Nationality Culture Identity Generosity
This page is part of the Living with Jesus Now series.
It was written as a sermon for Refugee and Migrant Sunday (27 August 2006)
Recently I have been more conscious than usual of the complex and tragic circumstances of refugees and displaced persons. As someone who works closely with the Palestinian Christianity community through the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem and Nazareth, refugee issues are never far from my awareness, but some recent events have made me think more deeply about these matters.
The conflict that erupted between Israel and Hezbollah refreshed and updated my mental image of a displaced person. Israeli and Lebanese civilians found themselves displaced and seeking shelter in other parts of their own countries, or even abroad. Indeed, thousands of Australian citizens who happened to be in Lebanon at the time suddenly found themselves in need of asylum and rescue.
Another nudge to my complacency about refugees and displaced persons came when I attended a workshop on climate justice. This allowed me to consider the impact of climate change from the perspective of its impact of the millions of people who will be displaced due to changing weather patterns and rising sea levels. These are not people fleeing civil unrest or political persecution, but whole communities (even nations) displaced by changes to the weather and the oceans.
Finally there was the political debate over changes to our laws for managing requests for asylum by people who arrive by sea rather than coming on an aircraft. As we all know, eventually the bill was withdrawn because the government could not be sure of a majority to pass it. In the meantime, the churches and many other welfare agencies had been urging politicians—and the community as a whole—to think about the legal and human rights issues involved in such new laws.
Biblical perspectives on refugees and displaced persons
On reflection we that the experience of homelessness, of flight in search of refuge and of diaspora is deeply rooted into the biblical texts.
Let me rehearse some of the more familiar and significant experiences of exile and asylum-seeking:
- Abraham and Sarah are said to have been told by God to leave their traditional homelands and travel to Palestine where they would make a new home for their families and become a blessing to the indigenous people of the land. (Genesis 12)
- A little later in the same narrative, Jacob and his twelve sons will become economic refugees seeking a better life in Egypt when Palestine is devastated by a terrible famine. (Genesis 37–50)
- In time their descendants will flee Egypt under the leadership of Moses to escape the persecution inflicted on them by the rulers of Egypt and begin to make their way back to Palestine, which they see as a place of asylum and refuge. (Exodus 1–15)
- The delightful little book of Ruth tells the story of a Jewish family relocating to Moab, and marrying local people there, when their traditional lands in southern Palestine are again hit by drought. When circumstances change and the survivors return home, Ruth the foreigner stays with her mother-in-law, Naomi. It is on her lips that we find those beautiful words: "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In the way that the Bible tells the story, she eventually becomes the ancestor of David, king of all Israel.
- Following their defeat at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, generations of Jewish people found themselves taken away as hostages, displaced by government policy or simply refugees in other lands. Much of the Jewish Bible was to be composed under the influence of such experiences, and for most of their history the Jewish people have been a diaspora community – strangers scattered abroad in other people’s lands.
- Matthew takes up these themes when he creates a story of Jesus’ birth. He cannot imagine the Christ Child without some experience of flight to safety in a foreign land.
- The modern Zionist dream of a Jewish state in biblical Palestine may only have taken shape in the 1890s (1897 to be precise), but it reflects these ancient dynamics of a community whose identity and understanding of faithfulness to God is shaped by exile and a longing to return “home”.
Identity and hospitality
We can see, then, that the Bible can be understood as sacred Scriptures generated by a community of refugees and displaced persons. Themes of exodus and return are deeply rooted in our spiritual tradition.
For biblical Israel and the continuing post-biblical Jewish communities, that experience of emigration, exodus, exile and diaspora is closely linked to their identity—both as individuals and as a community. The strength of that identity is partly the explanation for their remarkable endurance as a distinctive society over more than 2,000 years. Very few communities from the time of Jesus survive to this day,† and none of them did so despite being expelled from the traditional homelands.
At the heart of that distinctive Jewish identity is an awareness of being the “chosen people.”
That identity as the covenant people has multiple dimensions, with the most inspiring expression perhaps being a sense of “called to serve the nations.” Recall the promise that all the indigenous peoples of Palestine would count themselves blessed to have Abraham and Sarah settle among them. Note also the words of the anonymous prophet of the Babylonian exile, whose messages called on Jews to imagine themselves as a light to the nations. (Isaiah 42:6)
While it is possible that this strong sense of identity could promote a sense of ethnic superiority, that seems mostly an unfair polemic by Christian and pagan opponents in the difficult times around the Jewish-Roman War in the 60s and 70s of the First Century. More often the sense of being chosen simply served to reassure a fragile community whose experience was mostly one of exile and diaspora.
Even if it is true that the non-Jewish stranger and Gentile goyim in general were seen as unfortunate in not having been chosen in the same way as Jews had been, there continued to be a strong sense of hospitality to the stranger travelling through the land as well as to the resident alien. The rights of both were respected and protected.
This sensitivity to the rights of others has been expressed over the past 250 years in the impressive engagement of European Jews in the struggle for human rights, but its roots go back to ancient memories of living as semi-nomads on the edge of society, to stories of exodus and exile, and to their sense of God's own generosity in covenanting with them and their ancestors.
