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Migration and the Migrant God

Monday, 23 July 2018  | Charles Ringma


When the US President, John F. Kennedy, made his famous speech in 1963 in Berlin, and uttered the phrase, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ the crowd went crazy with excitement. In making that statement, he was using the language of identification and solidarity. In reality he was not a Berliner. But he was one with them in the cause for freedom.

In this presentation, I don’t expect anyone to get too excited when I say, ‘I am a migrant’. But I am not using this phrase as a way of identifying with migrant and refugee causes, although I do strongly identify with such issues. I am using the language of self-identification. And though my migration with my parents from Holland to Australia took place a long time ago, this has indelibly marked me and crafted my inner persona. I am a migrant still. And this has been so significant that it has impacted my reading of the biblical narrative and my understanding of God.

This connection between human experience and understanding the gospel should not surprise us. Put in other words, in the big picture narrative of scripture we can find a resonance with our own small personal narrative. Or, to put it differently again, we can make sense of our own story in the light of God’s story, and we can make better sense of God’s story through the lens of our own story. The South Korean theologian, Jung Young Lee, reminds us that ‘theology is autobiographical’.[1]

Migration as Contemporary Controversial Topic

We live in a world on the move. In the global economy we relocate for jobs, education and social mobility, and people relocate due to oppression, conflict and natural disasters. Sociologists have pointed out that displacement and migrancy have become the dominant themes of our age.[2] Thus we have become the ‘nomads’ of the modern world and live increasingly with a sense that we have lost our ‘home’, whether that be the society, our work, our politics, the church or the planet. It seems that a fundamental instability and insecurity has invaded us.

Even as you read this, some 700,000 people are on domestic and international flights. Some 60 million refugees are dislocated[3] and over 244 million people are living outside of their country of origin.[4] And here in Australia 28.2% of the population were born overseas.[5]

This massive movement of people has created all sorts of problems and fears. In many places, assimilation[6] has not worked well and multiculturalism has created xenophobic attitudes on the part of some. Little wonder that the move now is towards various forms of protectionism and isolation.

While acknowledging that wrestling with these issues is of paramount importance, I wish to move to a reflection on the psychology of the migrant experience seen through the eyes of the migrant. Later on, I wish to reflect on how theologically significant this has been for me, and draw some broad implications.

The Inner Shape (or Gestalt) of the Migrant Experience

The migrant experience has an interesting, and at times puzzling, to and fro movement. While the main thrust is that of dislocation and relocation, the issue of leaving and joining is far more complex.

My experience in coming to Australia at the age of ten was the excitement of coming to an exotic country and becoming an Aussie as quickly as possible. Despite being regularly called a ‘dago’ and told to go back where I came from during my first year or so, my salvation lay in becoming a good left-hand spin bowler in the cricket team. Thus, in time, all went well in becoming an Aussie. I have been trying to make use of the spin bowl ever since!

But there were counter winds. I lived in a Dutch home. I attended a Dutch church. Many friends were Dutch. I married a Dutch wife. At seminary I read a lot of Dutch theologians. In visits to my home town in Holland and the extended family that still lived there, I felt deep connections. I was proud of my grandparents’ and my parents’ involvement in the underground resistance in World War II. I had an aunt that I was particularly close to and I discovered that my grandmother was a Jewess. These winds continued to blow even though I felt deeply connected to Australia.

So where did that leave me? What was I? An Aussie? A Dutchie? Or both? Or neither?

Scholars have identified the first broad possibility of the migrant experience as being in-between two cultures. The idea here is: I will never be fully Australian and am no longer fully Dutch. I am in the margins of both. Thus I am a ‘divided self’.[7] This is basically a negative view and can lead to problematic experiences. In Victor Turner’s discussion of liminality with its move from structure to anti-structure to new structure,[8] the in-between experience is to be in the anti-structure phase with all its vulnerabilities and challenges.

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.

While living in-between can so easily lead to feeling alienated and marginalised resulting in a victim mentality, living in-both can lead to a celebration of a certain richness and can be the source of looking at one’s new societal home with somewhat different eyes – the eyes of an insider-outsider. This applies not only to the migrant, but also to minority groups in a society. This does not mean that the outsider-insider sees things better than others; but they do see things differently.

The Bible and Migration

So what has all of this to do with the unfolding of one’s life and the biblical story? My wife, Rita, and I, because of our migrant experience, have been able to readily relocate elsewhere, mainly for ministry reasons. We have served in various states in Australia and in the Philippines, Myanmar and Canada. The migrant experience, which is nearly always birthed in marginality, has helped us to identify with others who are also marginalised.[9]

And these values came from a combination of our experience and our reading of Scripture.

