WASHINGTON, Dec. 30, 2015 — The Christmas season has seen a number of references to Jesus, Joseph and Mary as refugees. Internet memes, actors, political writers and Martin O’Malley have all emphasized the Christian imperative of aiding Syrian refugees by drawing the comparison between them and Jesus.
The Nativity story lends itself to that interpretation. That Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to flee Judea after Jesus’ birth is described in the book of Matthew.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:7-8, NIV).
Herod planned to kill the child, fearing that he would take the throne from Herod’s line.
When (the Magi) had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:13-15).
In less contentious times, the refugee comparison might be apt, but now it is not.
There’s a simple argument—more of a cavil—against calling the Holy Family refugees. “Refugee” is a word with specific legal connotations. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Were any ICE lawyers hanging around Egypt, they could have quickly disposed of the family’s claim to refugee status. Fear of being targeted by criminals, even when the criminal is a king, is not mentioned in the convention, and courts are often cold to that argument. Even if it were, Joseph and his family fled from one province of the Roman Empire to another. They were no more refugees than are those people who flee Detroit for Denver for fear of gang violence.
But that’s a cavil, not a serious argument. The more serious argument is that “refugee” is a political category, not just a legal one, and that dragging Jesus into the discussion trivializes the problems of refugees.
A biblical comparison to the plight of refugees is as compelling as a comparison from the Quran, the Rig Veda, or the Book of Mormon. Those books are all sacred to those who believe in them, but why should anyone else care about their stories and precepts?
Trotting out Jesus in support of Syrian refugees diminishes both Jesus and the refugees. A sacred text and figure are trotted out as political props, often by people who, not believing in their sacred nature, do it cynically either to manipulate or shame believers.
At the same time, it tells us that refugees don’t deserve assistance as human beings, but only because of their passing resemblance to possibly fictional characters in someone else’s scriptures.
Jesus wasn’t a refugee because “refugee” is a political classification and a political totem that didn’t exist in his day. Jesus was no more a refugee for being forced to flee (in his mother’s arms) to Egypt than he was a hippy for wearing sandals and a beard, a Democrat for his communitarian teachings or a Republican for his disdain of worldly governments.
Son of God or imaginary character, Jesus is about much, much more than politics.
What would Jesus say about Middle-Eastern refugees? Well, what would Krishna and Arjuna say, or Mohammed or Allah or Nephi or Joseph Smith? Why should anyone care?
In fact we should care what any of these people or characters would say, but in the moral sphere, not the political. Returning to Matthew:
“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (Matthew 25:35-6).
Every major book of scripture has something to say about how we should treat others, how we should treat strangers. They say nothing about political categories, everything about people—the sons and daughters of God.
It would be a crime against decency and our humanity to do nothing to help the refugees fleeing violence in North Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world. In many cases, our obligation to help goes beyond the obligation of shared humanity; in many cases, our own actions and policies have created the crises that created refugees.
This obligation exists even if some refugees are terrorists. We have obligations to help others, even though some of those we help may be pedophiles, rapists, thieves, parent-abusers and killers. The obligation to help is absolute, not contingent on the worthiness of those we help.
We have no obligation to be stupid about it or to assume that we can bring strangers into our houses with no precautions at all. But whatever form that action takes, we have an obligation to act and to help, to bind up wounds, not simply slam the doors and shout out through the shutters, “go and be clothed and fed and comforted—somewhere else!”