How a Biblical Mandate Conflicts with International Law
A Review of
Jesus the Refugee: Ancient Injustice and Modern Solidarity
D. Glenn Butner Jr.
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Scott J. Pearson
Refugees and forced migration are part and parcel of human history – likely even before the advent of government. Its global effects are projected to increase dramatically in the 21st-century because of wars and climate change. Several leading universities have masters degree programs that focus on this problem through sociological and legal frameworks. Stories of refugees are all over the Christian Bible, from the Torah to Revelation, and even Jesus was a refugee. Yet few– even in the reading public and even in churches– are aware of how contemporary refugees are treated. To fill that gap, D. Glenn Butner has written Jesus the Refugee: Ancient Injustice and Modern Solidarity.
Butner introduces a “thought experiment” as this book’s premise: In the holy family’s flight to Egypt after Jesus’ birth, how would Jesus be handled by modern international systems for refugees? Then he uses this story to introduce us to international law, governments, and organizations to see how convoluted those systems are. Likely, Jesus’s journey would be harder and longer, not easier, had it happened today – despite the rise of Christianity and international governing bodies through the United Nations. Then he suggests steps that can be taken by individuals to ameliorate the situation.
Butner approaches this problem as a theologian and an ethicist. He is an advocate for refugees, and his depiction of the international situation appears accurate to my untrained eye. Nonetheless, he lacks a broader context for governmental policy, which involves often difficult trade-offs to make things happen. He writes as a Christian professor involved with immigrant students with adverse experiences. As such, his lens about remedies seems a bit idealistic and impractical for policy.
In terms of remedies, he advocates for “solidarity” with refugees, which is a very church-centered, personal approach, but he neglects to mention specific steps about how to organize socially to address this problem. These organizations involve people across the theological, political, and ideological spectrums. (My wife, an educational advocate for refugees, jokes that she can antagonize people from any perspective in a given day!) I agree that this topic is one of the most-neglected Biblical themes in preaching and that preachers should attend to it, along with its sibling theme of Biblical hospitality. But involvement in these areas encompasses NGOs and politics, too, and this book unfortunately lacks specific ways to connect with such groups.
Overall, this book does an excellent job of exposing the condition of refugees worldwide along with the Biblical mandate for welcome and hospitality. It addresses specific, common obstacles to helping these groups. It’s a bit light on concrete next steps to organize and to act on this knowledge, though. Nonetheless, this is an issue Christian leaders need to pay more attention to because it’s deeply human (and biblical) and only going to increase in coming decades.
Scott J. Pearson
Scott writes biomedical software for an academic medical center in Nashville, Tennessee. His wife works for a local, faith-based refugee agency founded by refugees for refugee families in Nashville as well. Scott’s book blog is at www.scottjpearson.com, and his wife’s agency is at www.legacymissionvillage.com.
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