the journey begins
It was around 18 months ago that I realised.
I had just returned from a trip running workshops in Cambodia, Singapore and India, and I had seen people - I had talked with people – whose life circumstances made my own look, shall we say, idyllic.
Because I’ve just not ever had to decide between fleeing my country or killing the child soldiers the enemy sends at you, like one guy I had dinner with. I’ve not ever had to beg for money, hoping to be able to take something back to the man who sends me out, like that woman in Bangalore. I’ve not spoken up against my commanding officer, knowing I’ll go to jail (if I’m lucky) for saying that what he’s ordering amounts to genocide, like the guy at one of my meetings.
I’ve just not.
Circumstances have not demanded that of me.
But last year, after a number of trips like the one I’d just returned from, I realised that circumstances were demanding something different of me. They were demanding that I refuse to stay in the opinions I had somehow just picked up along the way and never really interrogated when in came to the issue of refugees.
I decided it was time to go looking for some facts.
I contacted people who knew the issue a lot better than me. I found government and non-governmental fact sheets. I checked out the numbers and the trends and the stakeholders. I looked at my own country, and other countries. I looked at now, and I looked at before. I tried to get my head around the reality of the situation.
Realities such as the fact that of every person on the planet right now, 1 in 35 are living away from their homelands – almost 200 million people in total. Of these, many were uprooted not by choice, but by force, and 30-40 million are undocumented. However, at the same time, these scores of migrants are one of the largest forces of philanthropic poverty relief active today. In 2006, the total Overseas Development Aid from donor nations was $106 billion. That same year, migrants around the world, often scraping by themselves, sent home to their families more than $300 billion, often $100 to $300 at a time. They generated, in essence, a poverty relief budget 3 times that of the wealthiest countries in the world combined.
But, once I had found some facts like these and many others, I decided there was something else I needed to go looking for.
I needed to go looking for some truth.
Because I’m a big believer in the importance of theology. Most challenging situations in life require that we do more, as Christians, than pick out a single verse here and there to create a position. What we have to do, if we really want to grasp God’s heart towards a subject, or a value, or a group, is to examine what the Scriptures as a whole reveal about it.
So that’s what I did. I went looking for the threads of immigration and refuge-seeking throughout the whole Bible. What did God have to say about asylum seekers?
I found more than I ever imagined.
The Old Testament, David John Stemmett goes so far as to say, is “a book written by refugees for refugees”
The more I looked into it, the more I began to see what he was saying.
One of the consequences of the entry of sin into the world through the fall of man is that Adam and Eve are forced to leave their home in the Garden of Eden and create a new life in a harsh environment – becoming, effectively, the first refugees. From then to now, the effect of sin in the world remains the root cause of so many of the reasons that people are forced to leave their homelands.
Next is Cain, an exile as a result, like his parents, of his own sin.
But next comes Noah. Noah is forced out of his home not by his own choices, but by the sin and brokenness of those around him. As Preece so eloquently puts it, “It is fundamentally in the light of Noah’s Ark that we are all boat people, or at least descendents of them”
Then there is Abraham – not an immigrant ‘from’, but an immigrant ‘to’ – called by God to leave his home in Ur and become, as Abraham describes himself ‘an alien and a stranger’.
This ‘alien’ that Abraham terms himself is quite a key term. He uses the Hebrew word ‘ger’, which is the status of the Israelites when they are in Egypt, it is the term God uses for aliens and strangers in his commands to the Israelites as to how to care for foreigners amongst them, it is the status God gives the Israelites themselves as a part of their inherent identity even once they are in the promised land, and it is their status when they are taken into exile by the Babylonians. So this ‘ger’ word, this ‘alien’ status – it’s pretty significant. And God has a lot to say about it.
Let’s come back to our chronology for a minute though, because we also have Moses, Ruth, Daniel, David, Joseph and Esther, among others, who live their lives in exile, on the run, seeking refuge, foreigners in a strange land, under oppression, or trying to make a new home in a new land when that was not their desired plan. One starts to see that our heroes of the faith, our ‘all-stars’ as it were, of the Old Testament, are more likely than not to have been those with the status of the alien – the ‘ger’.
