Conservative author Ann Coulter unleashed a storm on Christmas Day by flatly declaring that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not refugees. She went too far, but the common liberal argument that Jesus was a refugee just like Syrians today is indeed problematic.
Coulter responded to a meme posted by the Twitter account “UndocuMedia” comparing the Holy Family to modern Middle Eastern refugees. “Mary and Joseph weren’t refugees, you illiterate. They were going to Bethlehem TO REGISTER WITH THE GOVERNMENT,” Coulter declared.
Mary and Joseph weren't refugees, you illiterate. They were going to Bethlehem TO REGISTER WITH THE GOVERNMENT. https://t.co/3kGMYvE3DD
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) December 26, 2017
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem at the request of the Emperor Augustus, who ordered a census throughout the Roman Empire. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod of Israel issued a decree that all boys around Jesus’ age must be killed — to prevent the prophesied king of Israel from reaching adulthood.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt during this time, to escape Herod’s decree.
Conservative professor and author C.C. Pecknold laid out the situation well. “If you are returning to the town of your birth for a government mandated census, you are not a refugee,” Pecknold tweeted. “If you are fleeing a murderous king who wants to kill your child, you’re seeking sanctuary, and are owed it as a matter of justice. You’re welcome.”
If you are returning to the town of your birth for a government mandated census, you are not a refugee.
If you are fleeing a murderous king who wants to kill your child, you’re seeking sanctuary, and are owed it as a matter of justice.
— C.C. Pecknold (@ccpecknold) December 26, 2017
Liberal Jesuit Priest James Martin disagreed. “Actually, no. When the Holy Family flees to Egypt, they meet the current definition of refugees: those fleeing ‘conflict or persecution.’ And the word the angel uses in Joseph’s dream in Matthew (2:13) is ‘φεῦγε’ (pheuge), from which comes the word ‘refugee,’ the one who flees,” Martin tweeted.
Actually, no. When the Holy Family flees to Egypt, they meet the current definition of refugees: those fleeing "conflict or persecution." And the word the angel uses in Joseph's dream in Matthew (2:13) is "φεῦγε" (pheuge), from which comes the word "refugee," the one who flees. https://t.co/BUBUqoaxxZ
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 26, 2017
“But even if the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt did not meet the current definition of refugees (and they do),” the Jesuit added, “modern-day refugee families still deserve our care and protection, because each refugee possesses infinite dignity and worth. They are our sisters and brothers.”
But even if the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt did not meet the current definition of refugees (and they do), modern-day refugee families still deserve our care and protection, because each refugee possesses infinite dignity and worth. They are our sisters and brothers.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 26, 2017
In this statement, Martin echoed Pope Francis’ Christmas statement. “We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children still marked by the war that, in these years, has caused such bloodshed in that country. May beloved Syria at last recover respect for the dignity of every person through a shared commitment to rebuild the fabric of society, without regard for ethnic and religious membership,” Francis declared.
Importantly, Francis also spoke of seeing Jesus in the children of Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Korea, and “wherever peace and security are threatened by the danger of tensions and new conflicts.”
Francis was right to do this. Jesus prophesied that on the final judgment, the King will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The righteous, confused, will ask when they did this, but the King will say, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:34-40).
This is a central Christian teaching — that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to deny themselves, to take up the concerns of others, and to love everyone … even their enemies. Christians need to help refugees and immigrants (legal or illegal). But Christians are also called to follow the law.
This is why the Jesus-refugee comparison can often be taken too far, and Ann Coulter was rightly pushing back against this.
The very presence of a group called “UndocuMedia” is telling. Liberals have started championing the cause of “undocumented” immigrants. Indeed, illegal immigration has been connected to homosexuality, with some immigrants “coming out” as “undocumented.”
Connecting such immigrants to Jesus is a bridge too far. Mary and Joseph took the Christ child to Egypt to keep Him safe, and it is unlikely they had documents at the time. But ancient Near Eastern countries did not regulate immigration or refugee status the way modern democracies do. Furthermore, immigration meant a great deal less when kings ruled and citizens did not elect their own rulers.
Any link between Jesus and modern refugees is incredibly strained, not just because of historical differences but also because Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did not stay in Egypt.
As peace returns to Syria and Iraq, many refugees may indeed return, but it seems far more likely that they will not. Refugees have settled into European countries in search of a better life, and it is hard to blame them. Even so, Jesus did not grow up in Egypt, and any connection between the Christ child and permanent migrants is unwarranted.
Finally, there is an important distinction between Jesus’ call for individual Christians to help the less fortunate and the insistence that government should take up this role. Jesus nowhere suggested that Christians should leave the care of the poor to state powers. Indeed, He rather insisted that individual Christians should give of their own goods and time to help others.
Jesus said His disciples should be wholly devoted to Him — giving up their lives (the Greek word is “soul”) in Mark 8:34-38. This is worlds apart from saying, “Just tax the rich and redistribute wealth to take care of the poor.”
There are many practical reasons why modern democracies should hesitate to embrace large numbers of refugees on a permanent basis. Rather than addressing these problems, many liberals merely dismiss any immigration critics as heartless and evil, suggesting that those who wish to enforce current immigration laws would effectively be turning away Jesus.
America’s immigration law may need serious reform, and that is a debate much worth having. Instead of debating, liberals encourage a kind of “undocumented” pride — encouraging illegal immigration as a moral good. In this context, discussions of Jesus as a refugee are particularly noxious.
Liberals are using Jesus as a trump card, a moral weapon to shut down debate about complex immigration issues. This is not the purpose of the Christmas story, or the purpose of Jesus’ message. Christians need to love immigrants, but that does not involve flagrantly breaking the law and encouraging others to do so, to flaunt their “undocumented” pride.