The practice of Jesus
Not surprisingly, Jesus the Galilean Jew seems to have operated comfortably within the covenant identity norms of Second Temple Judaism. However, there are three indicators that invite us to imagine Jesus as moving beyond some of the narrower understandings of Jewish identity that may have been around in his time.
(1) The first hint comes from the early inclusion of Gentiles into emerging Christianity. We see this most clearly in the writings of Paul; himself a Jew with formal rabbinic training. His letters predate the Gospels by many years and offer a glimpse into Christianity during the 40s and 50s of the First Century. We see there was debate about whether these people should also adopt Jewish ritual, but no-one seems to have suggested that including Gentiles within the Christian communities was contrary to the way of Jesus.
(2) The second hint comes from what we know of Jesus’ own practice during his short adult life in Galilee during the 20s. Jesus was remembered as practising a radical hospitality that included people who would not normally be welcomed by observant Jews: women, those with disabilities, the sick and the disturbed; not to mention people engaged in disreputable occupations.
(3) Finally, there are two stories of Jesus engaging with women in ways that took him beyond the usual boundaries for a Jew at the time.
One is the encounter with the Lebanese woman from Tyre, who seeks Jesus’ assistance with her ill daughter. (Mark 7:24–30) After initially declining to assist, Jesus accepts her rebuke that proposed that even the dogs get the crumbs from the master’s table. Another boundary falls.
The other story is our Gospel passage from John 4. Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman, who also happens to have a pretty messed up marital history, and they talk together of a time when the divisions between Jew and Samaritan will have vanished. Implicit in the story is the idea that anyone (no matter their ethnicity) who seeks God in spirit and in truth will succeed in their quest.
A Christian theology of identity and generosity
Some 2,000 years have now passed since the time of Jesus. In that period the biblical and theological traditions of Christianity have continued to develop and mature. Judaism and Christianity have long since separated into different faith communities, and the cultural contexts are vastly different from those known to Jesus and his earliest followers. One of the changes is that our identity is largely constructed around the concept of nationality (of which sovereign nation state are we citizens) and culture (including, for westerners, the concept of human rights).
Both those poles for our personal and social identity are based on civil and secular values. In the West, religion no longer plays a significant part in determining our sense of what it means to be human, or what it means to belong to our particular society.
Further, those two poles can be, and often are, in conflict. What might be in the national interest may be in conflict with the human rights of an individual or even a subset of the world’s population (or in conflict with the more general community values).
This seems to be the best explanation for the unlawful detention at Guantanimo Bay of persons captured in Afghanistan and other places. It also seems to explain the tension between Australia’s international commitments and some proposals for border control.
The ideology of nationality speaks of the right to exclude, to control and to protect from hostile economic or military action. However, the ideology of liberal Western culture, and especially the requirements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, speaks more about affirming the civil and human rights of people, of assisting them in times of need, of avoiding any impact upon civilians during conflict, of granting access to refuge, providing education and health care, etc.
As we have seen in recent times, those fundamental sources of Western identity are insufficient grounds for a compassionate response to human need and may often be in conflict with each other.
We need to supplement the secular values of nationalism and human rights with a new sense of human identity and with a renewed appreciation of the role of generosity in our relationships with one another.
In our time we have fresh sources on which to draw as we reimagine what it means to be human.
We start with the ancient biblical affirmation that we are all children of creation.
We then join the dots of that grand theological affirmation with the lines provided by research into the human genome and our growing appreciation of cosmic origins. Not only do we share most of our DNA with other people and with other creatures, we are built of the atoms from long dead stars.
Even more than those dazzling insights into our origins and nature, as people of faith we affirm the human vocation to be the imago dei (the image of God). We are to embody and represent in our everyday spheres of activity the very character of God, the source of all life.
More than that, we are called to be imago Christi, the image of Christ. For us, God has a human face; Jesus. And Jesus has millions of brothers and sisters. We are they. We give God a human face in today’s world, and that is not just the calling of those who carry the name of Christ—it is the calling of all humanity, whatever their faith.
We see ourselves—and others—differently.
From that renewed sense of who we are comes a new sense of how we are to act.
We are to embody the divine generosity seen in creation; making the future possible by the choices we make and the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to others.
We love because God first loved us. We give because we have received. We lift up those crushed by life because we have been raised. We welcome the refugee and the displaced person because the divine prodigal Father has come running down the pathway to our hearts and embraced us even before we formed the words to express our need.
This is not so much a case of much being expected from those to whom much has been entrusted; as the rescued swimmer serving in the beach patrol at the shoreline of the sea of faith.
What if this requires us at some stage to act contrary to the national interest?
God expects nothing less and no government can require a Christian to place national interest (or, more likely, political acquiescence) above freedom of conscience. Service to nation is not a biblical idea but a secular value in the absence of any greater reality to whom ultimate loyalty is owed.
As Jesus is remembered to have said, our obligation is to "render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God."
Tougher still, we may find ourselves having to act contrary to our personal interests, or at least contrary to our personal comfort. We may have to change the way we do business, or travel, or recycle our waste.
That may not be a prospect we embrace with any enthusiasm but Christ expects no less of us, and we can do no less if we wish to known as Christians.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” [John 15:12–14)
† Possible exceptions include Egypt, the Samaritans in central Palestine and the Persian community in Mesopotamia (now called Iran).
©2006 Greg Jenks