Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

With the poor and meek and lowly: a review of ‘Jesus the Refugee’

December 18, 2023

Among this holy season’s carols, “Once in Royal David’s City” tells of Jesus’ birth:

Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

This 1848 hymn by Irish poet and hymnist Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) resonates in my mind this time of year, as I recall processing into the Ottawa University chapel at the start of the Christmas Vespers service, a high point of the music program during my undergraduate years. A simple and beautiful hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City” draws on the sentimentality often informing many hearts during this time, even if it is not necessarily the type of carol that makes it into the 24/7 rotation of “all Christmas, all the time” radio stations.

Appropriately, the Holy Family occupies our mind as we get closer to Christmas and the lectionary readings get closer to the time of retelling the Nativity. The altar lights up with increasing glow from the Advent wreath. Front lawns and fireplace mantles are adorned with creches, the story (somewhat idealized and compressed into a photogenic moment) retold of Mangers, Magi, and Holy Family.

Less recalled is the story after the Magi have departed when Joseph receives a dream to take the family away to Egypt. “The Flight to Egypt” is a matter of divine intervention, as King Herod rages against any talk of a ruler greater than himself, including a baby born somewhere in his environs. The Holy Family sojourns for a season away from danger, yet being a Hebrew/Palestinian family in Egypt was no easy matter.

In his new book Jesus the Refugee: Ancient Injustice and Modern Solidarity (Fortress Press, 2023), D. Glenn Butner, Jr., writes, of the current modern refugee crisis and this Gospel story,

As I read Matthew 2, I wonder whether Mary and Joseph feared similar scapegoating as they traveled toward Egypt. I wonder who assumed they might be criminals. I wonder where Joseph found work as a carpenter and whether he was paid fairly. I wonder if the Lord Jesus Christ was treated the way refugees are treated in the modern world. (p. 130).

For many Christians, the refugee crisis presents a test of theological convictions and personal and corporate praxis. How do we embrace the way of Jesus, if we are not concerned for the vulnerable and oppressed later described by Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and the goats? The same Gospel that we find beloved at Christmas for its Nativity does up the ante considerably on the disciple by its end with the Great Commission, and not just about evangelism and mission.  The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and other Matthean parables and teachings of Jesus place the onus of responsibility in the knowledge of the world’s woes squarely upon the Church.

Dr. Butner is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Sterling College, in Sterling, Kansas. He authored this book aware of the long correlation of the Holy Family’s story with those fleeing persecution, noting “there is a broad and deep consensus that Jesus was a refugee and that this matters for Christian ethics.” His book, however, turns aside from what he terms “claims often naively ignor[ing] the fact that it is quite unlikely that the holy family would have refugee status under our current international refugee regime, and this lack of status should be central to any Christian ethical analysis of the modern refugee system” (p. 4-5).

Looking at the world of the Matthean text, Butner demonstrates how Egypt would have been neither welcoming nor tolerant of people who looked like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The struggle to make ends meet, to have stable food and shelter, and other concerns would have occupied much of the worried parents’ mind, away from any family or social networks of support back home. Likely when the inevitable news of Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents reached them, the Holy Family felt they had barely escaped persecution and death only to be struggling constantly with meeting their daily needs.

In his new book “Jesus the Refugee: Ancient Injustice and Modern Solidarity,” D. Glenn Butner Jr. appeals to Christians to see the ignoble reality of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a story that keeps repeating in human history and in this morning’s news headlines.

Butner guides the reader through the modern refugee system, a changeable and often subjective, if not inscrutable forest of laws and policies that are routinely subject to the whims of political convenience or expedience. Or worse, refugee systems endure entire sea changes when one ideology overtakes control of what another tried to build, dismantle, improve, or demolish. With the 2024 electoral cycle looming, and the recent experience of the last eight years, one can see vividly why change and subjectivity and politics are a potent intersection for refugee issues in just one nation.

Butner cites the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as the beginning of modern refugee law, setting forth a new precedent after the tumult of World War II and the new voice of the UN in global affairs. From this international standard came the haphazard way that various nations chose to adopt and implement the recommendations. Seventy-plus years later, Butner works through different scenarios using the modern system’s varied interpretations of defining criteria for refugees as border security, humanitarian concerns and again, political needs drive what will determine the entrance or denial of individuals and families at the borders.

Citing a 2015 article highlighting the subjectivity of asylum adjudicators working in the same office, Butner observes, “In other words, the success of the holy family’s case would likely depend primarily on the decision-makers who determined the outcome of their case—here again, the question of who is assigning refugee status matters” (p. 33-34).

Butner appeals to Christians to see the ignoble reality of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a story that keeps repeating in human history and in this morning’s news headlines. He writes, “All human beings have a general responsibility to care for all others, showing solidarity with them. For Christians, this solidarity is especially owed to refugees who are among ‘the least of these’ in solidarity with their Refugee King” (p. 166).

In his last chapter, Butner moves into practical ways solidarity can made known, informed by the work of Christian ethicist Kristin Heyer’s Kinship Beyond Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (Georgetown University Press, 2012). Summarizing Heyer, Butner appeals to three types of solidarity:

Incarnational, which “challenges Christians to be bodily present with refugees”;

Institutional, which “requires the reform of laws, policies and institutions for the betterment of refugees;” and finally,

Conflictual, which “acknowledges that substantive and lasting change will require direct and vigorous challenges to forces that would oppose efforts to ensure that refugees’ rights are protected” (p. 167-168).

Butner concludes his survey and calls to solidarity with this powerful word: “More than that, in the height of tepid Christian support of refugees in Europe and the United States, the challenge of Jesus the Refugee is a call to repentance for many Christians that they might show solidarity with Jesus the Refugee by seeing modern refugees as Jesus and acting accordingly.” (p. 195)

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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