On Christmas, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg re-opened the debate about Jesus’ refugee status by posting a Christmas tweet to his followers, that read “today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee.”
A seemingly benign statement but in these politicized times, nothing is ever completely benign. The subject of immigration being what it is in the United States, many on Twitter spent their Christmas counter-posting about Buttigieg’s assessment of Jesus’ refugee status.
Conservative blogger Matt Walsh said
We’ve covered all this before here at RELEVANT before, but it’s worth bringing up a few points here for clarity.
To start with, our modern immigration system simply isn’t comparable to the one in ancient Rome. Jesus was born during a particularly tumultuous time in history, as Caesar Augustus’ vast reach was spreading at a rapid pace as the nation transformed from a republic into an empire. Much of the entire global population’s citizenship status was in flux. Judea was under the jurisdiction of Herod the Great, who was known as a “client king” of Caesar — powerful but kept in check by higher-ups.
So when Caesar instructed everyone to head back to their hometown for a nationwide census, Mary and Joseph were following orders. In that sense, Walsh is correct that Jesus wasn’t born in a country his parents weren’t legally allowed to be, although it’s worth noting that he is incorrect about Joseph’s financial status. We know from Luke 2:22-24 that Mary and Joseph brought doves to the temple instead of the customary lamb, which is a provision Jewish law made for poor families who couldn’t afford a sheep. Jesus was, for at least part of his life, a member of a poor family.
When most people talk about Jesus being a refugee, they’re not talking about Bethelem but the family’s flight to Egypt. Some time after his birth, Herod got panicky about rumors of a new king and sent soldiers to kill all the newborns in Bethlehem. An angel warned Joseph and Mary to hightail it to Egypt where they could safely lay low. Egypt made for an ideal hiding place, connected to Judea via a well-traveled and relatively safe trade route known as the Via Maris.
The argument for Mary and Joseph’s refugee status here is about as strong as it could be under the circumstances. It’s true that Egypt had recently come under Roman rule, so while Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s jurisdiction they were still in the same Roman empire, but since most of the known world was part of the Roman empire, that’s a distinction without much of a difference. Mary and Joseph were displaced by a violent government and sought refuge in a foreign land. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Plus, as Father James Martin notes, “refugee” is in the actual biblical text. The angel’s word for “flee” in Matthew 2:13 is pheuge, from where we get our modern “refugee”.
But this sort of hair-splitting gets a little in the weeds. The writers of Matthew and Luke go out of their way again and again to highlight just how lonely and alienating the birth of Jesus was. While Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, there’s strangely no reference to any family members present for the birth. We don’t know why Joseph left his hometown, but he may have faced economic hardship or perhaps his family didn’t want to be involved with the birth of a baby they would have considered to be conceived out of wedlock. In any case, when Jesus came, it was as a stranger.
Jesus Himself would hammer this point home in Matthew 25: “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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
The Greek word for “stranger” here is xenos, which more accurately means “foreigner.” It’s where we get our modern word “xenophobia.” Jesus made it clear to his disciples that not only was he a stranger, but He was manifested in the hungry, the imprisoned, the homeless and, yes, the refugee. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” He continued — words that should give just about anyone pause who hears them.
The question of Jesus’ refugee status as a baby is an interesting one historically and can lead to a lot of hair-splittings. It’s certainly notable that Jesus chose to enter the world the way that He did, and tells us something important about His mission and ministry.
But it’s at least as important to note that Jesus is still a refugee, per His own words. He is looking for work, saving up money to bring His family over. He is detained at the border, waiting for a lawyer to take up His case. And He is waiting in a refugee camp, hoping that His papers go through. Walsh and Buttigieg’s argument over whether or not Jesus in Judea is only useful insofar as it motivates them — and us — to treat the least of these with compassion today.