Two Jesuses: The Bible as a pro-migrant text and the westernisation of Christ
Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is an example of the Western idea of Jesus. Photo available on Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…’
Leviticus 19:33-34, New International Version
Over the past ten years or more, populist right-wing movements have influenced or outright taken hold of the politics of many countries in Europe, America, and beyond. Consider the elections of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and Jair Bolsonaro, and indeed Brexit, the Identitarian movement, and many more the world over. Though appearing in different cultures and countries, these populist movements are ideologically similar, in particular, being aggressively anti-immigration. Indeed, border control was central to both the success of the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency. Immigration, specifically, is seen as a threat to cultural values, more often than not religious or Christian values.
According to the Pew Templeton Global Religious Futures project, 74% of Europeans are Christian. It's no surprise then that Christianity still holds a prominent place in political discussions and cultural identity. The European and American right use the notion of ‘defending Christian values’ as a central justification for some of the most violently anti-refugee policies and views in the world. Indeed right now, many Christian groups in Poland have pledged to support Poland’s outright refusal to accept refugees. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former Minister of the Interior who proposed to make crucifixes mandatory in Italian classrooms, is currently on trial for refusing to allow migrant rescue ships dock in Italian ports. Yet, far from being a text that encourages insular thinking and hostility to outsiders, the Bible frequently emphasises that migrants should be welcomed and supported enthusiastically. Indeed, what is Exodus if not a story about refugees?
Of course, people picking and choosing what they need from the Bible is nothing new; indeed, it is sometimes essential. Murder, mutilation and even the selling of your children into slavery (Exodus 21:7) are condoned, yet wearing mixed fabrics or planting a field with more than one type of seed is a sin (Leviticus 19:19). This is to say nothing of the violent misogyny and homophobia present in the Bible. To use the Bible as the basis for a moral or value system, selectivity is essential. Interestingly, this is acknowledged in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus quotes and rejects the ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ notion from Deuteronomy 19:21 by saying a person should respond peacefully to violence (to turn the other cheek).
Yet despite the slight differences in value systems, the theme of offering support and protection remains constant in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Central to Christ's teachings is helping and supporting the oppressed and downtrodden. In the Epistle to the Romans, it is outright stated that extending hospitality to strangers is a ‘mark of a good Christian’ (Romans 12:9-13).
As such, citing ‘Christian values’ as a reason for anti-migrant beliefs or policies is fundamentally contradictory to Christian teachings. This is particularly the case when you consider that Christ himself, by the definition provided by the UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951, would have been a refugee when he fled to Egypt as a child to avoid the persecution of King Herod.
A story of two Jesuses
Perhaps then, the ‘Christian values’ people cite when expressing anti-migrant sentiments are not so much values from original Christian texts, but diluted interpretations of them made to suit the climate and geopolitics of Europe, and later the United States. Interpretations that have changed a dark-skinned poor Jewish preacher called Yeshua Ben Yusuf to the light-skinned, blue-eyed figure of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we have westernised a figure that is unmistakably eastern. Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth are all in the Middle East. Indeed, the only Europeans that appear in the story of Jesus are the ones that nailed him to a cross.
By re-inventing Christ this way, we have essentially eliminated his foreignness and allowed people to preach ‘love thy neighbour’ in one breath and the hatred of migrants and refugees in the next – and not see the contradiction. Perhaps then we have created a malleable Jesus that can be used to add the weight of two thousand years of tradition behind any cause, regardless of whether it contradicts his teachings. To this though, there is a quote in the Gospel of Matthew that could be quite illustrative. In it, Jesus talks of false prophets and says:
‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’.
(Matthew 7:21-23, English Standard Version)