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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Jesus Was Not a Refugee

Dec 26, 2017

It has become routine at this time of the year for activists, social justice warriors, religious leftists and others to seek to politicise the Christmas story. Instead of simply rejoicing in the Incarnation and the arrival of the Messiah, many want to tie this in to current political agendas.

And one key way to do this is to make the claim that Jesus was a refugee seeking asylum in another country. For example, Pope Francis has been making this claim for years now, and he just reiterated this spin on things in his Christmas Eve Mass.

As one news report states: “Recalling that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger because ‘there was no place for them in the inn,’ Francis highlighted the biblical story in a present day in which the White House has restricted travel for people from predominantly Muslim countries…”

There are a number of problems with these sorts of claims. Let’s begin with his take on there being ‘no room in the inn’. Not only does this have nothing to do with refugees, it is based on a poor translation of the relevant text. And context is everything. Simply read the first seven verses of Luke 2:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Note that Mary and Joseph were already in Bethlehem for a while. And newer translations (in this case, the NIV) translate the Greek term in question more accurately as “guest room”. The same word, kataluma, is used in Luke 22:11: “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”

So, appealing to where Jesus was born has nothing to do with the modern refugee and immigration debates. If you do need a passage, then Matthew 2:13-16 is what you might use. This tells us about how Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to avoid the killing of infants by Herod the Great.

It is clear that they did not seek asylum in another country (and the place he came from and the place he went to were both part of the same Roman Empire), and this was just a temporary situation until the crisis was averted. We must also bear in mind just what the actual definition of a refugee is.

Consider the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. There it says the term “refugee” applies to any person who

owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

A major part of this definition is the idea that the refugee is “unable” or “unwilling” to return to the country of origin. One simply has to read the rest of Matthew 2 to see that Jesus did not qualify as a refugee since he voluntarily returned to Nazareth: As it says in Matt 2:19-23:

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

So this text also does not make Jesus a refugee, seeking asylum. And he and his family certainly were not illegal immigrants. But modern debates about such matters are just that: modern debates, and we are unwise and unbiblical to seek to drag the birth and infancy narratives of Jesus into this contemporary debate.

Yes, the Bible does speak to the issue of how we treat strangers and aliens and the like. But what it says is a far cry from what most political leftists are now demanding, including open borders, mass amnesty, and so on. That debate cannot here be entered into, but I have written often on this in the past. See especially these two pieces for more on this:

www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/09/christians-and-asylum-seekers/

billmuehlenberg.com/2015/09/08/clear-and-compassionate-thinking-on-refugees/

And we don’t just have the biblical data to carefully consider, but millennia of theological reflection on such matters. Let me look at just one such bit of discussion on this, from Thomas Aquinas. A few years back John Horvat II looked at his thoughts on immigration and related issues. Part of that is worth quoting here:

Saint Thomas: “Man’s relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contained suitable precepts.”
Commentary: In making this affirmation, Saint Thomas affirms that not all immigrants are equal. Every nation has the right to decide which immigrants are beneficial, that is, “peaceful,” to the common good. As a matter of self-defense, the State can reject those criminal elements, traitors, enemies and others who it deems harmful or “hostile” to its citizens.
The second thing he affirms is that the manner of dealing with immigration is determined by law in the cases of both beneficial and “hostile” immigration. The State has the right and duty to apply its law.

Saint Thomas: “For the Jews were offered three opportunities of peaceful relations with foreigners. First, when foreigners passed through their land as travelers. Secondly, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Exodus 22:21): ’Thou shalt not molest a stranger [advenam]’; and again (Exodus 22:9): ’Thou shalt not molest a stranger [peregrino].’”
Commentary: Here Saint Thomas acknowledges the fact that others will want to come to visit or even stay in the land for some time. Such foreigners deserved to be treated with charity, respect and courtesy, which is due to any human of good will. In these cases, the law can and should protect foreigners from being badly treated or molested.