It began to occur to me that this may be worth paying attention to.
After dozens of commands to the Israelites as to how to care for those who are aliens amongst them, we see in the books of the Prophets the severity of God’s displeasure when they fail to obey this fundamental command. Ezekial, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Malachi all lay charge against the Israelites for their oppression of, and lack of care for, the alien.
Perhaps Deuteronomy 10:19 encapsulates the heart of all the issues of identity and hospitality which God weaves throughout the Old Testament in relation to teaching the Israelites about being, and caring for, the alien – “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”
The people of God were strangers in a strange land. They were oppressed. They were cut off from the promise and inheritance of God. They were delivered…but they are not to forget. “Love him as yourself”, God tells them, “for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34).
Once we come to the New Testament, the clear thread of the significance of immigration and welcoming-in of the stranger not only continues – it also expands. It both begins with, and revolves around, Jesus.
It’s a question of forced temporary relocation and jumping through documentation hoops when Jesus enters the world in Bethlehem. Shortly after his birth, he and his parents must flee for their lives to a new country and start over. Later, after they’ve emigrated and again re-established their lives, Jesus’ credibility is thrown into question because of the place from which he originally came.
What God does in incarnating himself here on earth in both his full divinity and full humanity, is, to begin with, nothing short of the farthest-reaching and most humbling journey imaginable, even if he were to come as the richest and most powerful ruler there ever was. And yet, in his unfathomable compassion, he chooses to incarnate himself within the refugee experience.
During his ministry, when Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, he expresses the depth of his identification with all those who are strangers in a strange land when he says “I was a stranger” – or ‘xenos’, a foreigner living in a country not their own. In the same parable he explains that any failure to help the powerless among us is a failure to serve our Saviour himself.
But it goes further and deeper than that. Jesus’ plan on earth is not only to empathise with those who are dislocated from their homeland here in the physical, but in fact to provide a way back for those dislocated from their eternal homeland in the kingdom of God.
The life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ over sin highlights the fact that, in truth, we are all ‘ger’. We are, every one of us, strangers in a strange land, in desperate need of a way back home – a way to be a part of bringing the rightful kingdom to bear here in the present, and a way to be a part of the eternal kingdom when He returns. We cannot get back through the borders by ourselves. And, foreshadowing the way he will break down the ultimate dividing border with his resurrection, Jesus also, throughout his ministry, shows a way through so many other divisions.
Once Jesus begins proclaiming the kingdom on earth, the old borders no longer keep people out. Samaritan, Canaanite, Jew, Gentile, Male, Female – Jesus doesn’t let any of that keep people from him, or from his Kingdom. As Groody says, there is no question of his willingness “to go beyond borders and narrow interpretations of the Law in obedience to a greater law of love…On the cross Jesus accomplishes the missio Dei by crossing the border that divides human beings from God and each other, initiating a new creation characterized by right relationships.” Or, as Eph 2:14-15 puts it, “For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh”.
Jesus’ sacrifice simultaneously throws open the doors of inclusivity on membership into God’s kingdom, and realigns people from every nation as those who are now ‘strangers and aliens’ on earth. It is, in a manner of speaking, the most simultaneously inclusive and estranging act in all of history.
Peter draws a clear connection between Old Testament teaching about the concept of the ‘ger’ as characterized by both the Israelites as God’s people and those they were to care for, and the new Church as the likewise characterized people of God. He addresses the believers both as “God’s elect” (a title previously reserved only for the Israelites) and as “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11).
We – the recipients of Jesus’ victory over the borders that kept us from the Kingdom – are the expanded People of God. We are ‘ger’. And we too, are not to forget our responsibilities to reflect the God who delivers, the God who saves, the God who is a refuge.
What then, does it mean for individuals; for communities; for countries to reflect that nature of God in practical terms? This – the implications of theology – is where positions can justifiably diverge.
As Christians, we must examine the facts in light of the truth.
