What's interesting is that no critic offers any insight. Except perhaps the last: it could mean "just Jesus" or "Bono himself"?
OK, maybe not. Let’s try to understand it in context:
“Let it be unity Let it be community For countries to receive us Will you be my sanctuary Refujesus?”
What on earth do "refugees" and "Jesus" have in common? Why bring Jesus into this plea for unity and community?
From a secular perspective, it's an absurd juxtaposition, or "portmanteau" as the learned critics pinpoint. For fans of The Office with Ricky Gervais, it's even "David Brent-ian insufferableness."
Indeed, Bono is not trying to be cool. Bono tends to try to be anything but cool. But is it "fumbling"? Is it a "weak pun"? And if not, what are these critics missing? Why does Broodvanbidden on Reddit not have "anything to say about this awfully... unique lyric" other than to "laugh about it"?
Enter Christianity 101.
From a Christian perspective, it is not weak. It drills down on a central idea, perhaps the central idea of Christianity.
Jesus said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 NIV
That statement was highly cryptic back then, and still is today. Why did Jesus, the Son of God, view himself as homeless?
On the Cross, we get further insight. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, as Jesus was dying he quoted Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 NIV
Jesus died outside the gates of the city, forsaken by the people, forsaken by justice, and as Christians believe, forsaken even by God.
This is where it gets a little tricky, theological, trinitarian, and understandably where secular critics are easily lost.
Yes, it's common for people to view Jesus as a teacher, prophet, nice guy, or a very good example of how to live. As Gandhi said: "I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept."
Bono, on the contrary, believes that something mysterious and miraculous did happen on the cross. Speaking on the topic of grace, he states:"I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity." 2005 ー Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assay-as Bono has spoken often about the point of Jesus' death, though he has never referred to Jesus as a refugee. Even the song "The Refugee" from the 1983 album War doesn't draw analogies with Jesus. In that song the refugee wants to escape her war torn land for the welcoming shores of America, the promised land.
With American Soul, however, Bono travels to uncharted territory ー to shores where we are all displaced and homeless and in need of a sanctuary. And questions keep building: what is behind this idea of grace? Is it just an idea? A great example to the world? A legal constitution? Something to imitate? Aspire to?
Bono's answer is unashamedly clear: it's Jesus, the ultimate refugee and ultimate savior. If you will, REFUJESUS. But it's not a statement, it's a desperate plea in times of trouble ー "will you be my sanctuary, REFUJESUS?"
This is not an entirely new idea, for Bono has often spoken of the birth story of Jesus with wonder: "The idea that God... would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw… a child… I just thought: “Wow!” 2005 ー Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas
Cue track 1 on the new album and the line "a baby cries on a doorstep" might make more sense amongst all the talk of "love is all we have left" and "all we have is immortality". Jesus is outside the house. He has no place in the house. An outcast from birth. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 NIV
But for those who don't know the birth story of Jesus, or think about it much, the reference to a baby crying on a doorstep is quite absurd. Nitsuh Abebe in The New York Times wrote an entire article on this particular lyric, only to conclude that "I am left completely stuck on this sudden hypothetical midsentence baby. Whatever will become of it?" 12/15/2017 ー "New Sentences: From U2's 'Love Is All We Have Left" by Nitsuh Abebe (The New York Times)
Answer: it is the preface to an album deeply concerned about themes of homelessness, forsakenness and desperation in the face of death. The album feels like a prayer, or a collection of personal conversations, with Bono speaking to God, Jesus, his wife, his kids, his audience and himself.
It's no secret that journalists struggle with Bono's allusions and metaphors, especially critics unfamiliar with Christianity. However, for U2 fans, we know that Bono builds on prior themes and presents albums like a jig-saw puzzle. And he often plants clues.
So why use REFUJESUS? Look no further than this clue on the same album:
"Write a world where we can belong to each other and sing it like no other"
Although this advice is to his sons, it's also a song to himself ー he sings earlier "if I could here myself when I say" and in the final track reminds himself that it's a song to himself.
Yes, Bono sings the lyric REFUJESUS like no other. It's ridiculous. It's offbeat, goofy. It's unacceptable. It's offensive. It's not cool. But what is he trying to say? And more importantly, does it contain any truth?
The journalist has been and gone. But these questions remain for a U2 fan, intrigued by "this awfully... unique lyric."
POSTSCRIPT: Bono usually avoids mentioning Jesus in lyrics. Of 156 album tracks, Jesus is only mentioned in 12 (including 2 off the latest album, Lights of Home & American Soul).