For Christ Was Born in a Refugee Camp

“Shanti, shanti, shanti.”  -T.S. Eliot The Wasteland

Some thirty miles outside of downtown Los Angeles, amongst the tree-lined streets of Claremont with its red-tile-roofed Spanish colonial homes, there’s an unconventional creche on the lawn of a local church. Here in what was the traditional Republican base of southern California, in a district that a half-century ago was represented in Congress by Richard Nixon and that is still home to the conservative Claremont Institute which publishes the distinctly Trumpian yet still tweedy Claremont Review of Books, the pastor of a Methodist Church has supplied powerful witness. Rather than the traditional nativity, with its camels and wise men, shepherds and sheep, the Holy Family and the infant Jesus, the Claremont United Methodist Church has approached its subject from a slightly different direction. For the inhabitants of Claremont are presented with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus separated into their own fenced cages, brutal ribbons of barbed wire topping each cell, with blinding stadium light keeping the family spotlighted through the December night. 

Senior Minister Karen Clark Ristine glosses the purpose of the powerful display in a Facebook post, where she writes that “In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world. … They feared persecution and death. What if this family sought refuge in our country today?” As is their wont on social media, lots of reactionary commentators objected to Rev. Ristine’s nativity scene; one tweet referred to the creche as a “cultural marxist hack” (sic), while another offered the analysis that “It’s sad so many churches have become political groups of the left and ditched religion.” Those who object could perhaps consider the straightforward, literal meaning of the verse from Matthew that is affixed to the display: “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.” With the baby Jesus’s swaddling cloth replaced with a stiff, crinkled, and metallic Mylar blanket, could any honest observer claim that a modern-day incarnation of the Holy Family would be treated any differently than the thousands of refugee children separated from their families by the Department of Homeland Security?

For all of the consternation on behalf of those who object to the Claremont nativity as some sort of politically correct gambit, there are a series of mental contortions that are required of all those who posted angry Facebook and Twitter comments while  ignoring both the obvious meaning of the scripture’s narrative, and the basic syllogistic conclusion when we extrapolate it to today. The plight and struggle of the Holy Family two millennia ago bears more than just similarity to that of the persecuted refugees of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph took part in the same suffering as modern migrants. No doubt there is a risk to claiming that this or that policy proposal in electoral politics is either countenanced or condemned by a first-century Judean prophet; when the right wing does so we correctly challenge them. Yet the evil policy of child separation as practiced by the Trump administration is not some irrelevant political issue. When critics mock the Claremont display,  they’re mocking Christ. What the Claremont United Methodist Church has done is the essence of all genuine prophetic witness – they’ve afflicted the comfortable. We’ll see if the rest of us are up to the task of comforting the afflicted. 

Certainly, there is nothing that is unique in the message of the Claremont nativity, nothing singular or novel, for the simple reason that the interpretation offered by the display is one that is derived from the gospel itself. Better simply to say that its modernization is accurate. Historical Christian iconography has often engaged with contemporary politics, translating the specific details of accounts into a different cultural context, clinging to those universal themes of fleeing from persecution and finding a brief respite in the midst of this world’s chaos. Anecdotally and from my own observation, over the past several years there seems to have been an increase in how the nativity has been used as a comment, chastisement, and protest against the white supremacy of Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and the other assorted ghouls of the so-called “alt-right” fascist movement. Some of these depictions predate Trump’s election, a demonstration of the way in which artists can function as prophetic sonar for the collective unconsciousness, anticipating how American histories of white supremacy would lead to an authoritarian moment. 

Some of this art takes the form of traditional Christian iconography, and as such can’t be viewed as only “Art” in the post-Romantic aesthetic sense, but also as icons made by their creators as primarily liturgical objects. Explaining the ritual import of icons in the Jesuit magazine America, Stephen Bonian writes that the “Christian mysteries in iconography are primarily the Incarnation and the Redemption. The primary power of icons lies in their physicality: they make the presence of the holy tangible.” To reduce the icon to art in a secular sense, with aesthetic categories that were formed largely after the eighteenth-century in Protestant Europe, is not necessarily reconcilable with the form itself. For penitents before an icon, the image shouldn’t be thought of as a picture in the same sense as a painting hanging in the Met or the National Gallery. Rather it must be thought of as a divine portal in its own right, charged with the transcendent. That makes it all the more powerful when an icon explicitly condemns a contemporary injustice. 

