When should a person flee their country? Calculated, well-thought plans come in all shapes and sizes for refugees. Some families are forced immediately to leave, while others plan the flight in successive layers. No matter, the plight, the pain, and the cost remain the same, for each refugee must face the challenges of assimilation and transition that await them.
Such a reality can be difficult for Americans born in this country to understand, but it is important that we do. The Christmas story gives us insight about what causes refugees to flee, as well as gospel-truth about how the church can respond.
My Family’s Flight to Preserve Life
The United States classifies a refugee by one’s legal admission that they are fleeing persecution or are unable to return to their homeland due to life-threatening or extraordinary conditions. The U.S. Immigration Policy states that the U.S. will only admit a refugee based on the fact that they cannot return to their home country.
I am Assyrian-American. I was born in the United States because my immediate and extended family decided to flee Iraq and Iran because of the increased religious and political pressure mounting for Assyrian minorities.
My family was experiencing increased persecution during the late 60s, 70s, and even into the 90s. The Assyrians are non-Arab, and they are Christians both nominally and by genuine faith in the gospel through Christ.
My grandfather migrated from Iran to Iraq during the first Assyrian Massacre by the Ottoman Turks. He met and married my grandmother, and eventually they settled in Baghdad. Together, they had four children. One child died of tonsillitis because of the lack of available medical care in the country. The other three fled individually and at different times and by different means. Each child’s flight was calculated, measured by precise action. My grandparents also left with careful planning.
So why did my family decide to leave and come to the States?
The great missionary work of the prophet Jonah contributed to the spread of Christianity among the Assyrians (Jonah 3:8). Christian Assyrians began facing greater hardship as Islam controlled politics and the region. My family fled taking Jesus’ words seriously when persecution arises, one should flee to the next town (Matthew 10:23).
2. Forceful opposition
Internal conflict created impossible systems for Assyrians to accept. The Muslim-dominated region inflicted pain among minority Assyrian population. Intense massacres and loss of life compelled my family’s decision to leave quickly and in successive layers.
The personal decision to leave one’s homeland emerges out of the intense desire to preserve life. God granted his grace to my family during those difficult seasons of unrest. Likewise, God extended his sovereign grace by protecting the Lord Jesus from the hands of his oppressor, Herod.
Joseph’s Flight to Preserve Life
A mounting pressure of a similar kind is found in Matthew 2. The Christmas story reveals the intense plight of Joseph and Mary, and the fear of Jesus’ oppressor, as they became refugees to Egypt in order to fulfill prophecy (Matthew 2:16). The story reveals the intense opposition and intense persecution they experienced.
An angel appears to help Joseph along in his decision-making process. There is little dialogue and few questions but direct obedience by Joseph. The text says, “And [Joseph] arose.”
Such a drastic decision to leave his homeland would be faced with uncertainty and unknowns. God’s grace would undertake his leaving and his return. Joseph took his family “by night” and traveled some 75 miles to the border of Egypt and likely another 75 miles to the nearest town were other Jews lived. This is not a fancy trip, no fancy hotels or living quarters. Whether by foot or by donkey, the long sojourn would have its many obstacles.
Matthew’s account reveals two powerful truths for the church’s consideration of the refugee crisis:
1. Refugees must make deliberate decision to leave.
Joseph’s and Mary’s flight into Egypt is a shadow of Moses’ story. All of Israel is a target of an oppressive tyrant. All the young boys faced death similar to Jesus’ day. Like, Moses, Jesus is spared through a prompt message of an angel. Moses’ mother makes a prompt decision to lay her son in a basket. Moses is saved. Jesus is saved. Israel’s departure from Egypt is fulfilled in Jesus’ departure from Egypt (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 1:11; Jeremiah 31:15).
2. Refugees are strangers in a foreign land.
All Christians are strangers to this world (1 Peter 2:11). Refugees who face imminent danger from their oppressor may not be rescued in this present life. However, our promise is sure. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood. Present refugees in any country should be treated with compassion and respect (Exodus 22:21).
3. Refugees can find God’s grace through the gospel.
Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). We can share in the promises found in the gospel regarding our immigration status in this life. We can take joy in God’s grace, sharing it with all those whom we encounter, even the refugee.
Lives Preserved Eternally in Christ
Christians live as strangers, refugees seeking a better place (1 Peter 4:12). We are aliens unable to find peace with the fleeting pleasures of this life (Hebrews 11:23-28). Spiritually speaking, believers are all refugees, seeking eternity for our final rest (James 1:2).
C.S. Lewis stated,
It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. (Mere Christianity, 134)
For the Christian, it is our rescue through the gospel that enables us as spiritual refugees to be citizens of God’s kingdom and to aim at heaven (1 Peter 2:9). One way that we do this is to understand and have compassion on those who are refugees across borders.
May we see the refugee crisis in a new light this Christmas because of the story of our Savior’s birth.