A few days ago, I was struck by a modernized representation of the traditional scene of the flight of the “holy family” to Egypt. The iconographic painter Kelly Latimore, decided to turn Joseph, Mary, and Jesus into a Latino family of immigrants trying to cross the border into the United States at night.[i]
The issue of immigration and refugees has been revalued in recent years. The causes of this phenomenon are well documented: from religious and political persecutions, civil wars or between coalitions of other nations; social violence, extreme poverty, or the oppression of dictatorial regimes. Many causes lead millions of people to migrate to stable regions, not only economically but also socially and politically.
Against this backdrop, developed nations that have been caught up in migration are trying to find a solution, which has generated extensive discussions that try to weigh the impact on refugees. The policies of deportation and segregation among migrant families, the cases made visible during 2018 of immigrant children being separated from their parents and locked up in cages in the United States, made it impossible to maintain silence.[ii] What should be the reaction of Christians to this issue? Is it possible to reconcile impassivity with the Gospel?
The Son of God and the immigrant
By carefully reading the Gospels, it is possible to find a profound relationship between the Son of Man and the immigrant. Not as a mere teaching with ethical or moral purposes, but as an interpretation of the messianic figure and the purpose of the Kingdom of God in man. The discourse of Christ forces us to rethink the immigrant as an extension of Him, in other words, He personifies this condition: “[…] I was a stranger [ξένος (xénos)], and ye took me in.” (Matthew 25:35 KJV). This statement is based on several aspects:
▪Jesus is the Word [Logos] of God who became flesh (John 1:1, 14); He left heaven—his place of origin—to live among humans, to redeem them.
▪He descends from a line of immigrants, beginning with Abraham, the period in Egypt, wanderers from the desert seeking the promised land and deportees to Babylon (Matthew 1:1-17).
▪In his early human existence, he was forced to become a refugee, after the slaughter of Herod (Matthew 2:13-23).
▪The kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, requires the redeemed to become pilgrims, for their true citizenship is in heaven (John 17:16; 18:36).
▪And finally, salvation consists in loving the “…Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, NIV).
“Xénos”: the immigrant
So when Jesus said: “I was a stranger,” he made him aware of the social, emotional, economic, and religious burdens and implications that the term carries within himself. What does it mean to be a stranger? The New Testament writers used the Greek word ξένος (xénos), which means a stranger, someone unknown who does not belong to a community or clan.[iii] In ancient Greek, the “xenos” was a foreigner, especially a wanderer, a beggar, an immigrant, a stranger, or a refugee.[iv] The connotations are negative in many cases since he lacks status or a sense of belonging, he is just a stranger making his way through established society.
In the context of Matthew, ξένος (xenos) is being used by Jesus within an unfavorable category, at the same level as the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and those deprived of their liberty (Matthew 25:34-36); of those who, because of their social condition, cannot supply the necessities of life, are forced to become immigrants. They need the help of others to be able to get out of this condition; Christ makes them visible by asking his followers to redeem with acts of generosity to the helpless. Thus, the authority of the Gospel to require this of Christians is sustained only because Christ suffered this condition.
Jesus as a Refugee
It is possible to imagine why this strong bond between the immigrant and the Christ: the experience lived in his childhood, that night that Matthew relates (Matthew 2:13-23), a desperate father who flees from a totalitarian and bloody regime with his wife and son to save their lives. The act itself weighs the reality of millions of immigrants today, the desire to live. In Jesus’ experience, fleeing meant leaving everything, taking what was necessary or indispensable to sustain oneself on the road, in search of stability in Egypt. Of course, when he says, “I was a stranger” (Matthew 25:35 KJV), he does not stop to categorize the needs, the one who migrates does so for various reasons, and no matter what they are, the decision is motivated by a sense of dignified survival.
