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Learning to Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Immigration and a Scriptural Imagination

Learning to Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Immigration and a Scriptural Imagination

The Bishop's Blog

The Evans Lecture given by Bishop Ken Carter at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida on October 10, 2013. Click here for Spanish Translation (en Español).

The story of God’s people, from the beginning, is one of pilgrimage, wandering and migration:  from Abraham, called to leave his home and live in a strange land, to the liberation of Israel from bondage to Pharaoh in the Exodus, to the diasporas and homecomings as recorded in the prophets, to the lamentation of the Psalmist, who asked the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?”  And in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we can say, in 2013, that there is “nothing new under the sun”. 
You and I live on a planet that is enriched, challenged and defined by the migration and immigration of peoples. Across the world, 214 million people have migrated, and are living outside their countries of origin.[1] There is both movement within countries (displacement) and flight from countries (emigration); at times, the latter is due to political persecution, personal degradation, or economic scarcity.  
That our nation has been shaped by immigration is both a testament to freedom and an acknowledgment of our scarred history. In the words of the “Durham Declaration on Immigration and the Church”, “we remember that this land now called the United States of America was once home to indigenous peoples who were displaced by the European Conquest…that the peoples who now live on this nation’s southern border practiced seasonal migration before the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994…[and] that the injustice of racial inequality in this country demanded both civil disobedience and legislative reform in the Civil Right movement”.[2]
Florida is mostly populated by migrants; in 1990 only 30% of the population was native-born (only Nevada has a lower population of native born persons). Wave upon wave of immigrants has made their way here: Spanish, English, Cuban, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and so it goes.  The composition of our state also presents unique challenges for my own tradition, the United Methodist Church. My predecessor, Bishop Timothy Whitaker, accurately noted the changes that are confronting us:
Florida is a rapidly changing society marked by a decrease in the population of retirees who choose Florida, a decrease in the number of citizens from other states who migrate to Florida, and an increase in the number of migrants from other nations in the Caribbean, Latin America, and other parts of the world. The United Methodist Church in Florida has been affected by a decline of the church in the northeast and the mid-west in that the number of United Methodists transferring their membership is lower than in the past.”[3]
The diversity within our region is rich and challenging and is the context in which we live together, in communities and as Christians. This also has profound implications for our mission as followers of Jesus. The cliché, that Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour of the week, may have been or may be true in certain locales; but on most of Florida soil it is rapidly becoming an unreality. And the movement that has and will shape the diverse body of Christ in the future is immigration.
Immigration is a contentious and divisive political issue. If we are to faithfully engage in the missional context in which God has planted us, we will need to cultivate a scriptural imagination. There are a number of biblical passages about immigration, although they are seldom cited in the heat of political discourse: Exodus 23; Leviticus 19; Numbers 9. Listen to these words: “When a stranger comes into your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who comes to you shall be a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19. 33-34). 
The experience of Israel, recorded in the Hebrew Bible, is foundational for the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. When you welcome the stranger, Jesus says, you were welcoming me (Matthew 25). When you show hospitality to the stranger, the author of Hebrews insists, you are welcoming angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13). 
