Photo: Amanda Nero/International Organization for Migration 2015
Jesus, the Refugee
By Jennifer Sparks (Nov. 23, 2015)
As we head into the holy season of Advent, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on one particular aspect of Christ's identity that I don't often hear emphasized: Jesus as a refugee.
We are familiar with the image of a weary Joseph leading a pregnant Mary around Bethlehem in search of a place to stay.
Less familiar though is the image of the family, baby Jesus now in Mary's arms, fleeing on a donkey away from Bethlehem and into the land of Egypt to escape King Herod's ruthless persecution.
By legal definition, as people with a well-founded fear of persecution based on their ethnicity, religion, and social group, this family would be protected under the Geneva Convention, put in place after World War II to protect people displaced across international borders.
Simply put, they would be refugees.
It is impossible to escape the news of the current crisis in Europe, as hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants have made a desperate sea crossing to reach what they hope will be friendly shores.
Consider the following:
• According to the International Organization for Migration, over 830,000 people have crossed from the Middle East into Europe by sea. They came primarily from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
• According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are almost 20 million refugees registered globally, though the number of those eligible is considerably higher. There are almost 4.3 million Syrian refugees. While Syria has dominated the news, there are a large number of refugees and displaced people from places as widely scattered as Sudan, Afghanistan, and Burma.
• The war in Syria is in its fifth year, and there is no end in sight. A child born there in 2010 will have known nothing but war, and possibly life as a refugee.
• The situation in Syria is classified by international humanitarian organizations as the highest level of emergency. That means that immediate and widespread humanitarian intervention and assistance is necessary for large segments of the population. The electricity and water are cut for much of the urban population, and the bombs falling means that it is difficult for work to continue. There is little cash in circulation, and little food to buy. Syria is literally hollowing out as people, industry, and money disappear from the country.
• Refugees form almost half the population in Lebanon, as it is host to over 1 million Syrian and another million Palestinian refugees. The American equivalent would be if the U.S. took in 160 million refugees, or half its own population, with a crucial difference: We have the space and infrastructure to absorb them. Lebanon does not. Turkey has taken in over 2 million refugees, and Jordan and Egypt have both taken in several hundred thousand each. Those four countries are disproportionately rising to the responsibility of nation-states to harbor refugees.
• In Syria, as in many other countries, the threats to people's lives are indiscriminate. Whether they are Muslims, Jews, Christians, rich, poor, old, young, it doesn't matter — war observes no such distinctions. The physical threat comes from the government, from foreign bombardment, from ISIS, from the thousands of armed factions that have sprouted up. Reports of gruesome killings, barbaric torture, disappearances, threats against family members, and inhumane and inhospitable living conditions have driven people from their homes. Would you stay under such conditions, if it was within your power to leave?
• Families are fragmented and scattered across the globe as they try to find a way to safety with the desperate hope of one day being reunited in their home countries. We have heard of families with members scattered along the migrant trail from Syria, through Turkey, and across Europe, all trying to reach whatever haven they could.
• The people who flee their countries are the ones with resources — they are usually middle to upper class who have the money to leave and start fresh. They do not come as blank slates. They come with skills, expertise, and experience; but most of all they come with a deep desire to work and build stability for themselves and their families. Take America as an example. We are a nation founded by refugees, and look at how far we have come. To close our borders and our hearts is the epitome of hypocrisy.
• We have heard repeatedly from refugee parents that they fled so their children could have a future. They want the stability to be able to work and provide an education and opportunities for their children to not live a life on the run. Again, many of those fleeing are well educated, entrepreneurial, and hungry to prove themselves. They want to live in peace and participate in their new communities, if only their hosts will give them a chance to.
Both international law and the law of God demands Christians show hospitality to refugees. By rejecting refugees, we don't merely refuse aid to strangers in need; we put them in serious danger. By hardening our hearts and attempting to turn away refugees, we reject Jesus' message of loving our neighbors. But we also reject Jesus Himself (see Mt 25). What would have happened if the Egyptians had sealed their borders and denied Jesus, Mary, and Joseph respite in their country?
Building physical walls to keep people out is an expression of the barriers in our hearts. As Pope Francis said on Sept. 28, "Walls all fall down — today, tomorrow or in a hundred years — but they will fall. Building walls is not a solution; a wall is not a solution. Europe is presently in difficulty, this is true. We have to think; we have to understand why this great wave of migration is taking place, and it is not easy to come up with solutions. But dialogue among countries, that is how solutions can be found. Walls are never solutions, but bridges always are."
Jesus told us to love our neighbors. He did not put any specific caveats on that statement. He did not tell us to only love our Christian neighbor. Or our Catholic neighbor. Or our Jewish neighbor. Or our Muslim neighbor. His love is so much more universal than that.
Let future generations know we are Christians by our love. Let us love our neighbors, the refugees.
Jennifer Sparks lives and works in Egypt, aiding refugees through an international humanitarian organization.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about the refugee crisis and the Church's response, visit caritas.org.