Starbucks, Syrian Refugees and a Real Christmas Scandal


I love Starbucks. Really. I love the coffee, the atmosphere and the way that my local store prepares my morning drink as soon as they see me walk through the door. Starbucks is just a thing with me. Once, I gave up coffee for Lent and that year Starbucks’ stock went down for the first time ever. I often joke it was because of me but, of course, that’s just not true.

Starbucks has recently been enthralled in a bit of a melodrama about, of all things, its plain red holiday cups. In case you missed it, reportedly some Christians are upset that instead of having cups during the holiday season adorned with drawings of snowflakes, snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees, ornaments and other “symbols” of the holiday season; this year Starbucks went for a plain red cup. Apparently, the omission of these seasonal images has been interpreted by some as yet another assault on Christmas. Strange. Even confusing. You see, snowflakes, snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees and ornaments, have nothing to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. They are not Christian symbols. Even the so-called “Christmas” tree has roots in paganism and the celebration of the winter solstice. A cross, yes. The magi, yes. A picture of wrapped presents could work since they are symbolic for Christians of the greatest gift given to humankind – Jesus Christ.

Starbucks window

The window outside of my local Starbucks

But, images of seasonal or fictitious winter symbols do not make the cut as religious emblems celebrating Jesus’ birth. I suppose I should admit that I didn’t even notice the missing images on the cups. I mean with everything else going on in the world and in my life, the red cup didn’t catch my attention. This could also be because my local Starbucks was decorated with holly on the glass, displays with Christmas coffee blends, Oprah’s teas and lots of other holiday gifts to purchase for family and friends. In other words, the whole uproar doesn’t quite make it to controversial status for me and it’s certainly not a scandal.

However, not long after the red cup upheaval, the Paris attacks happened and then presidential candidates, state and local politicians began to broadcast their intentions to block Syrian refugees from coming to America, or to their city or state. Even some Christian leaders have been advocating to stop Syrian refugees from coming to the land of the free and the home of the brave. You see, presumably, one of the Paris attackers had entered Europe through Greece as a Syrian refugee. Consequently, the House of Representatives passed a bill that put additional screening measures in place in order for Syrian refugees to get approval to come into the U.S. and cities and states across the country are reneging on their promises to provide shelter and safety for the refugees. Sadly, a recent poll shows that we can’t even blame this one just on political maneuvering, although hate speech and fearmongering does have to take part of the blame. More than 50 percent of Americans do not believe Syrian refugees should be allowed in America at this time, in spite of the fact that their screening process –which takes at least two years and usually longer – is lengthier than refugees coming from most other nations.

But, Jesus was a refugee.

mother and child Syria

While the Starbucks cups have nothing to do with the real Christmas story, being a refugee most certainly does. Matthew 2:13-18 recounts how Joseph, having been warned by an angel in a dream, fled to Egypt with Mary and Baby Jesus. Herod was threatened by news of Jesus’ birth and put out a decree to slaughter all male children two years old and younger in order to kill Baby Jesus. In other words, Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled persecution in Bethlehem and all its districts and sought asylum in Egypt. They returned home only after the threat was over, when Herod was dead. Jesus was a refugee  and so was Mary and Joseph.

As a Christian, this gives me pause much more so than the design or lack thereof on Starbucks cups. While I do recognize that Jesus’ refugee status is not a direct parallel to the scenarios playing out in Syria, France, Belgium and other countries; I cannot help but wonder what my position should be as a Christian? How can I allow the fear that a terrorist might slip through a comprehensive and years-long screening process override the call to help those seeking refuge from a war-torn country and extreme, impoverished conditions? This is especially true when as a Christian I believe that God has not given me a spirit of fear but of power, of love and a sound mind. As a Christian, I believe that I am required to welcome the stranger, care for the poor and marginalized, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God.

It seems to me that perhaps this Christmas season, the real scandal that needs our attention has nothing to do with what’s drawn on Starbucks cups but everything to do with what’s been drawn in our hearts and the pictures we’ve painted in our minds.


Maybe when we read the Christmas story as part of the Advent season this year, we might want to visualize Mary and Joseph seeking safety for Jesus in Egypt and think twice about our position on the Syrian refugees who are looking for refuge here. It may not change our minds at first but hopefully, our hearts will change and our actions will soon follow.

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