Friday, September 10, 2021

Consultation on “Becoming Migrant Friendly Congregation”

“Knitting Neighbourhood”

Jointly Organized by CSI Mission & Evangelism and Inter-faith Coalition for Peace

CSI Centre, Chennai  21st to 23rd September 2016

A Theology of Migration and Refugees


We live in a world of “people on the move”.  Today’s huge demographic phenomenon of “people on the move” is having repercussions at all levels in countries everywhere.  From the beginning of humankind peoples have migrated from one continent to the other, from one country to the other, from rural areas to urbanized centres, or from one area to the other.  Migration has been part of human history since its origins.  But today, due to widespread changes precipitated by globalization, more people are migrating than ever before.  The labels that are assigned to these people reflect their circumstances.  The terms migrant, immigrant, refugee, and internally displaced persons are often used interchangeably, although they carry different nuances.  Terms like refugee, migrant, forced migrant, immigrant, undocumented, internally displaced person, and alien are some of the most common.  It is important to observe that issues implied involve more than semantics.  It may surprise many that migration and its effects are a major theme throughout the Bible.

Biblical terminology

A helpful place to start the discussion is to examine the words the Bible uses to refer to migrants.  Each term for outsiders in the Bible carries a bit of a different nuance. Sometimes, these distinctions are difficult to discern.  There is a lot of biblical data to sift through, and the English versions—as well as those versions in other languages—are not always consistent in their translations.  The same English word can be used for several Hebrew and Greek terms, and a Hebrew or Greek term may be translated by different English words!  The most common translations of these words are “alien,” “resident alien,” “foreigner,” “stranger” and “sojourner.”

The Hebrew terms in the Old Testament that are most relevant for our study are the two nouns, nekar and ger,3 and the two adjectives, nokrî and zar.  The fact that there are several terms indicates that Israel made distinctions among those who came from elsewhere. Nekar /nokrî and zar refer to something or someone who is foreign to Israel.  They often have a negative connotation of being a corrupting influence or threat (nekar /nokrî—Joshua 24:20; 1 Kings 11:1-8; Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:23-27; Psalm 144:7; and zar—Deuteronomy 32:16; Proverbs 22:14; Isaiah 1:7), although there are some exceptions (for example, nokrî in Ruth 2:10 and 1 Kings 8:41, 43).  The nekar /nokrî are excluded from participating in certain festivals (Exodus 12:43) and could not be named king (Deuteronomy 17:15).  Perhaps these individuals had no plan to stay for a lengthy period and were not interested in integrating themselves into Israelite life.  They might have been, for example, merchants, mercenaries or traders.

The most important term in the Old Testament is ger.  It occurs 92 times.  This noun is related to the verbal root gûr, which means “to take up residence.”  Consequently, the ger is someone who has come to settle down on a short-term or permanent basis.  We will refer to these people as “sojourners.”  The Old Testament Law stipulates a series of provisions for those who had made a commitment to become part of the community of Israel.  There is no way to know if there were formal procedures that they had to go through to be accepted as a sojourner, or whether their integration into the community simply was part of a natural process over time.  Ruth is a wonderful case study in this regard.

The New Testament Greek words are xenos, paroikos and parepidemos.  These terms refer to people or things that come from elsewhere and can appear to be out of place and have no status.  Xenos occurs five times in Matthew 25:31-46, a passage that many connect to the immigration discussion and to which we will return later.  Xenos and its verbal root xenizo can refer to something that is alien and not welcome (Acts 17:20; Hebrews 13:9).  The English term “xenophobia,” which is the fear or dislike of someone foreign, comes from this Greek word.  Xenos appears in parallel with paroikos in Ephesians 2:19 to refer to the relationship to God and God’s people that individuals have before they come to faith.  It occurs with parepidemos in Hebrews 11:13 to express how Old Testament saints viewed themselves in the world.  Paroikos and parepidemos occur together in 1 Peter 2:11.

It is interesting to see that a variety of terms are used in the Bible for people or things from “elsewhere.”  Some can convey negative connotations (nekar /nokrî and Xenos); others do not (ger).  This kind of differentiation is to be expected in any society.  Part of the debate today is to sort out whether immigration is a good thing or not, and what kind of immigrants might be accepted or rejected.  At the same time, our survey is not limited to these words.  There is much to be gleaned from other biblical material as well!

