You know the headlines: Globalization. Jobs lost, jobs gained. Immigrants. Muslims. Nationalist resurgence both in the United States and other countries. Calls to “build that wall.” Charges of xenophobia. Outsourcing that hurts “us” and sweatshops that hurt “them.” The internet, creating both links between people and echo chambers for the like-minded. America first.
For Christians to respond to this numbingly complex set of interconnected set of issues – no, to even locate themselves within it – we need to go all in on immigration reform. By that I do not simply mean work really really hard to change policies and craft laws to normalize the status of the 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., or to address the refugee flow into Europe. We should do these things, of course, drawing on our deepest Christian practices of hospitality and best experiences as multiethnic communities. But I mean something else.
To go “all in” on immigration reform, Christians should re-form our very sense of citizenship, loyalty, and solidarity. We should recognize that the people called Church are, by definition, ones that live in diaspora as a transnational nation that crosses borders and resides among many peoples and nations. To take our baptisms seriously is to embrace life in diaspora and own our immigrant status within every wider society.
Some of the biggest stories of our times are not reaching the headlines. As historian Philip Jenkins has argued, far from dying out in the face of modern culture and scientific worldviews, Christianity is quite alive worldwide and is even thriving. In what may be the most under-reported news story of our time, Christianity’s center of gravity shifted south sometime around the turn of the millennium. The majority of Christians worldwide are now living in that band of countries stretching from Latin America to Africa to Asia that we once called the Third World and now call the Global South. If Christianity ever really was a “Western religion,” it no longer is. As Jenkins demonstrates in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Christian movements have actually taken off when missionaries have left or turned over power, allowing for fuller inculturation and local expression.
More unheralded news: With its flexibility for local adaptation, Pentecostalism is the fastest growing segment of Christianity worldwide. “Reverse mission” is bringing missionaries from the Global South to Europe and North America. An often overlooked underground of Pentecostal churches, predominantly in our metro areas, link together migrant Christians living in African, Asian, and Latin America diasporas.
And then there is the first pope from the Global South.
Okay, that one has made lots of headlines. Yet Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, regularly befuddles U.S. Catholics, their bishops, and secular commentators alike because they are trying to read him through American lenses and fit him into the standard left/right categories of our culture wars. What Francis both embodies and enacts is the next phase of the Vatican-II era.
To Americans and Europeans, the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s was mainly about coming to terms with modernity – the secular, scientific, technological, modern world that they and their Enlightenment worldview had birthed in what was then called “the developed countries.” And that’s partly, maybe even mostly, true. But as the influential 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner argued late in his life, at a fundamental level the meaning of Vatican II was the dawning in fact of what Christianity had always been in principle – a truly global Church.
Globalization should be forcing Christians to recognize what was always supposed to be true. Christians are a people of many cultures. We cross all borders. We are joined together in baptism to a Lord who makes higher claims upon us than any other tribe, nation-state, or empire dare. This same Lord, as the incarnate one, cannot be confined to any one culture, yet is foreign to none. For this reason the writer of 1 Peter (in 1:1, 2:9-10) address his readers as “exiles in diaspora” who once were no people but now were God’s people, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”
But how can the Church be a nation? The question only arises because we almost always hear “nation-state” when we hear the word. As a trick question, I sometimes ask my students how many nations there are in the world, to which they inevitably answer with a number around 200. And then I tell them, no, according to the criteria of anthropologists, there are at least five or six thousand nations. The Lakota, on whose land I should be living only as a guest, are a nation. The Zulu and the Malay and the Masai and the Inuit are nations. A few relatively intact ethnic-linguistic groups do hold discrete units of territory or nation-states, and a few more aspire to do so. But we will never see a day in which 5,000 distinct nation-states send representatives to the United Nations.
To be sure, the global Christian community is not and should not be thought of as a nation in the strictly ethnic sense: quite the opposite. The Church, like most nations, forges and preserves its identity without sovereign control over territory — a multicultural, transnational nation inevitably living in diaspora. This kind of a nation finds its security not by defending borders or building up militaries, but through peaceful hospitality and respectful guesthood as it lives among other communities.
This is how early Christians thought of themselves. They had spread by tracking with the Jewish Diaspora, thus becoming a diaspora people themselves. Under interrogation, the great third-century North African bishop Cyprian deflected the threat of exile by insisting that as a Christian he was at home in every land, and already an exile even in his own land. Such a self-understanding was not idiosyncratic with Cyprian. Basil the Great made exactly this point in fourth-century Cappadocia when he too was on trial.
Nor was such a resident-but-alien stance strictly a reflection of Christians’ minority status prior to the process of legalization, and then establishment, that began with the Emperor Constantine. At the climax of St. Augustine’s long march through history and beyond in City of God, his final word about citizens of the heavenly city returned to this very model. Christians, he said, should identify with the Hebrews in Babylonian exile. These were the people to whom the prophet Jeremiah wrote, urging them to seek the shalom, the peace, the welfare of the city in which they now found themselves, even while remembering their higher loyalty.
Immigrant status does not mean either sectarian standoffishness nor idolatrous capitulation. This is the lesson of the book of Daniel as it recounts the faithfulness of Hebrew civil servants working within the Babylonian regime. They could offer a service to the common good that was all the wiser and more creative because they retained a distinct identity formed by loyalty to the God of Israel and faithfulness to the Torah. If they had thoroughly assimilated, they would have had nothing to offer that Babylon did not already have.
How exactly to advocate for more just and humane immigration policies, or any policy, within the nation-states where Christians reside is an immensely important but secondary question. We will not get immigration right if we adhere to an “America first” political philosophy, because we will have made America into our church. We will only get immigration right, as well as every other question of social ethics and legal policy, when we know who we are. Christians are people who dwell in particular places, but who are also obliged to a wider solidarity within a transnational nation. This nation is forged in baptismal loyalty to another, different kind of Lord who fulfills the Abrahamic call to be a blessing to all nations.
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Debra Murphy says
This is an excellent counterweight to the distorted Christianity of American Exceptionalism, not to mention the so-called Christian Right. You have given our family food for thought…thank you!