Such is the case with the icon Christ of Maryknoll produced by the Franciscan monk Brother Robert Lentz OFM. Drawing from his family’s Russian Orthodox background, Lentz has used Christian icons to comment on contemporary issues of justice, such as his celebrated depiction of martyrs like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Caser Chavez, and Harvey Milk, or of his icons for the medieval saints Sergius and Bacchus, who were same-sex lovers. In Christ of Maryknoll, Lentz imagines Jesus as a refugee returning the viewer’s gaze (as all icons must), his hands bearing the wounds of the stigmata as they’re sliced by the thorned metal of a contemporary barbed wire fence. A similar dynamic is at work in the compositions of iconographer Kelly Latimore, who though his pictures are not as traditional as those made by Lentz, has a similar urgency in depicting biblical scenes in a contemporary idiom. A former member of the Common Friars, a High Church Episcopal lay order, Latimore has also made icons of a multitude of unconventional figures who would be attractive to progressive Christians, even if some of them, including Rachel Carson, John Muir, and Maya Angelou, aren’t canonized saints, or even Roman Catholic or Episcopal for that matter. 

In an interview with Christian Century, Latimore writes that “We are talking about people with names, faces, and stories. They have something to teach us about what we know, about God, the world we live in and who are our neighbors. This is the real work of being human and of art. Being more present.” As with Lentz, and the Claremont nativity, Latimore has dealt with abuses against refugees several times in his icons. One depiction of the Holy Family entitled Refugees: La Sagrada Familia, which went viral on social media several years ago, presents an obviously modern incarnation of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. All three are unambiguously Hispanic. Joseph wears a yellow t-shirt and jeans, a red ball cap on his head; Mary is young and pretty in flip-flops, a heavenly blue sling holding the infant Christ to her breast. A full moon lights their passage into Bethlehem, the Rio Grande flowing behind them. In another icon, Latimore depicts Mary again, this time in one of the most popular of Christian iconographic subjects, as the young mother holding her infant. She is in the same t-shirt and jeans from the previous icon, but her veil is made from crinkled Mylar and she is obscured on the other side of an ICE detainment center’s chain-link fence. 

Writing of icons, Bonian says that one of their purposes and effects is to “rouse the imagination and generate emotions in the viewer.” Within secular art forms, such a description most nearly matches how we’ve talked about movies for a century. Few other creative expressions, with the possible exception of popular music, have so clearly articulated a vision that is as democratic and wide-ranging as film. If the stained glass and statues of a medieval cathedral served to render a visual vocabulary for worshipers, a shared language based in paint, colored pebble, and chiseled stone, then cinema is our nearest equivalent in terms of breadth, width,  depth, and collective experience. Our very dreams sometimes seem composed in celluloid, our references, allusions, and shared mythology generated in Hollywood. Even the language that we use, such as describing a celebrity as an “icon,” belies the transcendent nature of the form. 

For me, the most powerful  iconographic reflection on the Holy Family   speaking to our current moment is the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men. No other work of art from this millennium so fully finds Christ in the refugee and the exile, no other work so totally sees the new Herods in the idols of nationalism and white supremacy. An adaptation of P.D. James’ explicitly Catholic dystopian speculative fiction of the same name, Children of Men explores the near-future apocalyptic implications of ecological collapse and growing fascism, as imagined a decade before Trump would win the presidential election, and before his increasingly authoritarian policies concerning refugees and immigrants (though of course the film was made in the midst of previous authoritarian policies in those regards, albeit ones that most Americans weren’t bothering to talk about in 2006). It’s obvious that Cuarón was immediately concerned by similar questions raised by the “War on Terror,” the national security state as embodied in the Patriot Act, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now watching Children of Men fourteen years after its release, I have the uncanny feeling that in its depiction of a 2027 Great Britain, we’re actually closer to the reality of the film than in just its imagined date. Children of Men depicts Great Britain closing itself off from Europe, placing refugees into concentration camps, and facing the complete collapse of the environment. Sometimes it feels as if Cuarón made a film whose prophetic urgency speaks to a current audience in a more powerful manner than it even could a decade and a half ago.

