And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous ….
Deuteronomy 26:5 KJV
This little confessional statement of faith that appears at Deuteronomy 26:5-10, scholars say, was a creed that was central to the Feast of Pentecost (First Fruits) where people brought the first portions of their harvest to the Lord’s house. Participation in this extremely important festival started with reciting this creed. Each individual was to declare something like, “My father was a wandering vulnerable and impoverished Syrian ready to perish.” Thus, God wanted this piece of information engraved on everyone’s conscience, and consequently, on the community’s collective conscience. They had to remind themselves at this festival every year that they descended from wanderers who had often depended on the merciful hospitality of strangers to survive. This is their history. This is their identity. Deuteronomy 26 is talking about Jacob (whose mother was a Syrian, married two Syrian women, and raised up his children in Syria for a long time). But, at a distant, we can tell they would have Abraham in mind for he was a Syrian by birth. There is no telling of Jewish history apart from migration.
Earlier in Leviticus, God had reminded them that in addition to being descendants of migrants, they — themselves — were also once migrants in Egypt. They had to remember their own “migranthood” for they would have to identify with the stranger (migrant, alien) that would wander into their land some day. “Treat them well,” God said, “for you were once strangers in Egypt.” Lev. 19:33-34.
Christianity, being an Abrahamic faith, is grafted into Abraham’s story. Christians, no matter where they are, are children of Abraham by faith. Thus, as Christians, our father in the faith was a wandering immigrant from Syria. And, of course, as I have argued here, we follow an immigrant Messiah. Therefore, as Christians, migration is not just a part of our story, it is the story. We are sojourners (aliens, migrants) on earth. If anyone is to be sympathetic to immigrants, it has to be Christians and their churches, for our history tells us, “our ancestors were once strangers.” We have all the theological reasons to do so, even though such theologies will generally be heard only at the margins of Christianity.
Migration is a natural human condition. Populations of people will continue to redistribute themselves in search for resources and safety. As long as there are gross inequalities, injustices, and conflicts in the world, migrations will occur. If birds and fish and termites and many other animals migrate in search of a better/safer life, even just for a season, attempts to stop humans from migrating do not make sense.
Most of my European and North American friends do not seem to know their own history that in the 19th Century, between 20 and 25% of Europes population (between 60 and 80 million Europeans) migrated from Europe to the rest of the world mostly as economic migrants. Of course, they ended up colonising most of the places they went to. That political colonialism, followed by economic colonialism (or neo-colonialism), continue to facilitate the transfer of wealth to the West, enlarging the economic divide between the West and other parts of the world (the Middle East and Africa, for instance). We have ended up with a world where many who want to do better in life and live in relative safety seek their way to Europe and North America. Thousands who have died in the Mediterranean Sea are portrayed in a negative light by the Western media. We have to keep reminding the BBC, Reuters, DW, and others that what we currently have is not a migrant crisis but a refugee crisis.” But many thousands more have died in Syria and the Sahara — and they will never get any press.
There are many factors behind current mass-migration patterns. And to address the perceived problems coming out of migration, we need a better approach. Building walls along the Mexican border, beefing up security at Calais, and closing up train stations in Budapest will not do.
But more often than not, I wonder what the Christian community — the Church — is doing help. Where are the Western Christian voices reminding the faithful remnant in this post-Christian West that “our father was a wandering Syrian?” That our faith is the faith of the migrant — or that of a migrant community? That we are admonished to entertain strangers? That our Lord was once a refugee? How many sermons just this past Sunday mentioned the mass-grave that has become the Mediterranean Sea? Or prayed for the many refugees stuck on the Greek Islands? How many would speak truth to power that many of the problems in the Middle East and Africa are a result of unfair policies established and enforced by Western governments?