We are greatly disturbed of the frequent protests that are taking place in our country due to the implementation of Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA), the proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). People who have migrated from other countries long ago are living in fear as to whether the above exercises of the Government would affect their citizenship and if so where will they go to and what will they do? On the part of the government, they say it is a normal procedure but for many people who have no documents to prove their identity are living in fear as to their future! This situation in our nation led me to reflect upon an important and relevant theme “ Migration”. This made me to think further from a theological perspective and sharpen the theme as MIGRANT GOD AMIDST MIGRANT PEOPLE.
We live in a world on the move. In the global economy we voluntarily relocate for jobs, education, and social mobility, and people constantly relocate involuntarily due to oppression, conflict, and natural disasters. Sociologists have pointed out that displacement and migration have become the dominant themes of our age. This massive movement of people has given rise to all sorts of problems and fears. Assimilation has not always worked well: in some worst cases, multiculturalism has been accompanied by the emergence of xenophobic attitudes in segments of the population. Little wonder that the move now is towards various forms of protectionism and isolation.
Wrestling with these issues and undergoing positive social and political action is of paramount importance. However, I wish not to wrestle with modern issues of migration on a political level, but to explore the issue from a psychological and theological angle. I will begin with the psychology of the migrant experience seen through the eyes of the migrant, with illustration from my own migrant experience. From there, I will explore theological significance of migration, with the ultimate conclusion that our own experiences of migration should be understood in relation to the God who is himself a migrant.
In the physical sense, migration is simply the leaving of one place for another. But the emotional and spiritual reality—the inner shape—of the migrant experience is much more complex than the physical. Relocating a self that was formed and nurtured in one place to reside in a brand new environment will inevitably have a deep impact one’s sense of self. I am particularly reminded of my time in the United Kingdom to do my doctoral research. It was a different country in all respects and it was a painful experience for me and my family to adapt and adjust to the new situation in life, which was radically different from what we were used to in India. There were many occasions when we had to feel miserable due to our color and nationality. Even in the Church where I used to assist as a Curate, there were people who will not attend the Holy Communion Service if I were the Celebrant and there were people, even though they attended the Service will not receive the holy elements from me! There were many times during which questions like “ Who am I? “, “ Why am I here?” “ Why are people so racial and at times cruel in their dealings?” and so on. At the end of the day, we had to gather ourselves and reassess our priorities and move forward with complete dependence on God alone. Today, when I look back, I do not regret the experience of migration we had to go through in a foreign land. The experience taught us precious lessons in life, which we would not have learnt otherwise! Realizing priorities in life, facing people with different attitudes and perspectives with grace, accepting people as they are, discovering God as beyond but at the same time who is traveling with the dejected and the despised people, granting them the needed strength to move on in life.
Scholars have identified the first broad possibility of the migrant experience as being in-between two cultures. The idea is this: I will never be fully British and am no longer fully Indian: I am in the margins of both. Thus I am a “ divided self. This is basically a negative view and can lead to a problematic experience. The much more positive view is that I am in-both. Rather than seeing myself as being in neither, I live with the richness of complementarity and integration. Here is the beginning of the move towards new structure.
Living in-between can so easily lead to feeling alienated and marginalized, resulting in a victim mentality. But living in-both can lead to a celebration of a certain richness. The in-both mentality can allow one to view a new societal home from a different perspective—that of an insider-outsider. This applies not only to the migrant, but also to minority groups in a society. When I adopt the insider-outsider viewpoint, I don’t necessarily see things better than others—but I certainly attain a unique and valuable point of view.
Understanding the migrant experience from a psychological point of view is vital. But viewing the issue of migration from a theological angle is more powerful. I believe that we can and should call the God of the Bible a migrant God. A lot of our language about God is the language of distance: we speak of God as omnipotent and so on. But we also need to recognize the language of relationship. One-way to do this is to see God as the one who journeys with us.
The basic premise of a theology of migration is that God, in Jesus, so loved the world that he migrated into the far and distant country of our broken human existence and laid down his life on a cross so that we could be reconciled to him and migrate back to our homeland with God, and enjoy renewed fellowship at all levels of our relationships. Reading the Christian tradition from a migrant perspective involves perceiving what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ and understanding God’s desire to cross over the barriers that divide and alienate our relationships.
Bible scholars identify four foundations of such a theology: the Imago Dei, crossing the problem-per- son divide; the Verbum Dei, crossing the divine-human divide; the Missio Dei, crossing the human-human divide; and the Visio Dei, crossing the country-kingdom of God divide.
