Thistlethwaite: Baby Jesus was a refugee
This Christmas must be a pared-down version, one without large family gatherings and parties that will spread COVID-19 and cause ever more sickness and death.
But this sparse Christmas can be a good time to see the bare bones of the Jesus story without the glitter of tinsel blinding you to its meaning.
The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt.1:18-2:23) is a harrowing tale of children threatened and killed by an authoritarian ruler and a flight to Egypt to escape persecution. It mirrors the plight of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. who are fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries. But unlike Egypt in the biblical narrative, this outgoing Trump administration has consistently tried to deny them a safe place to live.
In Matthew, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, a town quite close to Jerusalem (about 6 miles). Today you can drive to Bethlehem from Jerusalem in about 20 minutes, unless there is a line at the checkpoint.
Some “wise men,” that is, astrologers from the “East,” arrive. They are clearly distinguished foreigners who have interpreted a star in the heavens to predict there will be a child born who will become a new ruler. Herod, the Roman client king of Judaea who rules over an occupied and oppressed people, hears about this and decides this child is a threat to him. He orders all boys under two years of age to be killed in and around Bethlehem.
Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod will try to kill baby Jesus and the whole family flees to Egypt. Jesus lives out his early years as a refugee in a strange country, and then later as a displaced person in Nazareth far from his hometown of Bethlehem. The family only even dares to come back after Herod is dead. But they are fearful of going back to Bethlehem and so they settle in Nazareth, nearly 100 miles away.
Persecution, violence, and uncertain refugee status form the story of the first Christmas in the Gospel of Matthew.
In this fearful Christmas season with over 300,000 Americans dead and more than 17 million infected with COVID-19, perhaps we can finally hear this story of the birth of Jesus in a clear way, a way that gives us insight into the sufferings of the people of Jesus’s time under Roman occupation. That can lead us to see the immorality of the cruelties toward immigrants of the last four years.
The plight of refugees fleeing persecution has been callously pilloried by the Trump administration that has reduced the number of asylum seekers allowed to barely 15,000 from the more than 100,000 in the Obama years. Some children who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents have been placed in cages. Some have died.
Faith-based advocacy groups have worked for years to try to draw attention to this terrible policy and the resulting human rights abuses.
Finally, it looks like help is on the way. On Friday, December 18, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American Sephardic Jew, who is himself a refugee, held a roundtable meeting with a broad group of faith-based groups that work on immigration and human rights issues, including representatives from Catholic Charities USA, Emgage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Code Legal Aid, Christian Churches Together, Jesuit Refugee Services USA, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Arab American Institute, Bridging Cultures Group, Esperanza, the Ismaili Council for the USA, the Secure Community Network, the Islamic Society of North America, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Rev. Gabriel Salguero, the founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said he was encouraged by the discussion of “bipartisan humane, and common-sense immigration reform.”
Faith-based advocacy groups like Faith in Public Life, to which I belong and helped found, have worked for years to call attention to the immoral posture of the Trump administration toward immigration.
This biblical quotation from Exodus 22:21 headlines their work on these issues: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thousands and thousands of faith leaders have signed their letters on these crucial moral concerns.
It is important for Christians, not only at Christmas but through the year, to actually read the bible and not just hold it up and wave it around. But the infancy narratives of Matthew are a hard read, it’s true. When I was a local church pastor, I hated to preach on the Christmas story in Matthew. Luke has cute sheep and angels.
Today, however, the Gospel of Matthew better fits our times and may illuminate a better path forward for our country and immigration policy.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” — Isaiah 9:2
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.