Friday, February 21, 2014

Theology and Immigration


On Monday, March 17, 2014, theologian Justin Ashworth of Duke University will be visiting Ashland and giving a public lecture, "The Location of Peoplehood: A Theological Contribution to Immigration Debates" at 7 p.m. in the Ridenour Room, Dauch College of Business and Economics.
Ashland Religion News sent some questions to Justin asking him more about his work on theology and immigration. 
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Your work is in theology and immigration. What do these have to do with each other?

Theology and immigration are connected in a number of ways. At the most basic level, most migrants from Latin America (my primary focus) have some religious convictions, most often Christian; theologians ought to care about these convictions and their influence on migrants and those with whom they have contact. Moreover, many theologians understand their task as the attempt to speak coherently (or “logically,” from logos in Greek) about God (theos in Greek) and all things in relation to God. Theologians should not neglect this important aspect of human and Christian life. From another perspective, some argue that theologians should focus especially on how to understand individual and social wounds in relation to God. Immigration debates in America are so lively, I think, in part because so many wounds (and the possibility of further wounds) are exposed: questions of race, gender and class, obedience to the law, the deaths of migrants attempting to cross the border, cultural identity, national security and a number of others. Theologians do well to ask what type of healing God is bringing to these wounds and how churches and others of good will can respond to, and be part of, that healing.


A lot of these questions seem to turn on identity and "peoplehood." What are you looking at theologically that can shed light on what it means to be a people and what it doesn't mean?

The disciplines of history and cultural anthropology have made it particularly difficult to believe race and culture are static givens. The definition and social significance of whiteness, for example, have changed drastically throughout western history and even just in the history of twentieth-century America. We forget that people from Italy and Ireland were not initially “white,” while Mexicans were once white! And although the boundaries of nations have some stability, the fact that no nation has lasted forever—and that every nation’s boundaries have shifted over time—should make us reflect on whether peoples are as unchanging as we often assume. Race and peoplehood are identities that we experience as given and that change throughout time as we interact with others.
My work employs a theme that allows us to appreciate this flexibility. I focus on God’s plan to unite all things in Jesus Christ. The Book of Genesis pointed in this direction in God’s promises to bless all nations through the particular and fragile people descended from Abraham (12:1-3). The Book of Revelation declares that people from every tribe and people and language will come and worship Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain for the salvation of the world (7:9-10). And Christians believe Jesus has already fulfilled this covenant and inaugurated this gathering (Ephesians 2:11-3:10). Understood in this way God’s plan implies historical and geographical movement and thus the possibility of interactions with people different from ourselves.

Thinking from the perspective of God’s covenant with Israel, fulfilled in Jesus Christ and awaiting consummation, means we are not first of all white or black, American or Mexican. These identities do not cease to influence our lives, but theologically we are fundamentally either Jews or gentiles. And to be a gentile—as most Christians are—means we can only receive God’s promises to Israel through Jesus Christ. Our experientially-given identities are merely jumping-off points from which we move towards Jesus Christ and those near to him. Concretely this means we cannot let the experience of given identities determine who we understand to be “our people.” The primary moral imperative in this light is not loyalty to one’s people but to follow Jesus into relationship with those with whom he does and will have a relationship.

What can or should churches be doing?

Churches must form relationships with migrants because they offer Christians an opportunity to point back to God’s promises to bring all things together in Jesus Christ and forward to the time when that promise is made manifest. The most obvious type of relationship is face-to-face, either individually or communally. We should share life together and be open to being changed through this shared life. We may need to learn new languages, for example. Anyone who has attempted to learn a new language knows the painful awkwardness inherent in this discipline. We cannot help but change by learning other people’s stories and even languages. But we also should not discount God’s ability to work through more mundane institutional relationships like sharing buildings or other resources.

There's a lot of talk about "immigration reform" these days. Do you advocate a particular political way of addressing immigration in the US? 

“Immigration reform” often claims to be “comprehensive,” but virtually no mainstream politician has tried to shift our focus away from border politics. This is a terrible mistake. The militarization of the border, as seen most recently in the “border surge” sneaked into the Senate bill of summer 2013, has several serious problems. It would radically increase spending on our already-monstrous border apparatus. It could not avoid failing to meet its objective of complete border security—border patrol agents simply cannot check every vehicle that crosses the border by land or sea. Most importantly it would signal America’s willingness to treat Latin America as a political enemy, despite historically deep economic, political and cultural ties. You do not point guns at friends. Good neighbors may be separated by fences, but these fences are not manned with armed guards and meticulously scrutinized by drones. And good neighbors certainly do not let each other die attempting to cross the fence.

On the other hand, the emphasis on border politics ends up sanctioning more racial profiling than many Americans are willing to admit. The problem isn’t always with racist border patrol officers (though sometimes it is). Rather the more fundamental problem is racialization, that is, the association of certain facial and bodily features with certain types of crime. People who “look Mexican” must be illegal aliens; people who “look Arab” must be terrorists. Racial categories inevitably come into play. The problem is not so much that the border patrol is racist but that for most Americans, the key immigration problem to solve is stemming the flow of unwanted, unauthorized migrants into the United States. Until we turn our focus away from border politics, we will continue to treat Latin America like an enemy and those who “look Latino” as presumptive criminals (and those who “look Arab” as presumptive terrorists).


The most important political work ahead of us is the building of coalitions between citizens and migrants (authorized or not) to face the most pressing problems for the poor—citizen and non-citizen alike. I mentioned above that I think theologians must feel society’s wounds and explore the healing God might bring to those wounds. Because immigration policies highlight so many sites of pain, we can only really get a grasp on the problems through the types of relationships I discussed above (face-to-face, institutional, etc.). But these relationships must be directed towards the well-being of the poor because just as God’s mission in the world is to bring people together in the name of Jesus, so God has promised to raise up the poor out of oppression. Coalition work is a response to God’s promise of unity; and the directing of this work towards the well-being of the poor follows the one who brought good news to the poor.

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