These foundations give expression to the ways in which God reconciles the world to himself, breaks down the divisions in our relationships and helps us understand God’s movement into our world and our response to God’s grace. The notion of the Imago Dei (Image of God) emerges in the earliest pages of scripture, where we learn that human beings are not just what we label them, but people who bear God’s own image and likeness. If people on the move are only seen as migrants or workers, or worse, as lawbreakers, aliens or criminals, then their suffering makes no moral claims on us.
At the core of the problem-person divide is the experience of dehumanization. What migrants often say is most difficult for them is not the pain and suffering of the physical journey, as horrendous as it may be when crossing deserts or oceans and stowing away in trains and cargo containers. What hurts them most are the indignities, when people treat you like you are a dog, like you are a piece of dirt, like you are worth nothing as a human being.
The second theological notion central to the immigration debate is the Verbum Dei (Word of God). In the Incarnation, God, in Jesus, crosses the divide that exists between divine life and human life. In the Incarnation, God migrates to the human race, making his way into the far country of human discord and disorder, a place of division and dissension, a territory marked by death and the demeaning treatment of human beings. In Matthew’s account God not only takes on human flesh and migrates into our world, but God actually becomes a refugee when his family flees political persecution and escapes into Egypt (Matt 2:13-15). Jesus assumes the human condition of the most vulnerable among us, undergoing hunger, thirst, rejection and injustice, walking the way of the cross, overcoming the forces of death that threaten human life. He enters into the broken territory of human experience and offers his own wounds in solidarity with those who are in pain. The Jesus story opens up for many migrants a reason to hope, especially in what often seems like a hopeless predicament. If the Verbum Dei is about God crossing over the divine-human divide, the mission of the church, or the Missio Dei (Mission of God), is to cross the human-human divide. This Missio Dei proclaims a God of life by building up, in a civilization of love.
Finally, the Visio Dei (Vision of God) is about looking at the world in such a way that the kingdom of God shapes our vision about who we are in the world. It acknowledges the role of national identities but recognizes that the deepest allegiances of Christians are predicated on a mission of reconciliation, meaning that the borders that define countries may have some relative value but are not ultimately those that define the body of Christ.
Theology offers not just more information but a new imagination. It supplies a way of thinking about migration that keeps the human issues at the center of the debate and reminds us that our own existence as a pilgrim people is migratory in nature. Christian discipleship leads us to overcome all that divides us in order to reconcile our relationships, reminding us that the more difficult walls to cross are the ones that exist in the hearts of each of us. We are unable to cross these divides by ourselves. Christian faith rests ultimately in the one who migrated from heaven to earth and, through his death and resurrection, passed over from death to life.
God self-identifies as the wandering God: “but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling” (2 Samuel 7:6). This wandering aspect of God is one of the reasons Samuel is so concerned about David’s desire to build a temple for Yahweh.
God is the God of the journey. This is most clearly expressed in God’s journey with his people as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:20-22). God is the exiled God: the glory of God leaves the temple (Ezekiel 8:1 to 11:25) and God joins his people in exile. God as the migrant God is clearly seen in the NT narrative: for example, Jesus’ refugee status in the flight from Herod’s killing fields; Jesus’ marginal status as coming from the rogue province of Galilee; his non-professional status in the hierarchical society of his time; his itinerant ministry in Palestine; his subsequent transition from outskirts to the Centre of power in Jerusalem; and, most centrally, his migration into human form in the incarnation.
The first and most obvious thing that should be said is that our life’s experiences are not to be negated but need to be brought with us in our reading of Scripture, our prayers, and our engagement with the wider world.
Some of life’s experiences are more significant than others and, therefore, have been more formative. We need to make such experiences productive. In my case, being a migrant has been a blessing. It has made me aware of loss and gain. It has made me open to the other, to those who are strange and different. It has made me somewhat comfortable with ambiguity and liminality. And, as I have already indicated, it has brought me into contact with the God on the road rather than simply the static God in the temple.
You may feel at this point: “what on earth has all of this to do with me? I am not a migrant; a migrant’s experience is his / her own.” So let me then make the point: any experience that disassembles us, strips us bare, and takes us out of our comfort zone can be approximate to the migrant experience. And whether that be a relationship breakdown, loss of a loved one, a job loss, or a health crisis, one can end up in a sort-of no man’s land.
It is at this point that we need a messy, rather than a tidy God. We need God in the tabernacle, not the temple. We need a God in the midst of our ambiguity, pain, lament, confusion, and questioning. We need a God at the margins. We need the migrant God. And we need to make our times of vulnerability productive—to allow them to help us realize our true condition in the world, and to open us to respond to others who are hurting or on the margins. God of the Bible is a Migrant God Amidst Migrant People!
The Bible Society of India