Was Jesus a DACA Dreamer and Should he have been Deported/ Crucified?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

When the Roman Empire took Judea in 63 BCE, it ruled through vassals. It lost Palestine briefly to the Iranians, but then came back and from 37 BCE ruled through a vassal king, Herod.

Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Gospels, was a displaced person. In his childhood his parents fled Herod the Great and his plan to kill Jewish newborn boys, going to Egypt.

In 4 BC Herod the Great died and the family came back to Roman Palestine.

“Matthew says, “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

Around this time Rome instituted direct rule of Palestine, installing prefects. So the holy family came back, not to their own country, but to an empire where they had no status. Rome saw them as barbarian riffraff.

Jesus wasn’t viewed as a citizen by the Roman authorities. At that time, citizenship for non-Romans, or at least for people not from the Italian peninsula, was rare.

Paul of Tarsus was said by the book of Acts to be a Roman citizen. He was born near today’s Adana, Turkey, which was then ruled by Rome. If he had citizenship it was likely because his father had performed some extraordinary service for the empire. But it is most likely that Paul did not have citizenship; he never mentions it in his letters, and at that time it was a rare social status for a Jew from Asia Minor.

It is unclear why the Romans arrested and executed Jesus. They appear to have interpreted his religious teachings as political rebellion. We know this because crucifixion was a Roman punishment for enemies of the state, along with disobedient slaves and brigands.

I love Reza Aslan to death, but most academic scholars of the New Testament today do not believe that Jesus was in fact a political rebel or Zealot.

Here is the important thing. Roman citizens were not subject to capital punishment.

If Jesus had been a citizen of the Roman Empire, he would not have been executed, much less crucified.

His crucifixion was itself a testimony to his lack of citizenship, to his in-between legal status.

Jesus was an undocumented alien from the point of view of Pontius Pilate, and he was treated differently than a dissident in Rome would have been. He was an outsider. He was a colonial subject. He was an undocumented Mexican farm worker, from the point of view of Roman authorities.

In today’s America, Dreamers are undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children, typically by undocumented relatives, just as Jesus was brought to the Galilee by his parents. In the strict letter of the law, they are in the United States illegally. (Statuses can be illegal; people cannot).

But dreamers, unlike adults who cross the border without paperwork or who overstay their visa, never consciously broke the law. They were toddlers or children. They had no idea what was going on. They lived in our neighborhoods and attended our schools, believing themselves native-born Americans. Subjectively, deep down inside, they are Americans. But they do not have a birth certificate and were not born in the USA.

The United States offers no path to citizenship except through the visa system. You get a work visa and then you get a green card for permanent residency and then you get citizenship. If you did not come in through that system, there is no way to apply for citizenship, as Dreamers would do if they could.

There is no Federal form you can fill out to apply for citizenship if your relatives brought you here as a child. There is no fine you can pay, no action you can undertake.

People say, you could self-deport and apply to come back. But if you leave, you get in a queue with millions of people and there is no guarantee you will ever be able to come back. In fact, if you admit that you were once undocumented, that would rather be a strike against you.

But remember that the Dreamers never consciously did anything wrong.

Now they are Americans. They speak American English. They go to university. They have live-in girlfriends or boyfriends and a network of friends from childhood. They likely do not speak the language of their country of origin, or don’t speak it very well. They know no one there. Deporting them to the country of their parents is more exile than it is homecoming.

Jose Antonio Vargas did not even know he was undocumented until his employer asked him for a birth certificate when he was an adult. He is an award-winning journalist.

The Federal government made a deal with the Dreamers some years ago, that they would not be arbitrarily deported, would not have to live in fear, if they went to school or got a job and behaved responsibly. (American citizens like Donald Trump can be here even though they behave very irresponsibly, routinely committing felony assault on other people’s private parts. But life isn’t fair.) This was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Trump and the Republican Congress have reneged on that deal, throwing the future of 800,000 Dreamers into doubt.

Matthew 25 says,

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ”

We forget that Jesus himself was a stranger from a Roman point of view, and that he was a prisoner, and he likely went hungry as a refugee child in Egpt.

As we celebrate Christmas today, we might give some thought to those, like Jesus, who lack citizenship, and who therefore are open to displacement and arbitrary arrest and punishment even though they have done nothing wrong– even though they might have been charitable to others around them and lived exemplarly lives. We might think about how we can help our fellow Americans who are full of promise and ready to contribute to our nation, who are here through no fault of their own but who are being treated as perpetual outsiders. We have to decide if we want to be more like Jesus or more like Pontius Pilate.


Related video:

Define American: Jose’s Story

8 Responses

  1. I fear the last sentence of your excellent piece and the question it poses is a no brainer. Pontias Pilate wins out every time and always has. The very reasonable assertion you propose, which I basically interpret as: “do unto others as you would them do unto you” has no more traction today than it did at the time of Jesus. America doesn’t have a monopoly of stateless people because there are millions of such people and many are fleeing from terror, starvation and religious persecution the world over. In almost every case of stateless and homeless people, its the leaders of our nations who are to blame. Its time we got rid of our modern day Pontius Pilate and elected people with some humanity and vision instead.

