A Christmas nativity scene depicts Jesus, Mary, and Joseph separated and caged, as if they were asylum seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at Claremont United Methodist Church on December 9, 2019, in Claremont, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

On December 25, 2019, then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg tweeted a Christmas message celebrating “the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee.” A few weeks earlier, the Claremont United Methodist Church in Southern California unveiled their annual Nativity scene, depicting the Holy Family separated and caged at the border. A year before that, the United Church of Christ released a new Christmas yard sign specifically in support of current refugees, adorned with the words: “This Christmas, we remember that Jesus was a refugee.”

Just a decade ago, the sentiment would have been barely controversial, if far less ubiquitous. In 2012, the staunchly traditional Pope Benedict XVI called Jesus a refugee. In 2009, Leith Anderson, then director of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), described Jesus as a refugee in a statement. The phrasing never sparked any obvious backlash or rebuttal.

Within a few years, however, it had become divisively political.

In response to Buttigieg’s tweet, conservative Daily Wire reporter Ryan Saavedra simply replied: “Jesus was not a refugee, you liar.” In 2018, evangelical pastor Paula White, who served as Trump’s spiritual advisor, decried those who have “taken the biblical Scriptures out of context on this, to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee.’” White spoke about the issue on the Christian Broadcasting Network, implying that the comparisons of Jesus with those seeking refuge at the border were not only inaccurate, but heretical: “If he had broken the law, then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah.” When the NAE’s Anderson rallied conservative Christian leaders to sign a letter against Trump’s refugee policies in 2017, his message now focused exclusively on how the policies went against Jesus’s teachings and left out any mention of Jesus himself as a refugee.

On the surface, the debate concerns different interpretations of the flight to Egypt, where the Holy Family flees after an angel informs them that Herod is trying to kill the newborn Jesus. (It is not, as some think, about the birth in Bethlehem). Some argue that because Egypt was still Roman territory, and not legally a separate border, the flight isn’t a refuge in the modern legal sense. Others argue that fleeing one’s homeland to a foreign country in fear of one’s life, regardless of the geopolitical realities of the time, makes one a refugee.

Clearly, however, something has changed to make this message both widely popular and newly enraging. Part of what changed, of course, is Trump. Since 2015, national discourse around immigrants, refugees, and what it means to act like a true Christian has become more frenzied and more urgent, and rhetoric everywhere has taken on sharper moral connotations than it might have in 2010. But part of it, also, is the way this language fits into a broader pattern of how progressive, liberal churches have begun to evoke the body of Jesus in their social messaging.

One of the earliest examples of this recent shift is a 2012 image of a singular run-on sentence by activist John Fugelsang, which, in addition to listing Jesus’s acts of social justice, described Jesus as “a long-haired brown-skinned homeless community-organizing anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.” (Originally designed as a fridge magnet, it was shared widely to social media by a variety of celebrities, including Miley Cyrus, after it got promoted by the Huffington Post in 2014). The Rev. James Martin has riffed on similar themes since 2015, including an August 2017 tweet in which he wrote: “Dear ‘Christian’ white supremacists: Your Savior is a dark-skinned Jewish man from the Middle East who spoke Aramaic. His mom was Jewish too.” In 2020, activist and writer Charlotte Clymer tweeted, as part of a longer message, that “Jesus Christ was a brown-skinned, socialist, Jewish refugee.” When popular pastor and author John Pavlovitz tweeted at President Donald Trump in 2017, he wrote: “Too bad a dark skinned, homeless, refugee Jesus wouldn’t be allowed in your America.”

For most of Christian history, the fiercest debates about the body and person of Jesus focused on his status as both human and divine. The very promise of salvation was on the line in these debates, and so the exact nature of his Incarnated body was minutely discussed and considered from nearly every angle. But for all this focus, the specifics of that Incarnated body and its appearance were rarely discussed at length in written documents until the most recent two centuries. The fact that he was born a Jew or lived in the Middle East was not utilized as a reference point for Christian action for many centuries.

Of course, to say that Jesus was a radical, an outsider, a man born not into the elite of his world, and who told his followers to care for the least among them is not new. “This is all in Matthew, chapter 25,” said Martin, a prolific writer and Jesuit priest who has worked extensively with refugees and is known for his public platform and left-leaning politics. “Jesus’s litmus test for whether we get into heaven is did you care for the poor, the sick, the stranger? So it’s pretty clear that even if he weren’t a refugee, he told us to care for refugees. But Jesus was a refugee, and that changes how we think of refugees—or it should.”

