[A short extract from the presentation given at the World Council, Nantes]

In a recent programme of the Simpsons, Homer picks up a book looks carefully through it and angrily throws it aside saying: “That book has no answers!” The book is the bible and in many ways he is right. The bible has no simple answers to our concerns about modern migration. However reading the scriptures in the present context of injustice, alienation, violence, fear and oppression within the experience of migration will provide us with provocation to thought and action. This, in the end, is the point of the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This in the end is the point of our Movements. They provoke us to see the world differently and to act to make that difference real.

 

The challenge of the strange

In dealing with migration(1) and the reality of the inter-cultural nature of our world we deal with the strangeness and otherness of people and of our personal and collective histories. Shifting between cultures, languages and customs is the stuff of everyday existence, yet it always involves challenges to mind and heart, to our deepest feelings, beliefs, and sensibilities. It touches the very heart of who we are and who God is, who according to Genesis, we are called to image(2).

Abraham and Sarah: Archetypal Migrants

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all remember the journey of Abraham and Sarah. They are the Archetypal migrants, leaving all(3), becoming homeless and setting out on a journey of hope for a better life. They cross foreign lands, negotiating boundaries and become strangers. They have lost both State and status being greeted with suspicion as foreign. Like all migrants they are dependent on the kindness of the people they encounter. Even at the end of life Abraham must still negotiate to buy a grave for his wife as he and his family own no land.

Jesus among Strangers and Foreigners

The Gospel of Jesus begins on the margins: Palestine on the edge of the Roman Empire, Bethlehem a town that never appeared on a map, his birth acknowledged by Shepherds, outsiders from polite society and strangers, albeit wise men, but nonetheless foreigners from the east.

Roman policy: Greed, debt and dependency

The world that Jesus grew up in is one of new economic and political structures which were breaking down traditional Jewish Society. The Romans imposed taxes which created debt and the dispossession of land. Through direct, indirect and so-called voluntary taxes, described as oppressive by Jewish historian Josephus4, the burden of taxation meant that produce had to be used in payment often leading to peasant farmers getting into debt.

The Palestinian economy was massively based on agriculture and ancillary industries. Intensive farming yielded enough for local consumption. The land was relatively densely populated. To pay debt land would be mortgaged, then falling behind on their payments they would have to sell the land. The result was the creation of increasingly large estates, under wealthy landowners, who often lived distantly in the cities leaving a steward to manage local affairs.

In contrast the peasant farmers either ended up as indentured slaves or beggars, becoming part of a growing force of itinerant day workers who wandered the country, waiting in the market each morning to be hired by the stewards of these local estates5. Thus there was a large cheap labour force, unorganised and insecure who were hireable for a denarius a day, just sufficient for the bare necessities of a small family6. Archaeologists tell us that in Jesus’ time many were wandering day labourers through debt, and totally dependent on their physical strength, dying of malnutrition and exhaustion. Jesus’ parables attack the isolation and marginalisation of migrant casual labour in a society founded originally on solidarity with all, but especially the powerless; the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The Gospels also have plenty of references to the role of good and bad stewards and of the decadence of the rich7. Jesus stories are not the creation of a fertile mind but the observation of the brutal social reality around him.

Encountering the Stranger

He spent all his adult life in Galilee. “Galilee of the nations” (i.e. foreigners) was a cosmopolitan region. It was a place of mixed race, mixed language and a place of trade and commerce. It was not particularly religious. “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” say the religious leaders from Jerusalem about Jesus. We hear of Jesus walking around Lake Genezareth into the Decapolis region, which was Greek speaking engaging in conversation with a Syro-Phoenician woman and a Roman Centurion, all foreigners. His world was multi racial, multi ethnic and multi-faith. The Gospels show us Jesus gradually developing his analysis and response to all of this.

It is a stranger from outside, the Syro- Phoenician woman, who provokes Jesus to open his message of the Kingdom beyond Israel when she challenges him to heal her daughter. At first he says he has come for Israel’s children not the puppies under the table. But she is quick witted. “Even the puppies can catch the children’s scraps!” Suddenly he sees her faith and responds and the mission begins to move beyond Israel thanks to an anonymous foreign woman. A conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well leads him to say that God cannot be limited to Jerusalem, or indeed any holy places, churches or basilicas. But rather the Gospel will happen wherever men and women gather in spirit and truth; in other words, anywhere.

Community and Blasphemy

Jesus’ meals too establish a different type of community deliberately sitting at the table with the perceived unholy and the marginalised8. Then Jesus provokes and challenges to think about “but who is my neighbour?” His answer is not a technical definition; instead it starts from everyday life, a mugging on the Jericho road which was a common occurrence at the time. The listeners are immediately in sympathy with the victim, a fellow Jew, since it could be them next. Along comes a Priest on his way to the temple who walks by. The same happens with the Levite, an officer of the Temple. The crowd’s reaction, the listeners, would be angry.

The crowd, seeing themselves as perhaps this unfortunate individual, expect the hero to be a good Jew, an ordinary chap who will be the minister of God’s compassion. But Jesus’ story explodes their expectations: instead it is their hated enemy, a Samaritan, a foreigner. All their sectarian and nationalist prejudices and stereotypes are attacked. The religious, racial, economic and political alien becomes the agent of God’s mercy. This is the Kingdom of Abba, an alternative vision offering to transform the world of the hearers. The crowd would have been as shocked as the Lawyer. When Jesus asks him, “who was the neighbour?” he cannot even say the name “Samaritan” only “the one who helped him”.

The Gospel the margins and the marginalised

Jesus has a place in society as a skilled worker however because of the life he led, just like his birth on the margins, he dies outside the city in an unclean unholy place, between marginal figures, criminals. And the first witnesses to his resurrection were marginal to public life; women.

His ministry was one of breaking coundaries and blurring margins(9). The movement he initiates “the Kingdom of God” has to have them at its centre if it is to be truly of God. He died because for the powerful of his time his life and teaching crossed too many boundaries, blurred margins, and invited a new perspective. For many then as now this was threatening. We are still called to the same mission. To go out to be alongside men and women oppressed and enslaved and limited by religious, economic and political structures, and prejudices.

To remember and to challenge

Jesus’ ministry displaces the centre of religion. The margins and the marginalized become the focus for the new centre of the kingdom of God(10) . There the stranger becomes a potential fellow pilgrim on the way. The place of encounter with the stranger is not an easy place to be, but it is a place of unexpected truth and even revelation. It is holy ground.

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(1) The 2006 World Population Report reveals that 191 million people live outside the country of their birth and nearly 50% are women.
(2) Genesis 1:27
(3) Genesis 12:1-2
(4) Antiquities 17, 8, 4; 17, 11, 2; 17, 11, 04
(5) Cf. the parable of the workers in the vineyard Mth.20: 1-15
(6) When Jesus sees the effects of the new economics, he tells the story of the workers in the vineyard (Mathew 20).
(7) Luke. 12:42; 16:1-9 and Luke 12:16-21
(8) Mark 2:15 -16
(9) Mth 21: 1-13; Peter 3:13
(10) Lk 10:30-35

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