Hospitality to the immigrant is also affirmed in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:
“We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunity for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate justice for all.”[4]  
In the broader Christian tradition, this reflection from Pope John Paul II speaks more specifically to our national context:
“In its history, America has experienced many immigrations, as waves of men and women came to its various regions in the hope of a better future. The phenomenon continues even today, especially with many people and families from Latin American countries who have moved to the northern parts of the continent, to the point where in some cases they constitute a substantial part of the population. They often bring with them a cultural and religious heritage which is rich in Christian elements. The Church is well aware of the problems created by this situation and is committed to spare no effort in developing her own pastoral strategy among the immigrant people, in order to help them settle in their new land and to foster a welcoming attitude among the local population, in the belief that a mutual openness will bring enrichment to all.”[5]
And more recently, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable (inclusive of the National Association of Evangelicals and leaders from the Southern Baptist Church, the Willow Creek Association and Sojourners) came to a statement of principles for immigration reform:
Respect for the God-given dignity of every person. Protect the unity of the immediate family. Respect the rule of law. Guarantee secure national borders. Ensure fairness to taxpayers. Establish a path to legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.”[6]
So how do we respond to immigrants among us? I came across these words recently. “Few of their children in the country learn English. The signs in our streets have…both languages….Unless the stream could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious”.   Who said that? Not a commentator in the twenty-four hour news cycle. Benjamin Franklin, complaining about the Germans who were arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1750s. We forget, don’t we, that every one of us was once an immigrant. [7]
Immigration is changing our culture, but immigration is nothing new.   One of my favorite Psalms is 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion”.  It is a moving statement about what it is like to be far from home, to be disoriented and dislocated.   It helps us to reflect on the experience of being a stranger in a strange land. Our economy requires immigrant labor, and yet its shadow side is the lived experience of our neighbors: separation of family members, living outside systems of protection from domestic violence, fear of deportation, and lack of access to freedoms that many of us take for granted. As Jim Wallis has noted, it is as if the United States is holding up two conflicting signs, simultaneously: “”No Trespass” and “Help Wanted”.[8]
The 137th Psalm is a moving statement about what it is like to be far from home, to be disoriented and dislocated.   Embedded in this psalm (poetry, prayer, protest) are a range of emotions: trauma, lament, rage, confusion. It is of course a text that is often marginalized by the church; in some traditions that have responsive readings of the psalms, portions of the text are excised; in traditions that are lectionary based, it is paired with a reading from Lamentations 1, and in my own church, it is placed on World Communion Sunday; in listening to my wife reflect on this text recently, it certainly gives voice to many Christians and Jews around the world who share a collective grief and lamentation. 
The research about migrant populations is startling in this respect. Christians comprise nearly half of the world’s migrants, around 106 million people, and they make up 61% of immigrants coming into the United States. Unauthorized immigrants in our country,  coming mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, are 83% Christian.[9]
The process of migration and immigration includes the impetus to leave the known in a journey toward the unknown. There is separation from family, loss of security and familiarity, immersion in danger, uncertainty and exploitation, and settling into the unfamiliar and overwhelming newness of the destination. These, our brothers and sisters have much to teach us about what it must be like to be strangers in a strange land. And if the church, in its evangelical, mainline and catholic expressions, is going to be vital, our brothers and sisters will teach us to sing the Lord’s song in in this strange land. 
The song, at its core, is in the scriptures. Richard Hays, in his Moral Vision of the New Testament describes the story of the Bible in three sentences:
“The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted (astoundingly) to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world”. [10]
Then he identifies three focal images: community, cross, new creation.
It is clear, in reading the scriptures, that our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, and that all other allegiances are secondary. It is also clear that we see the face of Jesus Christ in our brother or sister, before we see them as citizens of a particular earthly commonwealth. That these two presumptions are so difficult to put into practice, and that a nation that claims some form of Christian identity and/or heritage would find it so difficult to develop more humane policies is an indication of the poverty of our scriptural imaginations, of how we have come to be conformed to the world (Romans 12). 
Our brothers and sisters in Christ who come to the United States are in search for a better life, and within that surely is the quest for community. And yet three facets of the immigrant experience contribute to the destruction of community. The first is the lived reality that compels many to leave their homes. As Armando Rodriguez, a pastor in Florida has noted, "migration occurs only when entire communities are threatened by economic, political or military circumstances, often by a combination of the three." The second is the widely varying privileges that classify and segregate immigrant communities.[11] The third is the separation of families by deportation.
The political polarization of the church results in our own struggle to respond to those in need with hospitality and not hostility.   When a church does discover a mission that transcends national borders---which was the experience of the Pentecostal Church in Acts 2---there is the blessing of unity (ironically, I would point the reader to Psalm 133, a neighbor to our Psalm of Lament in 137: “How very good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!”). When immigrant populations find a spiritual home after the disruption of leaving a country of origin and enduring, often, the danger of the journey, there is a true discovery of sanctuary: a safe place, a holy place. And when immigrant populations begin to form new communities, especially in our urban areas, the faithful church begins to reflect its neighborhood. 
