I wrote this piece more than a decade ago for a publication of the All-Ireland Churches' Consultative Meeting on Racism (AICCMR) of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting. It was written for, and applies particularly to, Christians as it is about their founder and uses Christian language, but others may find it of interest as well.
INNATE is not a religious organisation but has a policy of respect for people of different religious and secular beliefs We do occasionally publish pieces concerning different religions including Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism etc. as well as news items from religious groups, particularly as they pertain to nonviolence.
If we consider the matter of Jesus having been a refugee, it is highly ironic that some Christians should, in certain places, be at the forefront of those opposing the reception of refugees, and that some in 'post-Christian' Europe should appeal to 'Christian values and heritage' as a reason not to admit refugees. And please note that while Jesus might be 'the founder' of the Christian faith he was an 'other', a Jew.
This piece was written before the numbers of refugees coming to Europe increased to today's level. But numbers cannot excuse inactivity or disdain; most refugees are accommodated in countries immediately bordering the place they are fleeing, e.g. Syria. European countries cannot claim to be hard done by. And the piece printed here shows many parallels with the journey of refugees today; danger, uncertainty, physical and mental exhaustion.
Jesus was a refugee as a baby along with his family – what age he was when he returned 'home' to Nazareth we don't know. It may not be covered in the bible in any detail but that experience would have been an extremely important part of the life of Jesus and his family – of anyone's life. In that era, most people did not wander far afield but Joseph and Mary had to do so for Jesus to survive, they therefore had an experience, unfortunate and dangerous as it was, that not many others would have had.
In today's world, Christians who do not heed and attend to the needs of refugees cannot be said to live up to the teachings of Christianity or the experience of Jesus himself. It is that simple.
By Rob Fairmichael
Matthew 2:13 -15 and 23
"Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." "
Even though some of us are aware that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees, we may not have considered what that meant beyond the fact that they had to leave their homeland and live 'abroad' for a few years until Herod died.
Jesus and His parents were not even at home when Joseph had the dream to flee. They had prepared themselves to travel to Bethlehem for the census, taking what they felt they might need for that journey, and no more. They were not prepared to go into exile.
The first thing that Joseph would have taken, to allow him to make a living to support himself and family, would have been what carpenter's tools he could have carried; but these were at home, not with them in Bethlehem. This would have been a big worry since getting his own tools would be a major financial outlay, and being abroad and dealing with people not speaking your language would have been a huge obstacle too. If they did have to go, and they did, it was a very bad start.
For Mary to have to travel so soon after giving birth and with a new born baby to feed and look after would have been harrowing and physically demanding. It would have been extremely tiring, and travelling at night time would have been difficult and dangerous. Were they up to the journey? Initially there would have been the fear that Herod's men would catch them and kill Jesus.
But as they fled the long and often dangerous journey to Egypt, the safer they were in terms of distance, the more lonely they would have become, as they got further away from their homeland, their village, their language and customs. There are various ways they could have travelled through Palestine and Sinai into Egypt and all of them would have been dangerous. They must have felt very alone and afraid, not knowing what their future was, not knowing where they would get their next meal or lay their heads, or take shelter from the heat or the cold at night. Uncertainty would have been their constant companion. But they were doing what they knew they had to do to survive, and hope of return was for another day.
As they got used to life in Egypt, their homeland would have still beckoned to them. How were their loved ones at home? They would have had no idea.
The Coptic Church in Egypt has various traditions regarding the stay of the Holy Family in Egypt, some based on a dream of a fourth to fifth century Patriarch (Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria), as to where the Holy Family journeyed and stayed during their time in Egypt. The Coptic Church (which has a small community in Ireland) celebrates each 1st June the entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into Egypt – and it is indeed a wonderful thing for your country to have provided refuge to the baby Jesus. But undoubtedly the Holy Family would have met both kindness and unkindness in their journeying. One thing which they acquired was knowledge of another country and ways other than their own.
We do not know what age Jesus was when Mary and Joseph received the news of Herod's death and headed home. Even if they implicitly trusted the angel's message that Herod was dead, and they should return, they must have had doubts about their safety which were well placed, as verse 22 details. And how had things changed in the period they had been away? Other questions on their minds would have included worries about establishing a home, and whether there was work for Joseph in Nazareth.
When they did get a home established, perhaps Jesus had vivid memories of his time in exile, or perhaps his early childhood memories faded. But their time in exile would have been a common point of reference in family life – "Remember that time we were in Egypt when……", Mary or Joseph might have begun, sharing an often remembered snippet or a half-buried detail. The experience must have had a profound effect on them all.
So Jesus would have grown up with knowledge not just of his own society, and the divisions and debates therein, but also with knowledge of elsewhere. He would have known that there were 'good' and 'bad' in all societies and that these categories were not the simple ones that society and the culture of the time dictated. He was willing to sit down with anyone. He did not have barriers. And his message was not just for one society but for all.
The profound effect of forced migration and refuge is still, unfortunately, having an effect today. Travel may be easier but it is, paradoxically, harder to get into many countries, particularly rich ones. Mary and Joseph with their baby Jesus would not have had to worry about passports, travel documents, how to get into a country and whether their claim for asylum would be granted. The profundity of the effect on people cannot be overestimated; being a stranger in a strange land can be bad, but to go through humiliation, hardship and possibly danger in getting to your country of choice is still an everyday occurrence now.
And some people today may not be as tolerant as the Egyptians were in Jesus' time. If Joseph was a good worker he would probably have found work straight away in Egypt, despite language barriers; if he arrived in Ireland today he would not be allowed work. Jesus and Mary arriving in Ireland today would be closely questioned as to whether this story about Herod killing firstborn boys was really just a scam to get status, their interviewers would perhaps decide it was just a cock and bull story with no corroborating evidence – and the fact that Joseph had referred to being told to flee in a dream made it even more unbelievable.
Jesus was a refugee. He knew a lot about that experience. Christians who do not understand that experience cannot understand the early life of Jesus and his formative years.