This doesn’t mean the facts are irrelevant, not at all. We must wrestle with the reality of the facts in light of the Scriptures – this is the very essence of theology. We must work out, in the brutal light of this earth’s broken nature, how to bring God’s truth to bear through complex and mutually incompatible factors. But the touchstone, the reference point around which we must orient our wrestlings, must be God’s heart.
And God’s heart seems, fairly clearly, to be for the alien.
Barclay, W, The Letters of James and Peter (1976).
Barth, K, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Church Dogmatics (1956).
Groody, D.G, “Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees” Theological Studies, 70 (2009).
Hays, J.D, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (2003).
International Organisation for Migration – http://www.iom.int/cms/en/sites/iom/home.html
Preece, G.R, “We are all Boat People”, Refugees: Justice or Compassion, Australian Theological Forum (2002).
Spencer, N, Asylum and Immigration: A Christian Perspective on a Polarised Debate (2004).
Stemmett, D.J, “A Biblical Theology of Ministry to Refugees for Baptist Churches in South Africa” (Thesis paper) University of Fort Hare (2008).
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/index.html
United Nations High Commission for Refugees – http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home
It’s been kind of a crazy few months. Work, travel, an unexpected house move, and a few amazing opportunities seized mean that since about the start of March, I’ve largely been operating right up to the edges of my capacity. Which can be amazing and exhilarating…for a time. But eventually, you reach that point.
You know what I’m talking about. Life requires a healthy mix of stretch and recovery, and sometimes you need to restore the balance a little bit.
So, in pursuit of that better balance, I made a note as I was lying in bed last night (the classic racing-mind-when-you-should-be-falling-asleep sign of too much going on) of the five areas that have been bouncing around my head as needing a bit of intentional nurturing in my life, schedule and priorities. Things I’ve been working to restore, consciously and unconsciously. Because if you put it down on paper, it just might – MIGHT – actually happen…
Without margin, it all dries up. Creativity, Relationships, Health, Energy, Motivation.
I’ve tried about 4 times this week to write a blog post, without being able to get a full post down. I just wasn’t happy with any of my ideas. It just wasn’t flowing.
I need to refill the wells a little bit. I need to make more time for fun and friends. I need to get outside and play. I need to reclaim the time and space to really think deeply.
Everyone needs a different amount of margin, and in different areas. I know people who can keep up a staggering pace and volume of output with very little downtime. I can admire that, but I can’t emulate it. Because I’m just not build that way.
You need to know what kind of margins you need in order to be your best self in each of the key areas of your life.
Try going 48 hours without concerning yourself with anyone or anything that isn’t right in front on you.
Go on – I dare you. No letting the world know what you’re doing or thinking. No checking what other people are doing or thinking. Try focusing solely and uninterruptedly on what’s going on in the room you’re in, with the people you’re with. It’s hard, and it shouldn’t be.
I’m working on that.
Also known as mono-tasking, or in non-pretentious-buzzspeak – doing one thing at a time.
It is astounding and a little scary how attempting this feat these days can feel like pushing back an ocean of stimulus, options and urgency.
I’m working on doing just one thing at a time, whether that’s by turning off email or notifications for a couple of hours, or even – GASP – closing the laptop and using a pen and paper (I know!).
Perhaps the best example of what I mean by this can be understood by way of a quote from William Powers’ excellent book ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ -
“Beyond the sheer mental workload, our thoughts have acquired a new orientation. Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules. The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live.
There’s always been a conflict between the exterior, social self and the interior, private one. The struggle to reconcile them is central to the human experience, one of the great themes of philosophy, literature, and art.
In our own lifetime, the balance has tilted decisively in one direction. We hear the voices of others, and are directed by those voices, rather than by our own. We don’t turn inward as often or as easily as we used to…
To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.”
So – the opposite of that.
In the midst of all the strategic plans, and the KPIs, and the personal development goals, I am increasingly prompted by that still small voice that the true measure of my success – in a decision, a day, a season, a lifetime – is, ultimately, how well I have listened, heard, and followed that same voice. How guided I allow myself to be.
Because ultimately, this life I’m seeking to live well won’t be measured on the basis of success, but of obedience.
And I’m working on that.