Saint Thomas: “Thirdly, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. With regard to these a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1).”
Commentary: Saint Thomas recognizes that there will be those who will want to stay and become citizens of the lands they visit. However, he sets as the first condition for acceptance a desire to integrate fully into what would today be considered the culture and life of the nation.
A second condition is that the granting of citizenship would not be immediate. The integration process takes time. People need to adapt themselves to the nation. He quotes the philosopher Aristotle as saying this process was once deemed to take two or three generations. Saint Thomas himself does not give a time frame for this integration, but he does admit that it can take a long time.

Yes Christians should show hospitality to strangers, and yes we should look to help those who are being persecuted around the globe. But God has also set up the state to regulate such matters, and that includes protecting borders and being wise and cautious as to who is admitted into a country.

Both biblical aspects must be affirmed: individual and ecclesiastical Christian compassion, and governmental prudence in matters of national security.

www.returntoorder.org/2014/07/saint-thomas-say-immigration-2/

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19 Responses to Jesus Was Not a Refugee

  • Great article, Bill, thank you.

  • Your article is right to the point and spot on Bill. I have a feeling that Francis was politically appointed (by Globalizing Cultural Marxists) and his predecessor covertly warned off to retire.
    His refugee speeches; his open border policies and his attacks on Scripture and the validity of Jesus atoning work all fit neatly into a framework that could be likened to one constructed by George Soros. Francis either lacks a decent Theological training and Scriptural knowledge, or is a heretic bent on destruction of the Church and Christianity with an ulterior motive.

  • Couldn’t agree more.

  • The social justice warriors never are bothered with facts. In the Old Testament fortified (walled) cities were a big plus. Capturing a walled city was a major plus. And Jerusalem was a walled city. Why would the Lord allow the Israelites to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem once it was knocked down? We must also remember that there is extreme vetting to get to our promised land. Their arguments are weak. Merry Christmas to all….

  • That is exactly what my hubby said as we listened to the news and heard the Pope’s refugee snippet last night! I was still trying to equate the logic, slow, but I guess many others just swallowed it …….

  • Jesus and His parents flight into Egypt is quite germane to the issue. Some homeschoolers have reason to imagine they might have a similar experience ahead of them. I don’t deny that there are political implications, in fact every theological perspective has its political implications. I also understand the need to deal with criminals, foreign and domestic, I just want something other than the current right wing (or left wing) solution. Perhaps criminals should be more the focus here
    The flight to Egypt at the word of an angel looks like desperation to me. Yes, they were still within the Roman empire but the question is more about escaping. The duration is a long second and I don’t think Joseph or the angel would have cared very much which state lines Joseph was crossing. Jesus recommends flight to His disciples as a means of dealing with danger in Matt 24:16
    To define refugee status and the morality involved I’d prefer to search the scriptures than UN conventions. I’m not so averse to St Thomas but there is quite bit more material in scripture which you haven’t touched on, except indirectly. St. Thomas may not be the best authority to cite since he has been criticized for looking too much to pagan Greek culture. (As he appeals to the philosopher here). However, St Thomas in your quotes is dealing with the biblical distinction between foreigner and sojourner. He and the commentator also distinguish immigration and citizenship which would be profitable for us to examine in some detail in order arrive at a more biblical position on this issue.
    Your point that I most wanted to disagree with was that “…God has set up the state to regulate such matters…” this would have to include Joseph’s flight to Egypt and his lack of the appropriate papers. Or if not, lets talk about the biblical principles of exceptions and how to handle a difference of opinion with a low-level immigration official in one of those kinds of situations that Jesus’ parents were in the middle of and that we might need to draw on one day not too far off.

  • Thanks Arnold. This piece was of course simply about refuting the notion that Jesus was a refugee. It was not a full-blown treatment on everything Scripture says about immigration, refugees, the alien, etc. I did link to 2 articles above where I do go further on those matters. Indeed, with 32 articles already penned looking at these issues in some detail, I will not repeat all that here! Those interested can take it further by going here:

    billmuehlenberg.com/category/ethics/immigration-asylum-refugees/

  • Thanks Bill. Great article. I get sick of these leftist refugee distortions. A good reasoned refutation.

