Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics
Policymakers (and therefore, citizens) in modern democracies confront a knot of intertwining problems, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. Many of the threads have formed a rope called human migration, as drought, political instability or corruption, and neocolonial economic policies by the major powers interlace to drive seventy million (and counting) refugees from their homelands. The crumbling of moral consensus in many cultures, especially in the Global North, means that no sword for cutting the knot lies to hand, and the digital dexterity required to unravel it seems increasingly to elude the arthritic fingers of dominant political structures. They also elude the church in much of North America as it retreats to a defensive posture and replaces courage with bravado, mercy with self-congratulation, and moral clarity for a Christ-against-culture theology that too often both slanders other human beings and reduces Jesus to a tribal deity.
This book aims at restoring our dexterity. The authors, respectively a scholar of the Old Testament (Mark Glanville) and of international relations (Luke Glanville), collaborate in making a case for a more robust approach to refugees at the level of congregations and denominations (or quasi-denominational associations of churches), as well as at the level of nation-states and international organizations. Their book moves from the Bible to the church to the nation to the world as it articulates a view of “constructed kinship” linking refugees and hosts.
Following Marshall Sahlins, they understand kinship to involve a state of interdependence and “mutuality of being” (10) played out in ritual as well as “shared meals, shared habitation, shared memories, and shared suffering” (10). They argue that such constructed kinship can exist at multiple levels, even in the form of “adoption” into a national “family.”
The book works by laying side by side analysis of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament with wide-ranging analyses of contemporary society and the historical roots of modern national identity-formation, among other topics. The layering of discourses gives the book a homiletic quality (usually in the best sense), drawing the reader into a creative stance toward the arguments and evidence being adduced, allowing (or rather, exhorting) us to draw important conclusions about the merits of the authors’ case.
The first section of the book lays out the biblical case for constructing kinship between the refugee and the non-refugee. Chapters 1-3 examine some key biblical texts relevant to the point, most notably Deuteronomy’s repeated references to the presence of the “stranger” (Hebrew: gēr) in community events in the Israel it seeks to construct (Chapter 1), the stories placing refugees such as Tamar and Ruth among the ancestors, as well as the concern for foreigners in Jonah (Chapter 2), and the valuing of the stranger by Jesus (Chapter 3). On the whole, the authors move from biblical text to current situation and back with skill, allowing readers to find the parallels between the world of the text and the world of the reader.
A few caveats may be in order, however. Fuller treatments of the biblical texts have appeared in such recent works as M. Daniel Carroll R.’s The Bible and the Borders and my own Jesus, King of Strangers.1 It is also the case that when the Glanvilles assert that, “A first century Israelite would have considered any Gentile or Samaritan to be completely beyond the pale, not even registering as acceptable to God” (76; cf. 85), they go far beyond the available evidence and, doubtless inadvertently, repeat the longstanding canards against Pharisaism and other Judaisms that recent scholarship (from E.P. Sanders to Amy-Jill Levine) have systematically dismantled. There is no need to glorify Jesus by painting a sharp contrast between him and other Jews. Quite to the contrary: Jesus fits within the broad spectrum of Judaism, and shared with many of his contemporaries a view of God’s wider concern for the migrant.
However, this discussion, in addition to laying out the key texts accurately, has the merit of taking head-on important misuses of them by some fundamentalist Christians. The authors systematically dismantle the misrepresentations of various prior books and organizations trying to mount theological defenses for extremely restrictive immigration policies. They expose misuses of key texts (such as Romans 13) and the sloppy defenses of national identities that seek religious validation for the heresy of Christian nationalism.
Part Two of the book moves from the Bible to the church, emphasizing the church’s story as a migrating community (often physically, and always spiritually) as a resource for its understanding of its relationship to other migrants. Although the unit consists of only one short chapter, it does much of the book’s work. The authors argue that the church’s missional nature, its core identity, leads it to find community with migrants. This community takes concrete form in “festive kinship,” that is, in a shared life that embraces both our diversity and our common humanity, as well as our need for both celebration and lament. They offer a compelling, indeed beautiful, vision of church as the harbinger of the heavenly kingdom.
