Jesus: The Refugee Redeemer

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When they 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 (NIV)

Christmas is the time where many of us reflect on the birth of Jesus. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of cooking, shopping, gift wrapping, and tree dressing, many of us pause to reflect on the birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Usually, we read how the angel came to Mary and told her how she’d become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how Joseph accepts Mary and her calling in spite of the social stigma attached, how they both travel to Bethlehem but there is no room for them in the inn, and how wise men came and brought gifts of gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

But with our country in the midst of a heated immigration debate, it is paramount that we reread this story. When The Guardian publishes that US immigration officials blocked doctors from giving flu shots to detained kids, leading to even more deaths of migrant children behind bars, it is crucial that we begin to see our favorite nativity characters in their most appropriate light: as immigrants.

Jesus was an Immigrant

Whether migrating to Earth from Heaven, migrating to Bethlehem from Nazareth, or migrating to Egypt from Bethlehem, Jesus was familiar with immigration and the plight of those seeking asylum. In fact, Jesus’ travels to Bethlehem did not take place during a random moment during the first century. According to Luke, “in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1 NIV). So, because Joseph was of the line of David he and his new wife Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to register.

What would have happened if Mary and Joseph migrated to the United States of America today, arriving in time for the 2020 Census?

What if they were undocumented? Do you know how vulnerable they would feel? Thankfully our nation is not including the citizenship question on next year’s census, but many of our undocumented brothers and sisters are still feeling an intense fear and pressure around completing it. If they do complete it, some feel as though they are exposing themselves, turning themselves in to the system. This creates a fear that they will be detained and ripped away from their families. Many fear registering on the Census will cause them to lose the only life they’ve ever known. 

Jesus was an Immigrant

What would have happened if Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus migrated to the United States of America today as undocumented immigrants from violence ridden countries like Honduras or Mexico? According to Matthew, Jesus and his parents were acquainted with the plight of fleeing an administration that is legislating and executing genocide: “[Herod] gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16 NIV). 

Fleeing to protect their newly born son, Joseph and Mary migrated to Egypt. Weathering the heat and sand of the North African plain, Joseph and Mary sought refuge for their young redeemer. Imagine fleeing the death threats of Herod to be met at the Egyptian border with cages. Imagine, Joseph and Mary arrive in Egypt only to be stripped apart, their no more than three-year-old son locked in a cage, and each parent separated. Not knowing the language they struggle getting the help they need to reunite. In fact, Egyptian officials have not even disclosed how long they will be caged or separated from each other. Imagine this is the care your refugee redeemer received fleeing for his life.

The Caged Nativity

One congregation didn’t just imagine it. They brought the images into reality. The Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, California set up their annual nativity scene only this time they placed Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus in separate cages. The controversial images quickly went viral. All over the internet people shared the story about the church that put this “sacred family” behind bars.

Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, the lead pastor of Claremont United Methodist Church, said in a Facebook post, “this is a sacred family to us. We hold this family dear. And part of our vision is that they’re standing in for all the nameless others. For us, this is theological, this is not political. In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world.”

The nativity scene at the Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, Calif. Credit: David Swanson via The New York Times

The Truth About Border Crossing

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus separately locked in cages is shocking and gut wrenching to see. But it is not far from the truth. If they were to arrive at the San Ysidro, San Diego border crossing (the busiest border crossing in the US), after walking and hitching rides 2,000 miles beginning in Mexico, they would most likely be turned away. If not, they would be asked to “go to the back of the line” of over 338,000 people. This is nothing close to what we would ever experience in any line–even your seemingly eternal proverbial after Christmas return line.

According to Gretchen Frazee, the asylum backlog in the US is 338,000 asylum seekers long. To give you some history, in 2014 it was only 40,000. Read that again. Shocking isn’t it? Let’s say USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) processes 20,000 asylum applications a year, the line would still be approximately 17 years long!

For the 2020 fiscal year, which started on October 1, 2019 and runs until September 30, 2020, the current administration has lowered it’s asylum/refugee cap to 18,000–the lowest admitted under the modern-day refugee system. Now, if the number grows to 400,000 in 2020 (which I predict it’ll continue to increase substantially), 18,000 of 400,000 means that 22.22% of refugees will be accepted.

What happens to the other 382,000 individuals who are going through anguish? They are either sent home to die or left on the border to die in makeshift tents. At the time of me writing this, the temperatures at the Juarez, Mexico border are below freezing. In fact, my heart sank as I read an article on Reuters by Julio-Cesar Chavez entitled, “Mexican children shiver in tents at U.S. border as temperature freezes.”

As we celebrate today with family and friends cuddled by crackling fireplaces with hot chocolate and cookies, let’s remember these children.

The truth is, people do not abandon their homes and families for leisurely purposes. They do not risk their lives by crossing oceans, deserts, and violent territories just to pass the time. Our brothers and sisters are leaving their countries and comfort zones seeking to live another day. They are dying in numbers whether due to violence, extreme poverty, untreated illnesses, persecution, extortion, and a myriad of other heinous crimes against humanity.

For thousands of people around the world, and even within our own backyard, migration is a life or death decision. The choice for many is “you die or die trying.” Desperate for safety and sanctuary, refugees struggle to wait a year, five years, a decade, or almost two decades to escape their awful situations. Their circumstances are so dire that many are willing to take extreme measures to dodge the wait. 

The bottom line is that this reality proves that we need comprehensive immigration reform. We need a Christmas miracle of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between to come together and pass legislation that considers the safety and sanctuary of not just ourselves, but others as well. Unfortunately as a consequence of living in a sinful world, we may never see a bipartisan bill like that pass. So, until we are all united in that Holy Land that will not require paper documents let us find creative ways to love the immigrant/refugee/asylum seekers within our churches, our cities and our nation. May we love the refugee as we would our refugee redeemer. 

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