Children of Men imagines eighteen years of unexplained global and universal infertility that has pushed humanity into grappling with an ever-impending extinction. In James’ novel, it seems clear that the malady is divine in origin, a biblical plague punishing humanity for our indiscretions. Cuarón’s vision is more ambiguous; as is not uncommon in science fiction there are possibly industrial or ecological reasons for the pandemic (a type of divine punishment in its own right). The world’s youngest person is 18, and has just been stabbed to death outside of a Brazilian nightclub as the film opens. It’s on a newscast reporting about the murder of “Baby Diego” that we’re introduced to Theo (a typologically  significant name) as played by Clive Owen, a man who like most people in this pre-collapse Britain is desperate, alcoholic, depressed, and suicidal. This is the man who will briefly be the adoptive father for the first child born in nearly two decades, the surrogate Joseph for this contemporary nativity. Our modern Mary is an African refugee named Kee, played by Clare-Hope Ashitey. Kidnaped by an insurgency group called the Fishes (more clear Christian symbolism), Theo is enlisted by his ex-wife to help shepherd pregnant Kee to a ship docked off the coast of Bexhill-on-Sea, where she will be smuggled to the Azores where a group of scientists are supposedly working on the cure for infertility. 

 For some critics, the movie wore its Christian symbolism too heavily, for others its politics were too strident – as if those two things could be easily disentangled. Writing at the conservative Catholic publication First Things, for example, Anthony Sacramone claims that the film is an “act of vandalism” against its source material, inveighing against what he thinks is Cuarón’s “high-tech agit-prop targeting the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, border policing, and Homeland Security.” Sacramone is correct that the movie’s political allegiances are unambiguously left, and as a reader of James’ original, he’s also correct that the adaptation greatly alters some of the themes of the novel. James was an author of the right (as a Baroness, she sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative), and The Children of Men (her novel keeps the article) reflects James’ conservative Anglicanism, with clear denunciations of both feminism and pro-choice politics. Sacramone sees Cuarón’s film as an unacceptable revision of James’ novel, and whatever merits you see in the argument about making such a revision, he’s not wrong that it has been made. Besides, it would make sense that Sacramone would dismiss Cuarón’s perspectives since those aren’t the positions which the reviewer himself ascribes to. Where he commits literary critical malpractice, however, is when he lets the myopia of his own limited political vision infect his interpretation of the film’s clear theological allegiances. Sacramone writes that “the only bits of religion left in Cuarón’s version are cults of fanatical masochists,” arguing that the director had purged the story of any of the religious themes from James’ original – but this requires a willful misreading of how the movie revised and extended its source material. 

The reviewer claims that the “miracle of Kee’s pregnancy is never presented as more than just an accident” is absurd and baseless. Consider the way in which Cuarón frames the revealing of Kee’s pregnancy (in a manger!), with a soundtrack composed by the Orthodox liturgist John Tavener. First Things seems to have, in particular, had an issue with Kee’s answer to Theo’s question of who the father is with an “I’m a virgin. Nah! Be great though, wouldn’t it? Fuck knows. I don’t know half the wankers’ names.” Let it be said that in a film with as sacred a message as Children of Men, this exchange is deeply funny. And just as we’ve no use of a revolution without dancing, so should we discard a faith that can’t laugh. I’ll say that if someone requires births to be virginal in order to be miraculous, they perhaps don’t actually find any births to be miraculous. Besides, I’d imagine that in a world infertile for twenty years, such a conception would be miraculous enough, regardless of what the wanker’s name might have been. 