Part Three, Chapters 5-7, takes up in turn the desirability of a “neighbor-loving nation,” the responsibilities of political leaders toward strangers, and the importance of institutionalizing welcoming practices. This analysis, deeply rooted in a close reading of political science and evaluation of the work of political actors, dismantles the theological justifications sometimes offered for hard-nosed (so-called “realist”) approaches to refugees and other immigrants. The authors confute the plea for preservation of national identity, sometimes touted even by theologically-minded thinkers, arguing that such imagined histories of nations too often gloss over the ugliness of the past, privileging a deeply ideological narrative whose deep structure sits at odds with that of the Christian faith, or even a coherent vision of human flourishing. Welcoming the stranger is good for any nation, they argue. The welcoming of the stranger may transform the host nation for the better.
Those who call for restrictive policies on refugees (and other immigrants) often appeal to the need to obey the sovereign, as argued for in Romans 13. Jeff Sessions’s notorious, indeed odious, misuse of that text prompts Chapter 6, in which the authors show not only that Paul’s paragraph-long discussion of civil government—surely, a single paragraph does not a political theory make!—neither justifies repression of the stranger nor validates all possible laws. Indeed, the Bible knows numerous cases of civil disobedience by apostles, prophets, and other valued figures whose actions are held up as binding examples for their followers. Moreover, the Christian tradition (therefore much of Western political theory) has usually not thought that preference for one’s own kind absolved one of the obligation to love the stranger. This gap between present-day “Christian” defenses of very limited openness to refugees and the preponderance of prior Christian thinking becomes clear when considering Deuteronomy’s insistence on care for the one to whom we have opportunity to extend care.
Chapter 7 moves toward a constructive project at a national level, calling for an ethic of collective compassion that imaginatively fosters the well-being and transformation of both the refugee and the host. The authors speak, provocatively, of institutionalizing love, putting in place systematic practices of mutual learning and care.
The final two chapters (Part Four), argue for a move away from Christian realism, which the authors find too restrictive in its conception of the capacities of states to do good, or rather too focused on security at the expense of the well-being of the vulnerable (Chapter 8). They also propose reallocating resources toward programs that help address the immediate needs of refugees and other migrants, as well as establishing structures for dealing with the sustained realities impelling migration (Chapter 9). The shift of thinking called for would require serious reflection from several levels of society, both policymakers and their electorates. At the same time, such shifts of thinking and action do not seem impossible, as some ongoing experiments have already shown.
Finally, in assessing this work, one must thank the authors for the breadth and clarity of their vision. Surely, they and other recent authors have criticized Christians’ indifference to the realities of involuntary migration in our world, not to mention support of authoritarian nationalist movements that demonize migrants and legitimize state-sponsored abuse or neglect of them. Christian leaders need to draw a very clear line between the gospel and its misuse by nationalistic, anti-immigrant movements. Refashioning a commitment to human mercy is crucial, and the authors’ emphasis on “kinship” as a means of embracing our common humanity promises a path for regaining that commitment. While some of the church’s practices they describe occurring in the experimental communities of Canada (Kinbrace and others) may be more difficult under United States law, the creativity and commitment to the well-being of refugees that such experiments demonstrate certainly deserve emulation if the church in North America is to be the church in any sense.
Several aspects of the book deserve wider discussion. Christian realists may find the book to caricature their views, and indeed Christian realism has several versions, not all of which are as hard-nosed as the authors describe. Anabaptists, on the other hand, may find the authors overestimate governments’ ability to function morally excessive. That sort of debate is all to the good. Let it begin. But most of all, let us join the authors in their solidarity with those among us who flee their homelands seeking a more verdant life.