By Dr. David N. Field
In what experts are now claiming is the largest movement of people since World War 2 over 188 000 refugees have arrived in Europe so far this year. The influx of migrants has placed a significant challenge on the resources of countries through which they are passing as well as their destination countries. At an event discussing migration at the UMC’s Switzerland, France and North Africa Annual Conference, Ivan Abrahams, the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, argued that mass migration is a Kairos for Churches in the Twenty First Century – a moment of challenge and opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God. This is particularly acute for European churches.
Abrahams challenged Methodist churches to become “churches of the stranger”. This has begun to happen in many Methodist Churches across Europe. The Italian Methodist Church supports refugees as part of Italian Federation of Protestant Churches’ project Mediterranean Hope. The conference of the British Methodist Church passed a motion calling on churches to offer sanctuary to refugees and calling on the British government to continue providing financial assistance for refugees, to adopt a more generous and compassionate approach to them, and to accept an increased number of refugees. The arrival of migrants in Germany is inspiring a new sense of mission and social engagement in many Methodist congregations. The small Methodist Churches in Serbia and Macedonia are providing for the needs of migrants passing through their countries.
This engagement with migrants is particularly significant when seen in the perspective of John Wesley’s understanding of “entertaining strangers” as a “work of mercy”. Works of mercy were for Wesley a means of grace – a means through which we grow in the transforming knowledge of God. Hence this Kairos offers the opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God as we come to know God in a new way.
Migration is a significant component of the great revelatory narratives of the Bible. God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and migrate across the Near East and later appears to them as a nomadic stranger to reaffirm the promise of a son. After dining with Abraham and Sarah the divine company then leaves to go to Sodom where it is threatened with gang rape. Later God hears the cries of an oppressed and exploited migrant community in Egypt and accompanies them on their journey to a new land. During their wanderings the Israelites construct the archetypal sanctuary – a tent that can be packed up and moved when God movers on. The era of David and Solomon was associated with the building of a fixed sanctuary and the identification of God with one place – Jerusalem. Yet David is portrayed as the decedent of the Moabite migrant Ruth and he becomes a refugee amongst the Philistines. The forced migration of the Exile shattered the identification of God with Israel’s national interest and gave rise to new understandings of God. Ezekiel dramatically portrays its significance in his vision of God enthroned on surreal chariot who later leaves the temple to going into exile with the people. Much of the Old Testament reached its final shape or was written in the shadow of the Exile.
In the New Testament Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus mentions four women, two Canaanites, one Moabite and one who was the wife of a Hittite. Matthew describes Jesus as recapitulating Israel’s experience of being migrants in Egypt. Jesus grows up to become a wondering homeless preacher whose life culminates in his being rejected by the religio-political leadership, handed over to the foreign rulers, and crucified outside the city, thus symbolically excluded from his people. For the Romans, crucifixion was the ultimate act of rejection and degradation, and for the Jews, it was a sign of God’s rejection. The resurrection is the declaration that this excluded and degraded one is the ultimate revelation of God in history. In the language of John’s gospel the life of Jesus is the journey of the Son/Word of God from the presence of the Father into the distant country where he sets up his tent amongst us. The incarnation is thus the redemptive migration of God into the world.
The biblical portraits of the migratory God are not to be interpreted in an exclusivist or totalizing manner restricting God’s migration to past narratives and confining God within traditional interpretations of these narratives. Israel’s experience as migrants became the motivation for laws providing for the wellbeing of migrants. Deuteronomy 10:18 (CEB) declared that the Lord “loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” Amos declared that the Exodus was not a unique event for God had been present in the migrations of the Philistines and the Arameans. In the parable of the sheep and the goats the nations’ rejection of strangers is a rejection of the divine judge. Hence the biblical narratives are paradigms through which we can interpret where God is present and what God is doing in our contemporary contexts. God is still on the move in the midst of suffering migrants, accompanying them on their journey, entering into their suffering, rejection and exclusion, identifying Godself with them. To be the people of the migratory God is to accompany God into the midst of migrating people to allow our ideas of God and God’s purposes to be challenged, deepened and enriched through the encounter with these suffering, rejected and excluded “strangers”.
The World is Coming to Our Parish
I am a migrant and the descendant of migrants – a South African living in Europe. The majority of my ancestors left Europe to make a new life on the Southern tip of Africa; they fled wars, political uncertainty, poverty, and persecution for their religion. A few were shipwrecked off the coast of the Cape. At least one was fleeing from the law. Another was brought as a slave.
Yet until recently this migrant identity has not been part of my theological reflection. Being involved in planning and teaching a course dealing with the church and migration stimulated me to begin to reflect on the theological challenge posed by the movement of people across the world as an integral and pervasive feature of globalization. The recent sinking of a ship drowning over 800 refugees in the Mediterranean, the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, and reports of refugee boats being turned away from Malaysia and Indonesia have sharpened this challenge for me.
To rephrase Wesley’s famous quote from a European perspective: “The world is coming to our parish.” What does this mean for the church? In a recent Blog Michael Nausner discussed some aspects of this challenge. I plan to continue the discussion in a few blogs reflecting theologically on different aspects of this challenge.
The presence of “the world in our parish” provides an often ignored but profoundly radical challenge to the way we think about what it means to be the church. It is radical because it confronts us with a long forgotten understanding of the identity of the church that is ironically hidden in the word “parish”. In contemporary English parish refers to a small bounded local area. The related word “parochial” refers to being focused on a local area to the exclusion of the broader world.
The irony is that the word parish comes from the Greek word parokia which means a stranger or a sojourner. It was a word used by the early church to describe itself (see I Peter 2:11) as communities of foreigners who were never fully at home in the societies in which they lived. They were strangers because they owed an ultimate loyalty to the One who was rejected by the religious and political establishment and then tortured and executed as an enemy of the empire.
The presence of the world in our parish is a call to remind us that our primary identity and loyalty can never be defined by citizenship of a particular nation state. The church can never be “at home” in any country or socio-political system, for we are citizens of the dominion of the Crucified One. The church is always to be a restless community of foreigners looking for and embodying in a partial way the coming dominion of the Jesus. It is from this identity that we should address the ethical challenge posed by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (a topic for a later blog).
The presence of the world in our parish reminds us that the community of the Crucified transcends national and geographic. Significant numbers of the migrants coming to Europe and North America are Christians – many are Methodists; in fact, many are United Methodists. To be a Christian, to be a Methodist, to be a United Methodist, is to be part of an international community of communities. We are part of the “catholic” church, in the words of the Apostles creed, or to use a more contemporary word, “ecumenical” church; that is, the church that is present across the whole inhabited world.
The presence is a summons to break out of a “parochial” mindset (in its contemporary English meaning) and discovers our spiritual siblings in other countries and continents, people who live in such situations of need that they engage in long, potentially deadly journeys in search of a new life. Many of us are ignorant of the lives of these fellow members of the church – these strangers who come and those strangers who die on the way.
It is a particular challenge to the UMC as a church that affirms its identity as an international or even global church. To be an international or global church is not merely about participating in mission trips, nor about sending finances and resources to people in need, nor about the logistic and theological complications of having people from other countries at General Conference; it is about the challenge to recognize these people as our spiritual siblings, fellow members of the body of Christ whose lives, sufferings and joys ought to be part of our primary concern. The question is how can we embody this in the structures of the UMC, in the lives of our local congregations, and in the programs of our General Boards, agencies and other institutions, not as an extra concern, but as integral to our identity?
Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.
This article originally appeared at umglobal.org.