For four years, Jesus and his parents lived in Egypt, returning to their country only when the danger had passed. From the eschatological point of view, the figure of Egypt is negative, given its arrogance against God and the slavery to which it subjected the Hebrews (Genesis 15:13); generally, the name is synonymous with slavery (Deuteronomy 5:6; Micah 6:4). However, given the hostile circumstances that forced the family of Jesus to flee, Egypt became momentarily a refuge, a place of protection for the Messiah.
“From Egypt I called my son”
The Gospel of Matthew located this situation of mobility in the messianic prophecy of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15 cf. Hosea 11:1). We can reflect that God himself recognizes migration as a valid mechanism to safeguard human integrity; it is He who initiated the call to Joseph to migrate to Egypt as an escape, where the family was accompanied by Divine Providence. So, mobility becomes an integral part of the messianic mission of the Son, who comes to redeem the oppressed. And Christ recognized this dimension by personifying this mobility. How many are forced to flee, becoming migrants? For these too, faith accompanies them on their journey in search of liberation.
The migrant, in this case, is not a mere subject of chance, but is rightly moved by faith; their causes for undertaking this long journey are justified and rooted in the very person of Christ. Now we Christians are challenged to see the migrant as a theological subject; studying the factors of mobility and assisting him will connect us with Christ.
A Christian who is unmoved by the suffering of migrants, either through indifference or because he causes their suffering through exploitation, or persecution, or abuse in any of its spheres, destroys Christ and the redemptive mission with his actions. In other words, one is not a Christian when one denies Christ.
Jesus will do justice
Jesus is not only content to personify, but goes beyond that in doing justice: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:44 NIV). This deeply commits the Gospel to the immigrant. From the legal point of view, civil laws cannot be above divine legislation: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Although Jesus taught respect for human laws (Luke 20:25), he placed them below the requirements of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 20:26 cf. Luke 14:1-6): “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29 NIV) In the clear words of Ellen G. White:
“The Lord’s side is ever the side of mercy, pity, and sympathy for the suffering, as will be seen by the example given us in the life of Jesus. We are required to imitate His example…Here in His sermon [she quoted Matthew 25:40-46] Christ identifies Himself with suffering humanity and plainly impresses upon us all that indifference or injustice done to the least of His saints is done to Him. Here is the Lord’s side, and whoever will be on the Lord’s side, let him come over with us. The dear Saviour is wounded when we wound one of His humble saints.”[v]
Seeking shelter is not a crime
The needs of those who seek refuge cannot be criminalized. To suppose that hunger or thirst are crimes and should be ignored; to support the separation of vulnerable or defenseless children from their parents to cram them into cages is a direct attack on Jesus. No Christian can rely on civil laws that violate divine commands or deny assistance to the migrant since his or her primary obedience is to Christ. The Gospel does not allow Christians to be impassive in the face of human mobility: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” (Hebrews 10:31)
We have a long way to go in the theological construction of the immigrant’s identity as an emanation of Christ, but as we reflect on it, let us apply mercy to immigrants. Only through protection and assistance will we connect with Jesus, the stranger.
[ii]“Estados Unidos: niños inmigrantes encerrados en jaulas” [USA: Immigrant Children locked up in cages], Clarín, https://www.clarin.com/mundo/unidos-ninos-inmigrantes-encerrados-jaulas_0_rkS8wjI-X.html
[iii]“ξένος,” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. Joseph Henry Thayer, CD-ROM BibleWorks, versión 8.0.013z.1 [Norfolk, VA: Bible Works, 2009]).
[iv]“ξένος,” in Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2tha ed., eds. Johannes E. Louw y Eugene A. Nida, CD-ROM BibleWorks, versión 8.0.013z.1 [Norfolk, VA: Bible Works, 2009]).
[v]Ellen G. White, Testimonies of the Church, vol. 3, 518.
Daniel A. Mora is from Venezuela. He is an editor and writer trained in theology. He writes about issues such feminism, immigration, racism and social justice. ([email protected])