What’s obvious is that Sacramone’s difficulty with the politics of Children of Men forces him to accuse it of apostasy, for to admit that the movie is profoundly Christian would be to then consider that perhaps his reactionary politics are not so easily reconciled to the radical message of the gospels. Sacramone’s histrionics reach their nadir when he claims that the “first thing Cuarón does when he arrives in the year 2027 is eliminate the Christians,” though I’d argue that Children of Men presents Christ (and Mary), a far more potent message in a disenchanted world than whether or not the movie puts the Church in a positive light. “I wasn’t interested in depicting dogma,” Cuarón told an interviewer, and this perhaps more than anything is his great sin in the eyes of those who search for pop cultural heretics. 

Because I maintain that no film that I’ve seen made in this century, certainly no movie which explicitly markets itself as Christian, grapples with both our current political predicament and the good news of the gospels as fully as Children of Men. Cuarón’s movie, especially in the scene whereby he depicts the “nativity” (of sorts), acts in the same manner as those iconic liturgical objects of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As the Fishes make their pilgrimage to the coast, everyone but Theo and Kee (the latter of whom doesn’t appear in James’ novel) are killed by agents of the government who are following in pursuit, and eventually the two find themselves in a refugee camp attempting to reach the dock that will take the future mother to safety. Here the narrative shape of Children of Men begins to show its obvious correspondence to the nativity story.

Kee’s manger is the bombed out upper-floor of what used to be an apartment building in the Bexhill refugee camp overcrowded with Africans and Arabs, Europeans and Asians, all marked for death by the fascist British government then hammering the remains of the city over and over with aircraft bombs and artillery fire. As Cuarón explained in an interview, “We’re putting the future of humanity in the hands of the dispossessed and creating a new humanity to spring out of that,” which is not so different from the gospels anyhow. Following the birth of this first baby in almost two decades, the literal hope of a world that has not heard a child’s laughter or an infant’s crying for years, Theo escorts this new family down the decrepit, collapsing stairs of the building in which Kee’s son was born. As a character had said earlier in the film, “Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices,” and all that that implies. Residents of the Anthropocene that we are, we’re already used to how climate change has rapidly eliminated the insect population which once defined the summer. Perhaps the uncanny hopelessness of a world decreased of butterflies can give us some intimations of what a cruel world without children would feel like. The stairwells are crowded with the migrants and refugees, watching the distracted couple gathering themselves to leave the complex. A wounded African woman who watches Kee and Theo gently sings a nursery song from across the room to the baby as she reaches her hand out, the first time such a thing has been necessary in eighteen years. As Theo and Kee make their way through the building, a line of the refugees comes to touch the baby, as if for benediction. They are the nameless, the forgotten, the shepherds and the herdsman of the nativity who were present for the most consequential moment in human history. Not in spite of but because of the fact that they were the marginalized and dispossessed, they played their unassuming roles in the nativity despite having had no idea that such a thing would happen that night.

Cuarón’s politics are on the side of justice, and rightly so, as any clear reading of the gospel’s anarchic message must lead us toward. To see Children of Men as simply agitprop is a slander. This new Christ must be born amongst the marginalized (as the old Christ was); born among the spurned, the persecuted, the punished, and the tortured. Like the old Christ, he must be born in the fallen world that is our home. As they make their way down the steps of the building, the crying of the child echoes across the cracked concrete walls, and suddenly people who a moment before were both fighting and being killed stop, and listen. Exiting through the stairwell into a grey Essex morning, and one of the British commanders recognizes the child and orders a cease-fire. Kee and Theo make their way through the soldiers, a minute before as tall as a phalanx of Roman centurions, they suddenly are quiet, reaching out for benediction just as those inside the building had before. Two of the Kevlar flaked soldiers drop to their knees and cross themselves, for in this theophany the as of yet unnamed baby may as well be the Christ child when born amidst such hopelessness. We know not of what happens to these contemporary centurions, whether they continue in inequity or not, whether there is future contrition or not. But in their recognition of the child, Cuarón gestures to the possibility that perhaps the later is possible. 

