Thursday, September 07, 2017

Jesus, the Illegal Immigrant?

Yesterday I wrote about DACA, Trump, Obama, Congress and Children in which I expressed a few thoughts on immigration and immigration policy in the United States. An exchange of friends on Facebook incited the response. One friend posted on immigration saying that “God was born in a family that crossed borders at night.” I have found it interesting that “Jesus was illegal immigrant (or undocumented immigrant),” “Jesus was an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah,” and such like have become pithy proverbs in the immigration debate. I’m not sure how long these saying have been popular.

In an August 31, 2015 CNN interview Rev. Ryan Eller said, “Jesus was an undocumented immigrant himself when he fled to Egypt escaping persecution in his day.” In Jesus of Nazareth: The “Illegal Immigrant” (February 2012), Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan wrote, “the truth is that Jesus Christ would, had he arrived in the United States in recent weeks or months instead of Palestine some two thousand years earlier, be classified as an ‘illegal immigrant’.” Debra Dean Murphy, a religion professor at the United Methodist-affiliated West Virginia Wesleyan College opined We are Exiles Who Follow an Alien, Undocumented, Migrant Messiah (May 2010). She did not invoke the Egypt narrative but quotes from that sermon that “Jesus did not have a valid birth certificate. Mother’s name: Mary; Father’s name: unknown. In fact, Jesus had no papers in his name, no title deed, no rental contract. Nothing.” God’s Heart Has No Borders: How Religious Activists Are Working for Immigrant Rights (Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2008, p. 135) is the earliest such reference I found, though possibly many even earlier could be found: “They [Faith-based immigrants’ rights groups] insist that Joseph and Mary, carrying Jesus, were among the first undocumented border crossers.”

These kinds of phrases have been around awhile, and have become staples in the U.S. immigration debate. I find these catchphrases clich├ęd and not at all a compelling argument in how to approach immigration. I suspect they are much like “preaching to the choir” that draws well-timed amens from those who already agree.[i] That Jesus “crossed borders” and was an immigrant is both inaccurate as well as mostly inapplicable. Both Judaea and Egypt were part of the Roman Empire. Egypt came under Roman rule close to 700 years, which began before the birth of Jesus.[ii] Joseph, Mary and Jesus, therefore, never immigrated to a foreign land, but traveled to a different location in their own country.[iii] Egypt is mentioned 4 times in Matthew 2:13-23. Herod ordered the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem two years old and under (Matthew 2:16-18). Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to and returned from Egypt, and it doing so fulfilled God’s promise “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” The gifts brought by the wise men doubtless helped sustain them in their exodus to, stay in and return from Egypt. If anything, this relates better to a temporary refugee situation, when one flees for safety, than to immigration where on plans to live in another country permanently.[iv]

I find a much more convincing argument (at least as a Christian individual) in the biblical passages that teach us to love our neighbor, to love our enemies, to treat others better than ourselves, and so on. I will hope to explore these tomorrow (d.v.).

[i] Preaching to the choir = “trying to make believers out of people who already believe, or [trying to] convince people who are already convinced.” No doubt the flight of Joseph and Mary yields an example and lessons to us about God’s care for and our compassion toward the hurting, but it gives us nothing specific about policy regarding illegal immigration, since there is no illegal crossing into a foreign country.
[ii] See, for example, Roman And Byzantine Egypt (30 Bce– 642 Ce), The Roman World of Jesus: An Overview and Roman Egypt in Ancient History Encyclopedia, The rich lands of Egypt became the property of Rome after the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. (This is not to say we can learn nothing from their flight to help us today, but just a recognition that is was a vastly different situation than it is often presented to be.)
[iii] Charles Cochran, senior pastor at First Christian Church in Charleroi, Pa., describes it as “ much more like sneaking across the Georgia-Alabama line than across the Rio Grande.”
[iv] Mary and Joseph were definitely not foreigners in Bethlehem, and not even in Egypt. There are similarities between refugees fleeing for their lives and Joseph & Mary fleeing to Egypt in order to save Jesus from the madman Herod. Most Christians would (I hope) gladly be refuges for refugees in such situations. In allowing the Josephs & Marys into their Egypt, though, is it a bad thing that they wish to be sure that Herod’s assassins don’t follow? I feel that this is the position of some folks who are excoriated as “anti-immigrant.”

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