Though I will briefly cover the historicity which shows Jesus was a refugee as a child, the greater scope of this article is to ponder a theological-philosophical possibility about Jesus being a refugee in the here and now. Such a consideration should affect how we live and interact with others.
There are two primary uses of the “Jesus was/was not a refugee” argument that I’ve seen written about extensively. And this is not just a current context thing. These arguments have been around for decades.
Two Arguments About the Refugee
The first argument sees Jesus as a refugee.
Due largely to the current political realities of US America, there are those who would highlight the historical documentation — primarily the Christian New Testament — as evidence that all refugees are welcome refugees. The logic goes like this:
- Jesus, who we believe to be God in the flesh, was a refugee at one point;
- therefore all refugees should be treated with no less love by us than we treat Jesus.
The conclusion to this simple argument seems sound. I’m just not sure that this one observation, alone and isolated, provides sufficient force for the desired end result.
The second argument denies Jesus refugee status.
It amazes me that anyone would have to point out the refugee status of the young Jesus. Yet there are some folks I’ve seen who question Jesus’ refugee status. This logic is, like that above, employed to serve the end result desired. The logic goes like this:
- we don’t want anyone telling us we should help all refugees regardless where they come from;
- we’re Christians and we can’t stand other Christians throwing Jesus in our face to bolster their argument;
- Jesus was born in one village, grew up in another, and somewhere along the way travelled to Egypt;
- but that does not make him a refugee like the refugees we have today;
- therefore Jesus was not a refugee.
This much longer and convoluted logic doesn’t seem to have as sound a conclusion.
Yes, Jesus Was a Refugee
Here is a brief summary of what we have in recorded texts.
And keep in mind, the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John often differ greatly with each other over historical details. Also each writer had a different purpose in mind, so they are not each covering all the same elements of the story. Matthew alone tells us about the young Jesus’ journey to Egypt.
After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance.
— Matthew 2.13-16
The particular difficulties of the timeline here contrasted with the timeline in Luke’s story are not my concern for this article. Let’s just simply look at this one recorded section of text, and compare it with a definition of “refugee.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a refugee as “one that flees, especially a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.”
Herod, the tetrarch of Judea, clearly instituted a systematic persecution of all the boys up to two years of age in and around Bethlehem. And Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee this persecution by going all the way into Egypt. Matthew’s account later tells us that they stayed in Egypt at least until sometime after Herod’s son, Archelaus, had become ruler. Extant historical records reveal this equates to Jesus and his family being in Egypt for at least 2 years.
Bottom line: Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were clearly refugees.
So if you are using the argument that Jesus was not a refugee in the same sense as refugees today, please stop. There is only one way to be defined as a refugee, no matter the historical context. Jesus was a refugee.
And Jesus Still Is a Refugee
The larger perspective here is one which may challenge those of us who use Jesus’ refugee status as the best argument for welcoming refugees today.
Maybe it isn’t so much that Jesus was a refugee. Instead we might consider that Jesus still is a refugee.
Here’s what I mean. For those of us who follow Jesus as the resurrected and living Second Person of the Divine Trinity, Jesus is still alive yet not in a physical form in our reality. I personally believe that Jesus is human — perhaps a new kind of human — existing somewhere, just not here. I can’t logically explain that, but there it is.
I consider it highly likely that if Jesus were walking around our planet now the way he did around 2000 years ago, the religious and political powers would find a way to take him out. They did it then, they’d do it again. Some segment of Christian extremism — likely a religious institutional authority — would collude with some governmental power to get Jesus arrested on less-than-truthful charges and make sure he was executed by the state. Or maybe they would bypass all that hi-jinx and just have him covertly assassinated.
Either way, it is likely that Jesus is even now a refugee from his own creation. He is outside the geographical powers that would persecute him if he were present.
That’s a highly tenuous theological claim, I know.
So let’s consider that Jesus is still a refugee in a more philosophical sense.
From a logical perspective, let’s start by assuming what Jesus is recorded as saying and doing is real: that he is alive and his Spirit is available to take up residence in the lives of humanity. I grant this is a highly contested logical claim on which to develop an argument. But for the purposes of this exercise in logic, let us just start there, whether we may all agree with the claim or not.
Let us further assume that when Jesus said those who welcome the stranger also welcome him, he meant it in practical terms.
If so, the refugee is the stranger. And the stranger is Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is still a refugee.
Whether we go by theological or philosophical or logical methods of thought, if we start with the belief that Jesus is in some way still alive, then there is no getting around the mandate to welcome refugees.
And how do we welcome refugees? With food, water, material necessities, and our presence.
And if a religious institution or governmental authority tries to prevent or disrupt our welcome of the stranger, what do we do?
We try to work with the authorities to change their ways.
And if that doesn’t work, what then?
We circumvent and disregard such authorities by welcoming the stranger any way we can.
Remember, the same authorities killed the one-time refugee Jesus before. The same authorities continue to disregard strangers and refugees. These same authorities will eventually oppose us, if we really follow Jesus.
If we allow laws, traditions, and authorities to prevent us from welcoming the stranger with water, food, and presence, we’ll end up on the wrong side of history. Jesus made that clear.
And that may be the most damning of all possible conclusions.