For a little under a minute there is silence as this modern Mary, Joseph, and Jesus walk through the parted soldiers towards the sea, and eventually the hope of redemption. All that can be heard, as machine gun fire and explosion stop, is the crying of the first child to be born in a time when everybody who is alive sees the world through adult eyes. The heartbreakingly beautiful promise, potential, redemption, and salvation implicit in a newborn’s cry. As that moment passes, and suddenly the explosions start up again, the machine gun rounds can be heard again. Even as the two had walked through the apartment building, people were being shot in the background. Miracles are real, Children of Men tells us, but only for a moment. Such is the sublimity of Cuarón’s film, for it expresses in a profound way what makes the nativity scene itself so beautiful.

“I can’t really remember when I last had any hope,” Theo says at one point, “and I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either.” Now, seven years before Children of Men is supposed to take place, it might be that particular sentiment that is the most prescient in the film. As somebody whose cultural Catholicism is of the steadfastly agnostic variety, I find a profundity in the Christian message of Cuarón’s movie– that it expresses the brief possibility of hope. Not in some inchoate way, not in some secularized or New Age manner, not as a filmmaker’s method to mine Christianity for a compelling narrative and to strip it of its sacred import. No, Children of Men’s narrative about the brief, miraculous possibilities of hope is told in a manner that is profoundly Christian, whether or not we’re to read Kee’s child as a messiah (and the film is ambiguous, though his birth is perhaps transcendent enough). The strength of the film isn’t just that it depicts the birth of hope amongst the suffering, that it gives voice towards justice in our era, but that it explains precisely why we must hold those moral commitments that embrace the stranger as a sibling. 

Though I’ve always had difficulty taking much of theology literally, I’ve always wished that I could fully intuit a system that collapses its ethics and metaphysics together through the idea of incarnation. They are not justifiable in light of one another, but rather, when lived fully, the incarnation’s ethics and metaphysics are identical. To grasp that divinity can be born as a person is to reckon with the divinity inherent in all persons. A holy equality, whereby the sacred and the profane can be perfectly mingled into one another; where God is not distant in some heaven but crying in a manger, born as all of us are and somehow paradoxically elevated and humbled simultaneously as a result of it. Christ says in Luke that “Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosover shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.” If God exists among the most powerless, then God’s incarnation as an infant is the Absolute Zero of that; the beautiful paradox of Christianity is that it’s that infant which gives blessing to the refugee and the soldier alike. 

What that three-minute scene exemplifies is the possibility of what could be called a temporary millennium. Christian denominations have long had theological differences in how they approach the idea of a “millennium,” that period of perfection when a resurrected Christ is to rule on earth. A range of positions have proliferated concerning the issue, with the contemporary Catholic Church often reading millennium as allegorical rather than literal. Cuarón’s amillennialism is the director at his most Catholic; no earthly utopia is established in that moment amongst the ruins of Bexhill. There is no grand redemption for everyone in the scene; people died before the quiet and they died after the quiet. But for that minute, for that minute there was heaven. My idea of a “temporary millennium” then is a variation on that common Catholic view which reads the concept as allegorical. In the film, as in our lives, millennium does exist, if but for in the silent period of a passing breath. Children of Men depicts this millennium of a sort, for though it is not enduring, it still temporarily imparts citizenship within the City of God. Those present are given a brief intimation of that universal love, for millennium waits but salvation can still grace us for a second. A charged grandeur in that, the ways in which for brief periods of still, and quiet, and silence, and peace, there can be a bit of sacred here in our cruel fallen world. Kindness imparted to the suffering – hot soup given out in a shelter on Christmas Eve, the clasped shaky hand of a recovering addict uttering the serenity prayer on their first day of sobriety, the water left in the desert to quench the thirst of migrants crossing the desert. We need not await perfection, for the icon provides us a brief glimpse of those heavens, even if occluded. In the meantime, there are many millenniums all around us, as piercing as an infant’s cries, if too often similarly forgotten. I’ve never once been able to watch that scene without crying. 

Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.