  2. Happy Holidays Juan – and I promise to donate before the New Year after Christmas. Thanks for continuing your service in what is indeed a grim time for this country. A few things to add to this:

    First, I’m going to be a bit of a nit-pick here. I am dubious about drawing too direct a parallel between Jesus and Dreamers because of the lack of what we would recognize as a nation state in the ancient world. James Scott, in his recent wonderful book Against the Grain (great holiday reading!) teases this out in very interesting terms. Ancient borders, even of a highly organized empire like Rome’s, were very porous, and when discrimination arose it tends to be cultural and linguistic more than racial (and I’m not sure we can say the ancient world had such a category as “race” anymore than it had “homosexuality” as one).

    Also in defense of the Romans, they were more generous with citizenship than one might expect – Spaniards, Gauls, Greeks – can be found among the citizenship roles certainly by Caesar’s time in the 50s BC, though admittedly these were often well-connected provincials (Roman and Italian senators were already grumbling in Caesar’s time about Gauls entering the Senate). In general Rome’s altruism with enfranchisement of conquered peoples was a key to its overall success, although there were levels and grades of it. That said, a carpenter’s family in a distant province need not apply – at least not until Caracalla granted universal citizenship early in the third century CE (and probably, most cynically, for tax purposes).

    Citizenship didn’t guarantee a fair trial – capricious governors sometimes scandalously crucified citizens in their province (such as Vibius Secundus, governor of Spain in the 20s CE, whose own son prosecuted him before Tiberius). But you are right – that is precisely why Jesus was crucified and Paul allowed to go to Rome to appeal to Caesar (then Nero). That was a key difference – citizens were in fact subject to capital punishment, but they were given the right to appeal, as opposed to non-citizens. As to the specific reasons Jesus was ultimately tried by Pilate and what was going on there (if we were to take the biblical narrative at face value which we should be wary of), I’ve got a lot to say on it, but this comment is already lengthy!

    As to the lessons about honoring the stranger that you cite – this is indeed the crux of the matter. I’ve spent the last year doing a close reading of the King James Bible (simply because its language is beautiful and singular – I highly recommend God’s Secretaries by John Nicolson to get a fuller appreciation of it). My conclusion is that conservative evangelicals never have read the text; they simply “intuit” or “feel” what is in it without reading it. Concerning the Old Testament, I could not even begin to list the numerous passages in which God commands that the stranger in the strange land be given help and compassion, the widow and orphan be supported, the sick and the least among us be treated with sympathy and justice. Indeed, it is pretty clear that not doing this is one of the explanations for the Babylonian captivity (along with apostacy and the worship of strange gods). God also commands it because the Israelites themselves were once captive in a strange land (Egypt) whose people sustained them. And let me note this is not in one or two passages – in the books subsequent to Exodus it is fair to say that this message is on virtually every page – every page!

    It is an uphill climb even to argue that the Bible particularly supports the favorite whipping post of conservatives who want to ban abortion and quash LGBTQ rights. But it is pretty clear what both the Old and New Testaments say about treating the least among us. I am glad to see people on the left, such as pastor William Barber, start to push back against conservatives whose faith is not lived, but merely used as a political tool. The message of the Jewish Christian heritage is one of compassion for all – there is simply no better weapon with which to defeat the Bible-thumpers than the Bible itself. We dismiss it at our peril.

    Now, off to over-indulge as I celebrate the birth of a disenfranchised Jewish heretic!

    • The Religious right in America – particularly Christian Zionists – view Donald Trump as an instrumentality of God’s will in the advancement of Israel’s interests and the eventual construction of the Third Temple.

      Pastor John Hagee has recently granted an interview in which he claims he was promised by Trump in a meeting that he would move the American Embassy to Jerusalem unlike other recalcitrant U.S. presidents:

      link to z3news.com

      link to youtube.com

      Pastor Hagee is a New York Times Best Seller List author

    • Conservative Evangelicals actually found someone to “intuit” the meaning of the Bible for them: it’s called the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909. Basically this Bible hustler Scofield from Texas created a Bible with a running commentary that served his agenda, pretty much the whole End Times excuse for holy tyranny. And yes, it promoted the idea of an incoming state of Israel. Therefore, it’s entirely a literalism based on Scofield and his acolytes’ interpretation of what’s “literal.” Really, it’s the marketing of a revenge fantasy for White Southerners who were about to get steamrolled by the 20th Century after they’d failed to manage the 19th.

      Another of its sins:
      “Finally, the 1917 edition also attempted to date events of the Bible. It was in the pages of the Scofield Reference Bible that many Christians first encountered Archbishop James Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation as 4004 BC.” Before then Christians were sliding through Old Earth Creationism into an acceptance of archaeological and evolutionary evidence, but the Bible schools that backed Scofield drew a line in the sand for a fanatical devotion to a literal 7-day creation 6000 years ago. You can see the implications of this rejection of science and data as the start of a long march to conspiracy theories and Dolchstoss myths.

  3. I have relatives that are Dreamers. Since Trumps election, my relatives (some of which are farm workers) are being discriminated against by their employers (most of who are Trump supporters) and some of their white co-workers. Currently I’m in University and hate visiting East (Very rural) Washington State because of the now bold racism I occasionally experience for being of Mexican descent despite being born here and therefore being a citizen just like anyone else. I definitely prefer Seattle over my now bigoted hometown. Trumps election has just shown how bigoted some people we thought were friends truly were.

  4. Good on you Professor Cole. I have thought for a longtime that to know the politics of the time of Jesus, and how it surrounded Jesus, is well worth knowing if you were to wish to know Jesus in depth.

    Taking the life of Jesus a step further, as you have in your essay, and tying Jesus to modern life, as with DACA is also appropriate.

    No criticism from here, have a wonderful holiday. Joe

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