Christ the Refugee and Other Things that Shouldn’t be Controversial

Christ the Refugee and Other Things that Shouldn’t be Controversial December 27, 2019


On the second day of Christmas yesterday, it began as usual: the annual insistence that Jesus couldn’t possibly be a refugee.

Matt Walsh, of course, was in the middle of it, claiming that the Holy Family couldn’t be called refugees because they escaped Bethlehem for Egypt, which was another part of the same empire, therefore they never left the country, technically speaking.

And yes, it’s true. The Holy Family fled from one to another occupied territory owned by Rome. The Holy Family had to leave behind everything, flee for their Son’s life in the night, and rush a border that had always been there. They had to live in a new land where people didn’t speak their language or look like they did; indeed, in a land full of people that had traditionally been their enemies, though a third set of enemies occupied both. They were at the mercy of anybody they came to for refuge and help, be they Egyptian or not– even if they were other Jews living there who might turn them in in order to ingratiate themselves to the Romans. They had to live under the radar and pray that nobody asked too many questions and that they didn’t catch the eye of any local occupying soldiers who might have found out about the situation in Bethlehem and asked questions. Soldiers wouldn’t intervene if the Egyptians decided to take advantage of the foreigners living in their midst, but they might just do something hideous to the Holy Family if they were bored. But we can’t call the Holy Family refugees and certainly not illegal migrants. If we draw parallels, we’re being political.

It reminds me of the annual arguments that Jesus wasn’t poor. People get very insistent on that. We can’t look at the Holy Family as poor because that’s sentimental. “They were really middle class,” people will insist, about a culture in which the middle class did not exist. In the culture of Jesus’s time, there were wealthy people and there was everyone else, and the Holy Family was a member of the latter category. They brought two turtledoves to the temple instead of the well-to-do family’s gift of sheep, as many people have pointed out today. They didn’t have a savings account; they lived day to day. Saint Joseph did manual labor for a living. and if he’d gotten an injury, they would’ve been reduced to beggars and they would’ve starved. When Jesus grew to be a man and embarked on his ministry, He stayed in the houses of anyone who would host Him and complained of having nowhere to lay His head. But we mustn’t think of Him as poor and certainly not homeless. Then you’d be one of those Social Justice Christians, and they’re weird.

It also reminds me of when I brought up that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse and, judging by its prevalence in Roman crucifixions, likely also rape. People were furious and accused me of blasphemy. They were used to Sunday School depictions of a clean, sanitized crucifixion with a small trickle of blood coming from each palm, a clean white loincloth covering His midsection and a nice neat cut on the right side. Mention the fact that historically, a Roman crucifixion involved nakedness, strategically-placed stakes and often a gang rape and you’re blaspheming. Surely, Christ didn’t go through something like that. That’s dirty. Christ is clean. Christ is a respectable person. He would never have gotten involved in anything like that.

Why are we so afraid to see Christ in the worst things that could happen to a person? Why is there always this instinct to gussy Him up and make Him pretty? In Heaven, He is infinitely beautiful, but why do we go to such lengths to reassure ourselves that His earthly life was picturesque and comparable to the more comfortable parts of ours?

He could have chosen to become incarnate in our time, you know. He could have been born, not of Miriam of Nazareth but of some other woman: say, in the Squirrel Hill district of Pittsburgh or the Upper Arlington district of Columbus, a comfortable upper-middle class boy who went to Saint Charles prep school before His public ministry. That was possible. He didn’t do that. He chose to become incarnate in the womb of a woman of an oppressed race in an occupied country where He would have to be carried across a border in defiance of a ruler’s edict in secret to save His life from a genocide. He chose to be working-class in a culture where working-class was the only available opposite of comfortable. He chose to be disreputable. He permitted His beloved creatures to condemn Him to the most traumatic and ugly, painful, dehumanizing death they could imagine, with all that that entailed.

What makes us so eager to deny all that?

Could it be that we’re afraid of that most uncomfortable Gospel passage, “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brethren, you did to Me?”

Are we afraid that he might really mean that– that He is enthroned in whoever we, personally, would identify as the least? That right here, right now: that’s where Christ is, for you?

Are we afraid of the obligation that lays on us, as Christians? That maybe we’ll have to stop throwing money at lepers from a distance and get off our horse and embrace them as Saint Francis did? And then renounce our father’s house and go live among them and care for them, ruining our reputation with gentlefolk, and then what?

For Francis it was lepers. What is it for you and me? Who do you despise? Who are you trying not to think about right now? That person you’re hoping I don’t bring up: or, that person you’re hoping I bring up so you can tell me I’m a blasphemous heretic for saying you need to find a way to honor Christ in them? We’ve all got one. What’s yours? An illegal immigrant? A Jew or a Muslim? An annoying neighbor? A drug addict or a prostitute? An estranged relative? A gay or trans person? A fat person? A hillbilly?

That’s Christ.

That’s what humans are for one another: Christ. And the person you hate the most is the one whom you most urgently owe the honor of viewing as Christ right now. Our souls depend on it.

Personally I can’t stand that. If there was another Gospel out there I’d gladly preach it to you instead. But there’s only this one. This is what we’ve got to figure out how to do. And I am the absolute worst example of how, but that doesn’t mean I can lie to you and say this is optional.

We mustn’t do gymnastics with the Gospel to make sure it doesn’t include the people we’d like to oppress or ignore. We have to accept the challenge of realizing that the Gospel means Christ chose to be one with the people we’d like to oppress or ignore. And He expects us to do the same.

Christ wasn’t just a refugee.

Christ is every refugee, and everyone else as well.

(image via Pixabay)





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