ford and Ruby Hamad, for example, are wary that the bill, which grants foetal personhood from 20 weeks, could see the rights of the unborn eventually trump those of pregnant women. As Ford put it several years ago: “I am in favour of women having babies when and if they choose them.”
There’s much about Ford’s position that appeals – what woman doesn’t want control over her own life and body? – but her pro-choice logic can’t help but sound eerily similar to Tony Abbott’s declaration in August that “this is our country and we determine who comes here.” Could it be, then, that both conservatives and progressives are both welcoming and unwelcoming in equal measure? That conservatives welcome the unborn while progressives favour the undocumented?
This time of year, like no other, offers an opportunity to meditate on the possibility that blessing might arrive from unexpected quarters.
Indeed, the plight of refugees and aborted children, or those at risk of abortion, is more comparable than you might expect. Obviously, it’s not a seamless link: it’d be absurd to claim that foetuses are fleeing persecution, and no one should take seriously any claim that infantilises asylum seekers. But despite their considerable differences, both groups find themselves cut adrift from notions of personhood that might otherwise guarantee their protection. The foetus is considered a cluster of cells, the asylum seeker is similarly dehumanised by being locked up indefinitely and denied their ability to flourish.
Neither group, moreover, can count on the unconditional welcome of others, since the welcome they require is likely to be very costly in terms of resources, time, and care. Asylum seekers and unborn children also demand of us more than can be measured in economic terms: both require us – whether as potential parents or host nations – to imagine ourselves differently, to be willing to be transformed through our interactions with others.
This is why pervasive (perhaps understandable) fear underwrites both varieties of unwanted people: because the unwelcome other requires of us more than we are willing to give. Such fear might be justified but this time of year, like no other, offers an opportunity to meditate on the possibility that blessing might arrive from unexpected quarters – whether from those who’ve come across the seas or from those who are yet to be born.
The Christmas nativity story is often regarded sentimentally, but it shines a light onto the controversies we’ve witnessed this year, for Jesus is both unplanned baby and refugee on the run. Mary gives birth in a manger because she and Joseph have nowhere else to go. In Matthew’s account of events, the young parents must flee to Egypt with baby Jesus in tow, since Herod will tolerate no rivals to his throne and has ordered the death of boys born at the time of Christ. It seems tragicomic that such is the parlous state of the welcome we extend to others that, according to the story, when God visits us in the form of Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, there’s no room for him to be born in our midst and his parents are soon on the run to preserve his life.
Given the mess we’ve made of the world, you’d expect that when God draws near to humankind, he would come with vengeance on his mind. But this most surprising, uninvited guest comes in peace. Though made unwelcome, he seeks to welcome us all indiscriminately. He invites us to experience “life to the full” (John 10:10) – and not in a way that draws distinctions as to which life is worth preserving.
Maybe if all can recognise the profound truth of this story, then right-wingers and lefties alike can welcome those they presently reject and, at least round the Christmas table, lay down their arms long enough to experience a Christmas blessing of “peace on earth and goodwill towards humankind.”
Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.