There is inherent in the question of community for us the inseparability of social justice and evangelism. For many immigrants, our intervention in matters of legal status is a matter of life and death, and certainly family stability. But we cannot also view our relationship as one simply of political advocacy; as Hays notes, “the biblical story focuses on God’s design in forming a covenant people. The primary sphere of moral concern is not forming the character of the individual but the corporate obedience of the church.”[12]
The cross of Jesus Christ is seen in the suffering and exploitation of people: in human trafficking, in modern day slavery, in deaths in the desert, in the absence of a living wage for immigrants who labor among us. The immigrant in many instances leaves a modern-day Egypt, and undertakes a journey to freedom. Theirs is the repetition of the journeys of Abraham and Moses, recorded in the 11th Chapter of Hebrews; theirs is the lived experience of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.   The way of the pilgrim is the way of the cross, endured by the Crucified Jesus and those who follow in his steps. As they endure testings with him, in the desert, they hear the voices of the prophets and the mystics, they live the reality of the Diaspora and the dark night of the soul. Whether these be Mexicans who stand at the wall separating Tijuana and San Diego, or the farm workers of our own state, or Cubans who lived through the destruction of communism, young children from the Dominican Republic exploited through human trafficking, or Liberians fleeing persecution and civil war, many of them are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our current immigration laws contribute to their suffering; they are often treated as a commodity, and their human rights are violated. 
In an essay entitled “Cuantos Mas? The Crucified Peoples of the Mexican Border”, [13]Giocchino Campese reflects on the Via Crucis del Migrante (the Way of the Cross of the Migrant). He records and tells the stories of those who have died in the deserts of Mexico, en route to the United States; he criticizes current U.S. Border Policy, which has in essence rebuilt the wall which came down during the Cold War; and he reflects on the concept of the “crucified peoples”, whose anonymity differs from the names remembered on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the 9/11 Monument, and who are the victims of our response to terrorism. 
Does the immigrant journey represent the way of the cross? If we have a scriptural imagination, might we hear the message of the cross calling us to “renounce violence and coercion” in our treatment of immigrants?[14] Is the sign of the cross a scandal in our present political impasse and apathy in regard to immigration reform? If the cross, incarnate in a crucified people, is a scandal to us---and the cross is always a scandal, a stumbling block, to us---there is good news: the death of Jesus Christ is not the final word: There is the promise of resurrection.  
New Creation
This promise leads to a third image:  the new creation. Those who have ventured from home, passed through the waters of baptism, endured suffering, journeyed through the desert and arrived in a new world have much to offer us. They are not only the objects of mission; they are “carriers of truths and values that make them prophets and protagonists of a better society, founded on truly Christian and human values that are slowly disappearing today in the U.S.
The new creation, in the scriptural imagination, is always present and future, anticipated now and then, but yearned for in its fullness, in this life and in the life to come. In “The Mestizo Symphony of Heaven”, [15]Edgardo-Colon Emeric meditates on a mestizo community called heaven, where, in the words of Revelation 7. 9:
“I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
The sanctified assembly is finally a mixing of races, with the acknowledgement of the painful history of our encounters. In this gathering none of us has lost our accents or distinctiveness, and yet each of us is in the process of being purified. He uses the image of a great choir around the throne, with our leaving the safety of our sections in order to come together as a symphony. Our singing is better when we are attuned to voices that differ from our own; this genuine listening requires repentance, confession and humility. In the process of “marching to Zion”, we lay aside the sin that weighs us down----our prejudices, our fears, our customs, even our prized traditions--- and we imagine, in the voices of scripture, a new heaven and a new earth.
