Wednesday, December 05, 2018


With Christmas approaching, the claim that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees returns. There is something to that – there is some similarity – but I don’t think it is as exact as advertised. Similarities: have to leave their country because of terrible, dangerous conditions. Uncertain resources to sustain them on the way or when they get there. No fault of their own.  

Some refugees in many places of the world are migrations of people on their own, singly, or (more often now) in groups.  They go to another country and want to get in and live there, because something about their homeland is dangerous for them. There are many people who never intended to leave their homes, but the violence was too great. Countries in Jesus’s time had open borders. You could just move somewhere else and hope to find work there. Many did in the normal course of events, but they weren’t thought of as refugees, just people taking a calculated risk. The risk was considerable, as no one was obligated to house you, feed, you, or hire you, unless you had family or tribe. So Joseph and Mary could have upped sticks and headed for Egypt even if nothing was wrong.  Or, had they been part of a mass exodus of a few thousand families, all fleeing the attempted killing of their male toddlers, they might have encountered some resistance entering the city. Be cautious of making exact comparisons about things that are not exact.
That would have been true in America for many years as well. You could get on a ship and arrive at a port and just get off and hope to make your way.  This worked partly because no one was obligated to do anything for you, so unless you had really big reasons to leave, some hope that friends or countrymen would take you in at least temporarily, or confidence that your skills could keep you from starving, you didn’t come. Once people started arriving at ports in great numbers however, the US started attaching some rules as to who could get in, usually around health.  The rules got strict in 1927, and we limited how many from each country could come in.  Lots of controversy about what countries we favored and why, but that’s a discussion for another day.

We do still adjust our totals from sending countries in response to horrendous events, but because we are separated from most countries by oceans, refugees are no longer people showing up in New York with no one expecting them. They are people in faraway camps being evaluated by representatives of countries for being passed on to other places. Joseph and family in our current situation would be folks going to one of those camps, outside their own borders, awaiting disposition.  That would be a sucky place for Jesus to spend a year or two, certainly.  But as they stopped killing babies and he went back to Galilee at some point anyway, I think the analogy to American policy is weakened.

But let’s pretend that wasn’t part of the equation.  Let’s pretend the Wise Men said “and don’t come back until he’s fully grown,” and Mary was waiting for American officials and American kindness to get that boy out of a refugee camp and into some better life. Under currently American policy, it looks like that would happen, just not quickly.  I suppose you could attempt the line of argument that said "There's a thousand Jesuses  in those camps (Matthew 24) and if we took in more people those Jesuses would be better fed." It's not crazy, and it's not even wrong, it's just much less dramatic than the picture that's on the poster.

In American terms Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were more like people applying for asylum (or looked at another way, a temporary work visa – because they soon went back – but there aren’t enough economic equivalents in the Eastern Mediterranean twenty centuries ago to make that an intelligible discussion). More like people showing up at a border, or landing at an airport, and saying “We want to come in because our ruler is killing all the male toddlers, and we’ve got one.” So the American officials would call back to Judea and learn that yes, this is true, they are killing children. That would be in accord with who we generally grant asylum to and we would start the paperwork for the application.  These days there are lots of people in that line, not all of them honest, so it gets tedious, but there’s no reason to think that the Holy Family would be turned back. They would have to wait a while.  They would even be separated for a while. 

You could blame American policy for not accepting enough people to get all those Jesuses in quickly. Though if we doubled the acceptances, we would also be encouraging more cheaters, and so on, indefinitely. If you are looking to blame someone - I'm not, especially, because so many billions of people in the world have hard choices that I don't face - I suppose you could blame those trying to game the system. But forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Just a thought. No way to prove it.


james said...

Mike Royko's Mary and Joe suggests an alternative result:

But seriously, the closest analog I can think of in the ancient world for being allowed to enter the USA, is becoming part of a wealthy extended family.

Christopher B said...

I think you're giving an econ response to a culture argument, and it won't be persuasive. The people posting the Holy Family=Refugees meme fall into two groups. The more begnin group simply believes that American immigration policy should be copied from the base of the Statue of Liberty, full stop. The other group believes themselves to be surrounded by a growing number of political enemies, and thinks the refugees will be their allies. Neither will be impressed by discussing how Mary, Jesus, and Joseph fit into modern categories of displaced persons.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ james. Royko tries to capture the idea that "We treat poor people really badly," and I suppose that has some justice to it. But it's just one false equivalence after another otherwise.

@ Christopher B, I think you are correct this would not be persuasive. I was mostly writing it for myself, I suppose, to express some part of why this "Jesus was a refugee" idea is inaccurate. That the holy family was in danger and had to move should inspire us to be quick to charity and slow to judgement, granted. I don't see how it goes much farther. Trying to cram political ideas on the back of that donkey isn't justified.

I am not sure all of the benign group qualifies for your explanation about immigration policy, though. There are a lot of people who don't think much more deeply than "This is sad. We should do what these nice people who talk about sadness tell us is right."

james said...

My apologies--I forgot how much Royko relied on stereotypes of psychiatric service. The point was that good intentions don't always give benign results. Victor Davis Hanson has some things to say about California that suggest that the influx hasn't always had the desired effects.

Texan99 said...

"I was homeless, and it was totally OK that you didn't take Me into your home; what chaps Me is that you didn't force your neighbor to take Me in."

Sam L. said...

No, those people KNOW what they're doing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No apology needed, James. I don't take an interesting link as a thorough endorsement.

Bill S. said...

Joseph and Mary were not refugees. They had to return to the city of Joseph's family to be counted in the census by order of the government.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

People using that descriptor of them are usually referring to the flight into Egypt. That's closer, but as above, I still don't think it quite qualifies. It is also not a given that they were poor or without resources.

james said...

They had at their disposal some gold and valuable spices, IIRC.