Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Jesus a Refugee

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."
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

This sermon was preached December 30 2001. It's the only sermon where I have been a) heckled, b) had people walk out and c) been physically intimidated after church!

According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,

a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. 
(Quoted from as at December 29 2001)

By this definition Jesus was a refugee. There is no question of this, despite the fact that some Christians are clearly embarrassed by the fact.

What would happen if Jesus had fled to Australia instead of Egypt?

Remember that, as Justice Einfeld recently pointed out, "people seeking refugee asylum are not illegal migrants. In making their applications for refugee status, they are doing something expressly permitted by Australian and international law."

Yet, he said

Alone of all countries in the world, we have indiscriminately detained all of them, the elderly, the children, the sick and the pregnant at a cost by the way of around $50,000 per person per year when the Catholic Archbishop of Perth was offering free accommodation for all of them in Catholic homes while the review process ground on.

He goes on to say that

In any civilised country, freedom from arbitrary detention is a fundamental human right derived from the common law, yet successive Australian governments have detained for long periods of time up to 5 years and more asylum seekers who have arrived in this country, having fled terror, persecution, hunger and other human rights violations too horrible to dictate, in their homelands.

He points out that

Most detention centres in this country suffer overcrowding, a lack of natural light and recreational facilities, and have completely inadequate sanitary conditions. As our own Human Rights Commission has found, they are more like overnight police lock-ups than places suitable for the lengthy detention of people who have committed no crime. And of course they are mostly sited thousands of miles from civilisation!

He went on to say he could hardly believe his ears when he heard the Minister (of Immigration?) describe the detention centres "as something like Australians' homes."

It's not as though the asylum seekers are riddled with terrorists or criminals, despite the myths and lies that prevail. 97% of applicants from Iraq and 93% of applicants from Afghanistan seeking asylum without valid visas in Australia in 1999 were recognised as genuine refugees. Just 11 of more than 13,000 people who sought asylum in Australia last year were rejected on "character grounds". Only one was regarded as a security risk because of suspected terrorist links. He had come by air, not by boat. (See the Edmund Rice Center pages on asylum seekers or Jan's Refugee pages)

So, without a doubt Jesus, fleeing for his life from King Herod, would have been stuck in a detention centre, perhaps for years, even though the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees "specifically bars countries from punishing people who have arrived directly from a country of persecution (or from another country where protection could not be assured), provided that they present themselves speedily to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry."

In fact, in Australia, we would try and stop Jesus getting here by turning his leaky boat around so we could avoid our legal humanitarian obligations. Or else we would send him to some impoverished dot in the ocean who we have bought off to fulfil our obligations for us. We would talk about the flood of refugees... although only 4100 odd arrived by boat last year and the Immigration Department Website (link good at Dec 29 2001) shows around 60,000 visa over-stayers in Australia at June 30 2000. Where is the hue and cry to deport them?

But too bad about all that, Jesus will be put in detention anyway.

If we judge what Australia would do to Jesus by biblical standards, this is what the bible says:

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Strangers is one of the biblical word for refugees. Can it be said that we love the stranger in Australia?

To really live the Christian Faith is to have concern for justice for all people, including "the strangers and widows and orphans" the Old Testament called the oppressed and nobodies of the time.

In Matthew 9:13 Jesus told people to go and learn the meaning of the word compassion. Compassion is the modern word for mercy. It means to walk in the shoes of someone, or to feel how a situation feels to them.

Jesus quoted the scripture where God says "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Keeping the law and making sacrifices in the temple was the "right thing" a good Jew of Jesus time did to keep the law. But, says Jesus, God desires mercy or compassion, not rigid keeping of the law. He was alluding to the words of the Old Testament Prophet Hosea who says as God's word, "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

The Old Testament prophets were damming of those who kept religious observance and yet did not live out justice. Amos 5:21 has God saying, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies." Jesus was damming of those who kept religious observance hard heartedly and had no compassion. He called them "whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth." Matthew 23:27

The law of Moses was to be interpreted through compassion. Compassion, then the law. Let us be compassionate first and then worry about the law, if you like.

In Australia we have chosen to allow our law to fence off and limit our compassion. We have rejected the strangers, changing the law with a distinct lack of compassion. In fact, we changed the law so that if you make it to Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island that would no longer count as making it to Australia, which one international legal expert called a blatantly flouting of international law.

Jean-Pierre Fonteyne, the director of the Graduate International Law program at the Australian National University, is stunned by Mr Howard's move to prevent asylum seekers seeking refugee status on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef.
"The government has gone completely bananas, they've gone bonkers," said Dr Fonteyne, who specialises in the law of the sea and refugee law.
"It is completely ludicrous. There is no way whatsoever that that can be in accordance with international legality."
Dr Fonteyne said Australia would be blatantly flouting international law if legislation amending the Migration Act to exclude the territories from the migration zone was passed."
As reported on The Age website 9 September 2001 and at posted at, link live on December 29 2001, appears gone July 2003

Remember the story at the end of time when the people are brought one at a time before The Son Of Man and some are placed at his left hand? He said

(Mat 25:41-45) 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

He is speaking to us, as a nation. If this is how we treat the strangers, the refugees among whom Jesus himself stands, how are we treating the poor and the widows and the orphans?

This sermon is not just a political diatribe about refugees. This is about the very fabric and nature of our society. The way we treat asylum seekers shows how far we have fallen.

The church has called Jesus The Son of God, God "in the flesh." It says we saw The Divine in this human being above all human beings. In fact, as we think about it, we conclude that God has planned this from the beginning... To fulfil the prophets.

This son of God was with the lowest of the low. He was a refugee by the calling of God-- worshipped by the wise foreigners, and the unclean shepherds, but not recognised by his own people.

Will we be the same and not recognise the sons and daughters of God who come to us? What law will we obey... Jesus' call to compassion or the convenient, selfish legalism of the land. Our Christian Discipleship will be judged by this.

Will we repeat the myths and lies about refugees and asylum seekers? Or will we stand up to the xenophobes and racists of this land despite the lack of courage and compassion of our political leaders?

Will we be Christians, or are we something less?

The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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