JosÃ© was a simple man who worked with his hands. He built things. He tried to make a living as a carpenter, but times were hard and taxes were high.
Regardless of the foreign military occupation of his homeland, there simply was no time for him to become involved with any of those revolutionary groups doing maneuvers and hiding in the wilderness.
He just worked hard, barely keeping food on the table for his rapidly growing family. Although a newlywed for fewer than nine months, his wife, MarÃa, had already given birth to his first child, a healthy boy.
On this particular night, JosÃ© was scared. He ran through the sleeping town, silently making his way toward his makeshift home, praying and hoping that he wasn’t too late. He had to save his family from certain death.
He burst into his shack and went straight to the sleeping mats on the dirt floor. “Despierta mi amor. Wake up, my love,” JosÃ© told his wife as he gently shook her. “A messenger just warned me that la milicia will be coming for us. I fear we will disappear! ApÃºrate. Hurry up. We must leave this moment for a safer land, far from the reaches of this brutal dictatorship.”
There was no time to pack any belongings or personal mementos, nor was there time to say goodbye to friends and family. In the middle of the night, literally a few steps before the National Guard, JosÃ© took his small family into el exilio, the exile.
They would come to a foreign country, wearing only the clothes on their backs. Even though they could not speak the language, nor understand the strange customs and idiosyncrasies of the dominant culture, at least they were physically safe. Salvation for this poor family was found south of the border.
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More than 2,000 years ago, this family arrived in Egypt as political refugees, fleeing the tyrannical regime of Herod. Almost 50 years ago, my own father came home to his wife, my mother, with similar news. Because of his involvement with the former political regime, he was now a fugitive of the newly installed government. If caught, he would face certain death. They gathered me – their 6-month-old son – and headed north, arriving in this country literally with only the clothes on their backs. Like Jesus, I too was a political refugee.
The story of God’s people is the story of aliens. All the patriarchs of Genesis were aliens. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are the stories of aliens trying to survive among a people who are not theirs in a land that they cannot claim.
If they were living today, we would probably call them undocumented immigrants, or the more pejorative term, illegal aliens. The people who will come to be called Jews were formed in the foreign land of Egypt.
They become a nation while traversing the desert, having no land to claim as their own. They will experience exile in a far off place called Babylon and disenfranchisement on their own terrain due to military occupation by foreign empires (that is, Rome). Is it any wonder that the second most common phrase throughout the biblical text exhorts the reader to take care of the alien among you, along with the widows and orphans?
Throughout the biblical text we are reminded of God’s concern for the alien and the stranger who reside among us. Aliens and strangers in the Bible are those who have been victimized, oppressed or enslaved by others, those who are vulnerable because of lack of family connections or support, and those whose nationality or religion differs from the dominant culture.
In the exodus story, God told the Israelites to welcome the stranger because “you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” In Ruth, a Moabite woman “clings to” her mother-in-law, Naomi, to provide her security in old age even though she could have returned to her own people. The Good Samaritan in Luke does not leave the alien on the side of the road – or build walls to avoid seeing his injuries. He takes social and economic risks to attend to the alien’s needs.
We are challenged again and again to welcome the alien in our midst.
For those who claim to be Christians, responsibility toward aliens is so paramount that God incarnated Godself as an alien. The radicalness of the incarnation is not so much that the Creator of the universe became a frail human, but rather that God chose to become an alien, fleeing the oppressive consequences of the empire of the time.
In so doing, Jesus willingly assumed the role of the ultra-disenfranchised. More than 2,000 years ago, the holy family arrived in Egypt as political refugees, migrants fleeing the tyrannical regime of Herod. Jesus too was an undocumented alien, a victim of circumstances beyond his comprehension or control.
Jesus understands what it means to be seen as inferior because he was from a culture different from the dominant one. I have no doubt that Jesus wept as a child for the same reasons many aliens weep today. Those of us who are or have been undocumented aliens discover a savior who knows our fears and frustrations.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.