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David Lawrence reflects on the recurring theme of migration in the Christian tradition. 04/07/2019
The Evening Standard called it ‘The picture that shames America’. A Salvadoran father and his daughter were found lying face–down in the Rio Grande river, drowned close to the US–Mexican border: two of the thousands of refugees who brave the perilous journey to the US every year.
Meanwhile, America is furiously divided over President Trump’s ‘zero–tolerance’ policy of separating migrant families from their children, who are then detained in squalid conditions which have been compared to concentration camps for their dehumanising nature. At least seven children are known to have died in these camps in just the last year.
Perhaps the real shock of these stories for people like me – a left–leaning, mixed–race, son of an immigrant – is how popular Trump’s policies are. The detention camps and the Rio Grande drowning are not subject of public inquiries, but the subject of debate. Migration and our treatment of migrants is politicised; we call it the ‘culture war’. For whatever reason, whether we blame the media, economic inequality, globalisation or just human nature, there is a good proportion of Western society which is hostile towards – and often scared of – migrants.
The topic of migration came up unexpectedly in my church small group last week. We were studying 2 Samuel 7, in which a newly installed King David is desperate to build a temple in which to house the Ark of the Covenant. Surprisingly, God turns down David’s offer, saying: ‘I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.’
David’s motivation is a very human one: we all have a desire for rootedness, place and permanence. It is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament, a yearning for home and the Promised Land, as the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years. It is a central theme of Zionism, a particular desire for a community scattered far from their ancestral home for millennia. The desire for rootedness and homecoming is a fundamental part of human nature. However, for those of us privileged enough to have homes, this can lead to a more sinister distrust and disdain towards those who are un–rooted.
This fear of the nomadic runs deep. In early 20th Century Europe, much of the ‘philosophy’ behind Nazism played on the idea that while the German race is rooted to its soil, ‘the Jew is precisely the opposite, nomadic and urban by nature’. This ingrained fear of the restless nomad, and desire not to be one, is perhaps what also lies behind the oppression of traveller communities and displaced communities in many cultures throughout history – from Moses to Windrush.
In the Christian tradition, not only is God a nomadic tent–dweller, but Christians have been known to consider themselves ‘resident aliens’ in a foreign land. This distinctly New Testament idea echoes Paul’s claim of Christian citizenship of Heaven, at a time when citizenship was inextricably linked to the Roman authority of the day.
This theme was explored by David Lammy MP – who played a key role in raising the profile of the Windrush scandal – at last weekend’s Christians on the Left conference. Lammy said that Jesus is ‘the ultimate refugee’. Born in stable, escaped to Egypt and with ‘no place to lay his head’, it is not hard to see the tent–dweller God in the person of Jesus.
Nomadism, for all the fear it evokes, is at the heart of Christianity, and yet this must be held in tension with a vision painted throughout the Bible of ultimate homecoming. The image of New Jerusalem, with every person under their own fig tree, sits alongside the realities of nomadic earthly existence. Our occasional human experience of rootedness is ultimately a facade and a foretaste: as C.S. Lewis puts it, ‘our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.’
The church can draw on a rich tradition of nomadism within Christianity to stand alongside refugees. It is reassuring that God is no stranger to a nomadic and restless existence. However, the Biblical promise of homecoming is also a call to action. When there are bodies in the water and children torn from their families, complacency is deadly. We must fight unashamedly for the dignity, welfare and homes of today’s migrants, and all who make perilous journeys across dangerous rivers in search of hope.
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