This is the hope of a renewed church in the United States. This is the hope of the United Methodist Church in Florida. And it is not that the immigrant is the savior of the institutional church. It is that the immigrant experience can breathe new life into the dry bones of a weakening and fragmenting church; it is a faith shaped less by the presuppositions of fundamentalism and modernism, with our arguments about right beliefs, and more about the conditions of an ancient and yet post-modern world, where, in the language of the missiologist David Bosch, the core questions are life and death, or the God (of life) and the idols (of death). [16] Finally, the rich diversity of peoples, migrating from everywhere to everywhere, being sent from everywhere to everywhere, is an expression of an authentically Nicene Christianity: we cannot be one, holy, catholic or apostolic unless we are the church, with each other.
Migration, Immigration and Mission
When people who are not “like us” begin to mix with us, something happens. This is a challenge for us personally, for our institutions, and for us as a society, and our response to a new reality of dislocation and disorientation can be grounded in either fear or hope. In fear we are separated from each other. Fear of difference leads to injustice and inequality, and prevents us from fully accessing the gifts of our neighbors. 
A more hopeful outcome occurs when we come to see and know and hear each other in our differences. To live by hope is to channel our resources from activity that divides us toward solutions to the common good. Only then do we discover that our aspirations transcend culture and race; the great majority of us have the same dreams for our children: access to health care, food, religious freedom, education and safety. This dream has led immigrants, in successive generations, toward the shores of this country.   And we have been led, at our best, to embody the core conviction of this national experiment: E pluribus Unum, “out of many, we are one.”  
I live and lead in a tradition that holds to another core conviction, summarized in a phrase I learned as a child: “For God so loved the world…” The gospel is clear that we live in a world that God loves, God loves this world so much that he gave his only son to be its savior.   His Son tore down the walls that had divided us, and in the taking of his story into all the world, we have brothers and sisters in every nation.  
The Jewish and Christian scriptures themselves narrate the unfolding story of a love that transcends human tribes and divisions, and command us again and again to love God and our neighbor. I sense that we live in a cultural moment when this love must be translated into justice, in the reform of our immigration laws.   I sense as well that we live in an ecclesial moment when this love must be translated into grace, in the development of our missional strategy. I also sense that, in practice, our cultural moment and our ecclesial moment are one, just as our voices, in the choir that sings on earth, as it is in heaven, are one. 
Finally, the recognition of the cultural and ecclesial moment, as scandal and as gift, is an essential calling of the faithful church, in our present generation and surely in the next. My friend and spiritual director, Robert Tuttle, a beloved professor and mentor to many here, has often said, “U.S. Christians lack humility and global perspective.” Remembering those words led me to Philippians 2. 1-11, the Christological that is a call to unity and love, an admonition to renounce privilege and power; and perhaps a sign for us: in the emptying of the U.S. church, spiritually and numerically, we are being filled with the gift, to borrow an image from the gospel of John, of new wine. This kenosis does indeed require our humility and a global perspective. And yet this is our destiny, in this life and in the life to come.

[1] “Faith on the Move--The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants”, Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Report, March 8, 2012.
[2] “Durham Declaration on Immigration and the Church”, Duke Center for Reconciliation, June, 2010.
[3]Journal of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church, 2012, p. 85.
[4] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), paragraph 162h.
[5] Ecclesia in America, No. 65; from “Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope”, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 22, 2003.
[6] Jim Wallis, On God’s Side (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013),  p. 84.
[7] Kenneth C. Davis, “The Founding Immigrants”, New York Times, July 3, 2007. 
[8] Wallis, p. 83.
[9] “The Religious Affiliation of U.S. Immigrants: Majority Christian, Rising Share of Other Faiths”, Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Report, 2012, p. 2.
[10] The Moral Vision of the New Testament (SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 193.
[11] I am grateful to Rev. Audrey Warren for this insight.
[12] Hays, p. 196.
[13] A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration,  Daniel G. Groody and  Gioacchino Campese, ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008.
[14] Hays, p. 197.
[15] Divinity: A Publication of Duke Divinity School (Spring, 2012) pp. 10-11.
[16]David Bosch, Believing in the Future (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1995),  p. 36.