It would not have been obvious to earlier generations of white American Christians, though, to use such arguments. “I can’t think of any nineteenth-century text where I’d ever seen anything like that,” said Paul Harvey, professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and co-author of The Color of Christ. “It’s not the first time white Christians would identify heavily with the image of Christ as sufferer—that’s an extension of Social Gospel language and an extension of imagery that gets adopted by abolitionist movements—but it is the first time that they might use this particular language of Christ as a dark-skinned, Palestinian Jew. White Social Gospelers were always drawing Jesus as a manly socialist.”

In nineteenth-century America, the body of Christ became an especially potent image of the Civil War, identified with the suffering of enslaved African Americans and employed by abolitionists and freed slaves alike. As critiques of the “white Christ” spread across Black churches, rooted in arguments both moral and historical, many Black Christian leaders called for their congregants to embrace images of Jesus as a Black man. By the 1960s and 1970s, the image of Black Jesus had become central to Black theology. This Christ was both marginalized and Lord, an affirmation of ministry and power within his own divine Blackness. The particular reality of the body of Christ on earth was endowed with meaning, and this meaning soon spread.

Some might be tempted to write off the language of today as little more than Social Gospel language finally encountering ideas of Black liberation theology, energized by century-old quests for the historical Jesus and buoyed by an online discourse which rewards smackdown one-line responses over anything else. They wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. But they would be missing how unprecedented it is for so many predominantly white churches to evoke a Jesus who does not look like them, and what that says about our current moment.

It’s hard not to see how some of the popularity of this language might relate to changing conceptions within the Christian left on approaches to the power of whiteness. For many Christians, emphasizing Jesus’s refugee experience is a rhetorical point aimed mostly at white Christians, especially conservative ones, whose view of the sacred might be too limited for their liking. “It’s pointing out, to people who are most loudly professing their faith in Jesus, that many of the policies they support and many of the politicians they support are antithetical to who the Incarnate Christ was,” John Pavlovitz told me.

Jacquelyn Winston, a scholar of early Christianity and former chair of undergraduate theology at Azusa Pacific University, agrees that describing Jesus in the racial, marginalized categories of today mostly reflects contemporary concerns. “The emphasis on Jesus as refugee has to do with modern problems, not ancient,” she said, adding that such an emphasis makes him relevant to the modern human condition. “The goal of these pastors is to stress Jesus’s compassion toward those rejected by society, rather than any attempt to convey anything about Jesus’s ethnic identity.”

Winston does see Jesus as a refugee, but she describes his family’s flight to Egypt as short-term. “He lived among his own people. He was accepted by his own people from an ethnic perspective,” she says. “He was rejected because he was a threat to the power structures.”

Others argue that a much more radical call is indeed getting lost as this language goes mainstream. The Rev. Adam Bucko, an Episcopal priest who grew up in totalitarian Poland and now directs the Center for Spiritual Imagination at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in New York, cited the late Black liberation theologian James Cone: “To receive God’s revelation is to become black with God, by joining God in the work of liberation.” In that vein, Bucko added, “To really accept that Jesus is a refugee or that Jesus is a homeless person on the streets, the otherness of that almost has to become our own, in some way or form, which means that we have to kind of divest ourselves and see where we ourselves are other than, and be willing to redistribute, and to risk, what it is that makes us other from that condition.”

Christena Cleveland, a psychologist, theologian, and author of the forthcoming God Is a Black Woman, is wary at times of churches or Christians who do not occupy marginalize spaces in society and yet emphasize the marginalized suffering of Christ without also emphasizing his power on earth. “One thing this language can do is distract people from recognizing the ways in which Christ had power and divested it, so then they don’t actually have to think much about their power, and divest it,” she said. “This can make it easy to run down to the border or make a donation or do something that’s not actually costing them their power. And so, for people who are engaged in these issues who do have power, to identify with that part of Jesus is to realize, oh, this is what it actually costs.”

For Cleveland, such language, when rooted in white or multi-ethnic churches, sometimes separates the dual identity of Christ as both sufferer and savior that was and is so powerful in liberation contexts, where the suffering Christ is upheld by people likewise marginalized, and to whom Christ gives strength as well as presence.

As this language develops in its current context, it will be interesting to see whether white Christians are pushed to consider some of its more radical claims. Bucko knows this language can energize left-leaning Christians, and he thinks that’s important, but he doesn’t want people to forget there is more theologically to invest. “Especially with progressive churches,” he said, “sometimes I feel like we are very good with slogans and big statements, but we don’t always follow that up by responding with our lives.”

Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, focusing on religion, culture, awe, and all ways humans seek meaning. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.