A church in Southern California is sparking a national conversation after revealing a nativity scene tied to a major political issue.
Claremont United Methodist Church unveiled the scene, which featured Jesus, Mary and Joseph as border detainees, on Saturday. Each member of the family is shown trapped separately in a metal cage.
The display, which was also posted to Facebook by the church’s pastor, Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, was designed to draw attention to camps at the southern U.S. border, where thousands of children have been separated from their parents and held in what the United Nations Human Rights Watch has called "appalling conditions."
"Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus no older than two taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a Border Patrol detention center as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years," Ristine said in her Facebook post.
According to the Washington Post, this is just the latest of Claremont’s "protest nativities," which, in the past, have drawn attention to issues such as gun control, marriage equality and the Vietnam War. Ristine said this latest display is meant to remind people of the kindness Christians are instructed to show others.
"Our intent is to focus on the asylum seekers and the ways they are being greeted and treated and to suggest there might be a more compassionate way to show God’s love," Ristine told the Washington Post.
The reverend’s Facebook post called Jesus and his parents "well-known refugee family in the world," drawing comparisons between the religion’s messiah and the “thousands of nameless families separated at our borders."
Ristine’s Facebook post sparked a massive debate online, with users from both sides weighing in on the issue. Some were unhappy with the scene’s staging and apparent message.
"This is WRONG and Sacrilegious on so many levels!!!" one user wrote.
"When you jump the border, you didn’t do it right and the bible has very explicit writings about immigration! Maybe try reading it. You should be ashamed of this type of crap! Shame on you!!" another added.
Others, however, were supportive of the church, seeing the display as a powerful statement.
"Thank you for being brave enough to draw attention to the abhorrent treatment of modern refugees by the current administration,” another user commented on Ristine’s post. “The ultra-Christians have conveniently forgotten that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees."
It’s not the first time the nativity story has been used as a political message. The Christ-centric displays have been used in recent years to comment on Europe’s own migrant crisis, and the Washington Post reported that some scholars believe the original nativity scene was crafted to publicize the suffering poor of 13th century Europe.
The biblical book of Matthew also contains a story in which Jesus and his parents lived in Egypt as migrants — making the family a relevant comparison for America’s ongoing border crisis. Claremont’s nativity scene features a positive ending to that story, with Ristine noting the church also contains a depiction of the family reunited and free from their cages.
"Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill to all,'" the pastor’s Facebook post read.