The most obvious things that we can say about the biblical narratives are:

  • They feature people on the move - Abraham, Jacob, the Israelites out of Egypt, the Israelites sent into Babylonian captivity, the dispersion of the Jewish Diaspora in the Roman Empire and the missionary journeys of the early church.
  • These narratives also understand economic migration, that is, migration due to drought conditions and the threat of starvation (Genesis 26:1; Ruth 1:1) and relocation due to war (Jeremiah 14:12).
  • The reality of being wanderers and being delivered out of oppression marked the very identity of the people of Israel.[10] This was their core confession: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there... the Egyptians treated us harshly... and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction... And the Lord brought us out of Egypt... with signs and wonders’ (Deuteronomy 26:5-8, ESV).
  • This archetypal act of deliverance from oppression was to be so normative that it was to typify their behaviour towards others: ‘Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:19).
  • In the New Testament, the iconic migration is the incarnation: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And our identification with Jesus, the incarnate One, renders us as ‘migrants’. Throughout its pages the New Testament calls us ‘exiles’ and ‘sojourners’ (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Thus we are in-both. We are in Christ and we are in the world. And the Vatican II documents have rightly identified us as ‘pilgrims’ and the whole church as a ‘pilgrim church’.[11] The documents immediately go on to note that our ‘pilgrim’ identity - in that ‘we seek the city which is to come’ - does not mean ‘that we evade our earthly responsibilities’.[12] In fact, the opposite is true. Our fundamental ‘pilgrim’ status should cause us to prophetically engage the world in the light of God’s final future of healing and restoration (Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-5).[13]

Can we Speak of a Migrant God?

I believe that we can call the God of the Bible a Migrant God. And that we should. 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 recognise the language of relationship. And one way is to see God as the One who journeys with us.

The Notre Dame theologian, Daniel Groody, and the Asian scholar, Athena Gorospe, have spelled this out:[14]

  • God self-identifies as the Wandering God: ‘but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling’ (2 Samuel 7:6). Samuel uses this in his concern 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. The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, points out that ‘the glory [of Yahweh] is along with Israel in exile...with this humiliated [and] abandoned people’.[15]
  • God is the Migrant God: this is most clearly seen in the incarnation, Jesus’ refugee status in the flight from Herod’s killing fields, his marginal status as coming from the rogue province of Galilee, his non-professional status in the hierarchical society of his time and his itinerant ministry in Palestine which was a move from the margins to the centre of power in Jerusalem.

Some Reflections

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 have, therefore, been more formational than others. 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.[16] It has made me somewhat comfortable with ambiguity and liminality.[17] And, as I have already indicated, it has brought me into contact with the God on the road rather than the static God in the temple.

I must, however, hasten on to draw all of you more deeply into this reflection. For you may feel: what on earth has all of this to do with me? I am not a migrant. And Ringma’s experience is his own. So let me then make the point: any experience that dissembles 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, the loss of loved one, job loss or a health crisis, one can end up in a sort of ‘no man’s land’ – akin to Victor Turner’s liminality and anti-structure.

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 this time of vulnerability productive so as to make us realise our true condition in the world, and to open us to respond to the marginal and hurting others.

The pilgrim, from the Latin peregrines, means a foreigner or exile.[18] Rather than seeing this as a brief aberration in one’s life, our pilgrim status should be seen as a ‘metaphor of the human condition’.[19]

Thus in the beginning was not the homestead, but ‘in the beginning was the road’.[20] And the God of the Bible is the God of the journey.

This article was presented as a ‘Theology-on-Tap’ talk on 5
th February 2017 at the Crown Hotel, Lutwyche, Brisbane. An adapted version was first published on 14th June 2017 at https://world.regent-college.edu/leading-ideas/migration-and-the-migrant-god.

Charles Ringma
 has served in urban ministry for twenty years and subsequently has taught in universities, colleges and seminaries in Australia, Asia and Canada. He is Emeritus Professor in Mission Studies at Regent College and Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Historical and Philosophical

[1] Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 33.

[2] S. Bouma-Prediger & B. J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 7.

[6] Robert E. Park has identified various stages in the assimilation process of migrants: contact/encounter; competition/conflict; accommodation where competition and conflict are increasingly minimised; and finally assimilation, where the migrant becomes one with the dominant culture, in Lee, Marginality, 36.

[7] Lee, Marginality, 46.

[8] Victor M. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Cornell University Press, 1969).

[9] Something of our story of starting Teen Challenge in Australia is told in Jeanette Grant-Thomson’s, Jodie’s Story (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1991), and our connection with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor is told in Jenni M. Craig, Servants Among the Poor (Manila: OMF Lit., 1998).

[10] See J. S. Croatto, Exodus: A Hermeneutics of Freedom. Translator S. Attanasio (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981).

[11] ‘Lumen Gentium’ in A. Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II. The Basic Sixteen Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1996), 72-78.

[12] ‘Gaudium et Spes’ in Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II, 211.

[13] For a theology that helps us to think in these terms see Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope. Translator J. W. Leitch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[14] A. O. Gorospe, ‘What Does the Bible Say About Migration? Three Approaches to the Biblical Text’, in C. R. Ringma, K. Hollenbeck-Wuest and A. O. Gorospe, eds., God at the Borders: Globalization, Migration and Diaspora (Manila: OMF Lit., 2015), 152-159.

[15] W. Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in the Biblical Faith. 2nd Edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2003), 131. Quoted in A. O. Gorospe, ‘What Does the Bible Say About Migration’, 157.

[16] See A. Shepherd, The Gift of the Other: Levinas, Derrida, and a Theology of Hospitality (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014).

[17] See Victor M. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Cornell University Press, 1969).

[18] Gros, A Philosophy of Walking. Translator John Howe (London: Verso, 2014), 107.

[19] Gros, A Philosophy of Walking, 110.

[20] Gros, A Philosophy of Walking, 118.

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