  • And the distinction between “benevolent” and “hostile” immigrants would have dealt with the issues (which Joshua failed to do) surrounding deception, as typified by the Gibeonites (Joshua chap. 9) who claimed to be from a far country but who were actually Canaanites seeking asylum from the judgement of God – deceptively and rebelliously, or as the NKJV puts it, “craftily”.

  • Great article Bill but I think that Joseph and Mary should be considered as refugees as they were fleeing persecution by the Judean ruler, Herod and were forced to seek refuge from that persecution in Egypt where they were safe. They were temporary refugees there and returned back to Israel when it was safe to do so.

  • Thanks Kevin M. As I said in my piece, the official definitions generally involve the idea of not being able to return. The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees retained this conception, and a newer definition, also by UNHCR, puts it in similar fashion:

    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. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

    If one doesn’t like these official definitions, that is up to them, but making up our own definitions may not be so helpful here. As also stated in the article, Jesus and his family temporarily fled a crisis situation, but freely returned later on. So they certainly were not asylum seekers and the like, seeking a new home and new life elsewhere.

  • Thank you Bill. I do find this topic an important one to understand, particularly for Christians as we experience among our own, distortions and misrepresentations of the truth.

  • A curious fact that certain progressive thinkers want to deny Israel’s sojourn, oppression and enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.

    The Holy Family’s stay on Egypt was, in part, a divine affirmation of the story of Moses and the Exodus. Otherwise, Matthew’s “recycling” of Hosea 11:1’s “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.” to refer to the Lord Jesus in Matthew 2:15 has a very limited reference, devoid of deeper meaning than just a family’s sojourn in Egypt, away from the reach of a murderous tyrant. One gets a strong sense of Isaiah 63:8-10.

  • Hi Bill

    I think the reports you have quoted regarding Pope Francis were ‘wide of the mark’.

    The full text of Pope Francis’ Christmas Eve message can be read at this link:

    On my reading of his message, there is no ‘spin’ evident in the Pope’s words.

    God Bless
    Matt

  • Thanks for the link Matthew. He does of course address the modern refugee problem in his talk, but the New York Times – which I quoted from – was quite amiss to make it appear that he directly was referring to Trump and other contemporary situations in it:

    Recalling that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger because “there was no place for them in the inn,” Francis highlighted the biblical story in a present day in which the White House has restricted travel for people from predominantly Muslim countries, the Myanmar military has carried out ethnic cleansing against a stateless Rohingya minority, and wars, human trafficking and the indifference of wealthy nations have resulted in millions of families languishing in squalid refugee camps.

    See the whole article here: www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/world/europe/pope-francis-christmas-eve-mass-refugees.html

    But leaving aside the rather reckless reporting by the NYT, my main points of the article still stand. And of course Francis has often elsewhere taken on Trump and others over this very issue. Recall last year for example when he castigated Trump for being unbiblical and unChristian to talk about building walls, while conveniently ignoring the rather large wall that surrounds the Vatican. I wrote about that here:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2016/02/20/trump-the-pope-and-walls/

    But thanks again.

  • Thanks Bill

    I suspect that Pope Francis (like anyone trying to spread the Good News) is frequently (and deliberately) misrepresented. For example, in his comments below, if the reader places emphasis on the word ‘only’ – then a fairer sense of his message can be seen:

    “Then, a person who thinks only of building walls, wherever it may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”

    May I also add that, as always, your comments are both thought provoking and timely.

    God Bless
    Matt

  • Thanks Matthew. There is no question that the MSM regularly misrepresents and bears false witness concerning all things religious. But one could argue that the Pope was also bearing false witness in suggesting that Trump – or I, or anyone concerned about porous borders and weak immigration programs – “thinks only of building walls, wherever it may be, and not of building bridges.” Most of us acknowledge that more than just wall building is needed here. So I guess it can cut both ways! But thanks again for your thoughts.

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