Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.- Pete Buttigieg
As the Washington Post notes this created a firestorm from the evangelical right. But the piece played both sides without defending Pete’s contention. So let me go ahead and do that.
Joseph and Mary went to their ancestral home in Bethlehem for a census. In no sense did Jesus “come into this world as a refugee.” There’s also no reason to think that Joseph was particularly impoverished. So nothing about this tweet is correct.- Matt Walsh
This was the most common response. But this is Luke’s story. Not Matthew’s story. For some reason Matthew’s account is ignored.
Matthew 2: 13 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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
This is a refugee story. According to the UN a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group..
As for the question of poverty. KD Joyce, an Episcopal priest, writes: According to Leviticus 12, the offering to be made after the birth of a son is a year-old lamb and a turtledove. The only people allowed to bring two turtledoves instead, as Joseph and Mary do, are those who don’t have enough money to afford the lamb.
Luke 2: 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
And there is “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich (in heaven), yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9
Some were impressed with Joseph’s being a carpenter, thus being a skilled worker. But in the Roman world, skilled work does not produce wealth. Owning land does. There was no significant middle class. You were in the top 1% or you were among the poor masses with few folks in between. Joseph, under any sociological account of Rome, and his family would have been among the poor masses.
But many conservative Christians reject the belief that Jesus was a refugee since both his birthplace and Egypt were a part of the Roman Empire.
But the provinces had the kind of self government that Jesus’ family was safe in Egypt, they were not safe in Judea. They were not fleeing Rome, they were fleeing Herod and his edict. It would be like fleeing from Italy to Germany, both are in the EU, but they are self governed regions. But even if this is rejected, we do have a term for folks forced to flee their home within borders.
An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country’s borders. They are often referred to as refugees, although they do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee.
The Syrians who fled for their lives to live in Northern Syria in the Kurdish safe zones, are commonly understood as refugees though they remain in the same country. Native Americans were forcibly moved around the country. When the Northern Cheyenne refused to live in Oklahoma, they escaped back to Montana but were refugees or as least displaced.
The force of Pete’s tweet remains. The question raised by Mark Tooley may remain the most significant one:
Political Christmas is temporal and materialistic. It’s partly true but in a very meager way. Traditional Christmas is eternal and cosmic. Its indictment of ourselves is more challenging but also more truthful than the…political Christmas.
The spiritual or cosmic salvation of our souls through Christ’s death and resurrection becomes the meaning of the Gospel. The material concerns of refugees fleeing oppression not so much. There is force to this because we are a meaning seeking people who hunger for the eternal things. But the context for this, according to Aristotle, can never be divorced from the material.
What does it do to the soul of a child to have their parents ripped away? To be imprisoned? To face conditions we wouldn’t allow for animals? To those who never got a shot at life but faced their deaths over treatable illnesses in these camps? We are creating a lifetime of trauma on children and families.
Many assume a cosmic salvation is a supernatural transaction divorced from the actual events of our lives. I see no evidence for such a view. Salvation in the Bible is always in relation to the concrete needs of existence. When the Israelites are in slavery they are saved by being set free. When Mary envisions salvation it means that the poor have all the goods of life met. When Jesus prayed it was for daily bread. And with Maslow, those needs when met can create a context for a life which can seek meaning in the eternal.
But any kind of meaning had there supposes safety, peace, well being. Any salvation story, including Christmas, that sidelines these things, cannot be salvific and is not good news. But thankfully the Christmas story continues to come out and cannot be sidelined. And people will always notice these liberation themes and will always be met with controversy for doing so.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings