Misusing Jesus for Political Purposes:

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is part of a large coalition of religious activists who are opposing the immigration reform law which the U.S. House of Representatives passed last year (and which still awaits Senate action). PCUSA's Washington office director Elenora Giddings-Ivory recently defended the church's lobbying position by stating: "Joseph and Mary had to flee persecution. Jesus was not born in his home community."

The statement is a gross misuse of the Bible, in part because the passages point to precisely the opposite policy result favored by Giddings and the PCUSA.

Joseph and Mary did indeed have to flee persecution; a few weeks after Jesus was born, they fled to Egypt because they learned that Israel's King Herod was planning to murder Jesus. Under current U.S. immigration law, the Joseph/Mary/Jesus family would have been entitled to asylum in the United States because they would have been able to prove that they could not return to their home country "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion,nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." 8 U.S.C.ยง 1101(a)(42)(A). (U.S. immigration officers and the reviewing court might not have credited Joseph's fear of persecution, which was based on a dream. But hypothetically, the family could have called the Magi as witnesses, who could attest to Herod's obsession with Jesus, and called other witnesses who could have testified about the Massacre of the Innocents that Herod had perpetrated in Israel.)

Accordingly, the Bible story of the Flight into Egypt could be usefully deployed in arguing against U.S. immigration law changes which would restrict entry by genuine refugees. The story could likewise be used to argue in favor of giving refugee status to Chinese families who are fleeing from the Chinese dictatorship's forced abortion policies.

However, PCUSA opposition to the House immigration bill is not based on refugee issues, but rather on the bill's attempt to stem the massive illegal immigration into the United States, principally from Mexico, for economic reasons. Thus, Giddings' accurate statement that Mary and Joseph had to flee persecution is irrelevant. And her other statement disproves her case.

It is true, as she says, that "Jesus was not born in his home community." His parents were living in Gallilee, but they were traveling to Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Why were they traveling? Not so that Joseph could live someplace illegally as an "undocumented worker," but for the opposite reason. They were going to Bethlehem to comply with the Empire-wide tax and census decree issued by Augustus Caesar. Joseph, being from the House of David, had to go to David's city because "everyone went to his own town to register."

Many historians find it unlikely that there really was a universal tax/census around the time of Jesus's birth, and even more unlikely that a Roman tax would have required people to travel to ancestral towns for registration. But for purposes of argument, I'm accepting Giddings' implicit claim that the story about Jesus being born away from his home community is true.

In any case, one of the symbolic points made by the story is that Joseph and his very pregnant spouse went far out the way (literally) to comply with a government tax and census law. Some scholars suggest that one original purpose of the passage, when it was written sometime around the middle or latter part of the first century, was to show the Roman authorities that Christians were not lawless rebels, but in fact were extremely law-abiding and submissive to government authority (as long as the authority did not interfere with Christian religious practices). Whatever you want to say about Joseph the carpenter, you have to admit that he did everything possible to make sure that he was not an "undocumented worker."

There are many interesting pro and con arguments based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and on other religious traditions, which can be applied to the immigration reform debate. But there are some Bible-based arguments which are obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory; you can't use the Sermon on the Mount to argue that personal revenge is a virtue, or David & Goliath to argue that slings ought to be outlawed, or Noah's Ark to claim the emergency preparedness is sinful. Likewise, it is preposterous to invoke the story of the Gallilean baby's birth in Bethlehem to assert that it is immoral to enforce laws requiring people to pay taxes and declare their lawful identity.