For the last few years at Christmastime, I inevitably see a slew of memes asserting that if anyone has even a slightly nuanced view of the refugee crisis they must hate refugees, and are therefore hypocrites when they celebrate Christmas. Why? Because Mary and Joseph (and Jesus by default) were refugees in Bethlehem, of course!
For the record, I'm grateful for and supportive of the fact that my church has been actively involved in helping refugees from the Middle East for years. I also think there is an important conversation to be had about how we can protect the safety of our citizens while doing so. However, we live in an age where a carefully constructed and well-researched viewpoint can be shut down with nothing more than a snarky meme. Think I'm exaggerating? Just google "Mary and Joseph refugee meme." I pulled this one from a comment thread on Facebook just a couple of weeks ago:
And then there was this popular tweet last year:
Let's untangle this giant ball of fallacious yarn.
Mary and Joseph were not refugees.
Mary and Joseph traveled from their home in Nazareth to Joseph's hometown of Bethlehem for a government-mandated census. Many other Jewish families would have also made the journey to Bethlehem or their various home towns for the same reason. They were not being persecuted and could have returned home whenever they chose to once they were counted.
It's unlikely that Mary and Joseph attempted to stay at an inn, as it would have been culturally appropriate for them to stay with Joseph's relatives. The word that is translated "inn" in English is a Greek word that can be translated "guest room." If the guest room of one of Joseph's relatives was occupied due to the influx of people there for the census, Mary and Joseph probably lodged in the lower level of the house, where animals were sometimes brought inside to protect them from cold and theft. The presence of the manger indicates that this easily could have been the case.
They weren't "desperately seeking shelter."
The Bible tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it doesn't say that Mary and Joseph arrived there in distress, just in time for Him to be born. In fact, Luke 2:6 gives the clue that they had actually been there for some time before Mary gave birth. The idea that they were "desperately seeking shelter" is a dramatic element that is simply not present in the Biblical account.
The first mention of any kind of distress is in Matthew 2:13,14, after the birth narrative, when Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to escape the coming persecution from Herod. This might be a slightly more tenable comparison to the refugee situation, but this happened some time after Jesus' birth. It's also important to note that when they got to Egypt, they weren't turned away, which is the situation so many refugees today are facing.
They weren't "turned away by the heartless."
As a descendant of King David, one of the most popular kings in Israel's history, it is unlikely that anyone, especially family, would turn Joseph away. Family ties were extremely important in that culture, so it's also unlikely that Joseph's family would turn away a pregnant Mary.
Their race is irrelevant.
The fact that Mary and Joseph were Middle Eastern is irrelevant in this context. Why? Because everyone in the story was from the Middle East.
The Biblical account of Jesus' birth is a little different than our Christmas pageants and Facebook narratives have sometimes implied. Jesus was most likely born on the lower level of a relative's house in Bethlehem among animals. Humble? Yes. Comparable to the situation of Middle Eastern refugees? Hardly.
Shutting down this meaningful conversation with snarky memes dishonors the theological depth of the Incarnation, and disrespects the very real plight of millions of refugees who are truly in a desperate situation.
Please consider giving to Samaritan's Purse to send aid to displaced families in the Middle East.
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