Yes, Jesus was a refugee

Holy Family, Sebastiano Ricci
“The Holy Family with Angels” by Sebastiano Ricci. |

One of the ways the politicization of our nation has affected the church is visible in the clash over whether the "Holy Family," i.e. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, were "refugees." Progressives in the church describe Jesus as a refugee in the interest of supporting a much more liberal immigration policy, and in response there are often knee-jerk reactions in which conservatives, feeling that the Bible is being politicized, deny the refugee label to Jesus.

But the question is not: "Which narrative best fits my political needs?" The question is: "What does the Bible say?"

By any reasonable definition of refugee, Jesus was one.

Here's a dictionary definition:

"a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc."

A "political refugee" is:

"a person who has fled from a homeland because of political persecution."

These definitions undoubtedly describes the flight of the Holy Family out of Israel.

"Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.'

And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt…"

Matthew 2:13-14 NAS

Why was Herod going to kill Jesus?

"Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him."

 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him."

Matthew 2:2-3 NAS

Jesus was born a king. Representatives of other nations were paying homage to him. Herod and the capitol city were troubled by this because they saw it as a threat to their corrupt rule, and for this reason set out to assassinate Jesus. In response to this "political persecution," the Holy Family fled for "safety to a foreign country": A perfect match for the definition of refugees. 

Objections have been raised to the assertion that Jesus was a refugee, so let's deal with them here:

'Calling Jesus a refugee feeds a globalist narrative.' Answer: so what? It's not our job to starve the other side's narrative. It's our job to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. There are many passage in scripture which teach that God created nations and nations are part of his plan. So, any desire to dissolve nationality into a homogenous global melting pot is at odds with the Bible. In fact, the passage about the Slaughter of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt assume the existence of separate nations and of borders. There would be no place to flee to if there were only one global government. Refusing to acknowledge a true thing just because it reminds you of the other side is not pursuing truth. It is a relativistic approach to truth, reducing statements down to narratives supporting power politics, the very thing we rightly accuse post-modernists of doing.

'Jesus wasn't a refugee because he never left the country, because he stayed in the Roman Empire.' Answer: this is patently false. Empires are not countries. Empires are geopolitical orders in which one country dominates other countries through the threat of military force or through actual military occupation. Generally, countries within empires remain countries (though sometimes they are utterly destroyed or forcibly deported as in the Babylonian captivity). The New Testament has distinct words for "country," "nation," and for the Roman Imperial hegemony. They are respectively xoris, ethnos and oikoumene (though there is some variation in meaning).

In Luke 23:2, the mob calls for Jesus' death and accuses him of "subverting our nation." No, this is not a statement of secession from Rome, because in the same passage they accuse Jesus of telling and they affirm Caesar as king.

In Acts 12:20, the realm of one of Herod's descendants is referred to as a "country," as is the region of Tyre/Sidon.

Mark 1:5 refers to "all the country of Judea," which of course is the country which Joseph and his family fled.

The same Greek word is used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to Judea while under the Persian Empire. So, being part of an empire does not mean that nations/countries are dissolved; therefore, the Holy Family fled a country, which makes them refugees.

Otherwise the passage would make no sense at all. What point would there be in fleeing Herod's realm unless it made a difference in terms of whose jurisdiction they were under? If the laws, edicts and conditions were the same everywhere, then why leave? It's precisely because Herod was a king, but one with jurisdiction only in his own country, that flight was an escape from political persecution.

Now, none of this requires a nation to set aside prudence and the rule of law and open borders to tens of millions of displaced persons who will overtax the social safety yet and create ungovernable "no-go" zones, as is happening, for instance, under mass migration from the Arab Spring.

But the search for wise policy starts with getting the basic facts right and not avoiding them because we don't like some of the conclusions which some people have built on the facts. Yes, Jesus was indeed a refugee. And that should certainly inform our response to genuine political refugees who also are forced to flee violent persecution. And this week, when the Christian world remembers the Slaughter of the Innocents, is the perfect time to remember that Jesus was indeed a refugee.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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