Migration is not only a social reality with profound implications but also a way of thinking about God and what it means to be human in the world, which can become an important impetus in the ministry of reconciliation and a compelling force in understanding and responding to migrants and refugees.  Our understanding of God and of migration can mutually shape and enrich each other and help bridge theology and migration studies.

Four foundations of a theology of migration and refugees

  1. Imago Dei – The image of God

In the book of Genesis we are introduced to a central truth that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jas 3:9). This is not just another label but a way of speaking profoundly about human nature. Defining all human beings in terms of imago Dei provides a very different starting point for the discourse on migration and creates a very different trajectory for the discussion. Imago Dei names the personal and relational nature of human existence and the mystery that human life cannot be understood apart from of the mystery of God.  The key point is that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).  The concept of the image of God is understood in several ways. One interpretation is that the image of God concerns what humans are and what they possess—an intellect, will, emotions, and a spiritual component.  This is called the ontological or substantive view.  A second perspective is that the image is best understood relationally, as referring to the unique communion with God available through Christ, the supreme embodiment of the divine image (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15).

Although imago Dei is foundational to Christian theology, it has been interpreted in various ways throughout history. Most debates about the term’s meaning revolve around the condition of human nature after the Fall, as well as issues related to attributes (such as reason, will, emotions, and creativity), ethical qualities, social characteristics, and divine filiation. Irenaeus distinguished between “image” and “likeness,” noting that “image” indicates an ontological participation (methexis) and “likeness” (mimeˆsis) a moral transformation (Adversus haereses 5.6.1; 5.8.1; 5.16.2). Tertullian believed that the image could never be destroyed, but it could be lost by sin (De baptismo 5, 6.7). Augustine addressed the relational and trinitarian dimensions of imago Dei, its threefold structure (memory, intelligence, and will) and the fundamental orientation of human beings to God (Confessions 1.1.1).  Aquinas considered three stages of the imago Dei: imago creationis (nature), imago recreationis (grace), and similitudinis (glory) (Summa theologiae [hereafter ST] 1, q. 93, a. 4).  He believed that the imago Dei enables human beings to participate in the life of God.

Imago Dei also means that people, by implication, ought to have available “everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom.  Even in matters religious.” [Gaudium et spes no. 26.]  People can meet such needs in their homeland, but when these conditions are not met, as John XXIII noted [John XXIII, Pacem in terris no. 106.], people have a right to emigrate in order to “more fittingly provide a future” for themselves and their family.  The notion of imago Dei and human dignity is rooted in Christian theology.  The image of God allows the conversation to be framed around a core belief in immigrants as people, created with value and with the capacity to impact society positively.

  1. Dei Verbum – The Word of God

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, was solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 118, 1965.  The primary question raised by Vatican Two fathers concerning Divine Revelation was: How does God speak to us and how do we know it is God?  The ultimate purpose of this document is to help people in search of truth to strengthen their faith.  It is in hearing the message of Christ that people believe, and in believing, we hope, and through hope, we learn to love more perfectly.

The notion of imago Dei put forth in the Old Testament is realized in the New Testament through the imago Christi. Christ is the perfect embodiment of imago Dei and the one who helps people migrate back to God by restoring in them what was lost by sin.  No aspect of a theology of migration is more fundamental, nor more challenging in its implications, than the incarnation. Through Jesus, God enters into the broken and sinful territory of the human condition in order to help men and women, lost in their earthly sojourn, find their way back home to God.  Through the Verbum Dei, Jesus’ kenosis and death on the cross, God overcomes the barriers caused by sin, redraws the borders created by people who have withdrawn from God, and enters into the most remote and abandoned places of the human condition.  The Verbum Dei is the great migration of human history which is God’s movement in love to humanity that makes possible humanity’s movement to God.  A thought provoking quote by Hans Urs von Balthasar is, “If the Prodigal Son had not already believed in his father’s love, he would never have set out on his homeward journey” [Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, 5th ed. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1992) 84].

The movement of divinity to humanity is predicated not on laws, institutions, or any form of human merit but, above all, on God’s gratuity.  In migrating to the human race God enters into a place of “otherness,” the very migration that human beings fear and find so difficult to make.  In crossing borders of every kind for the good of others, the Verbum Dei reveals the mystery of God’s a priori, self-giving love.  The Verbum Dei means that for God there are no borders that cannot be crossed, neither within himself nor in the created world.  The Verbum Dei manifests that, even as human beings erect barriers of every sort, God walls off no one from the divine embrace.  Another paradoxical dimension of the mystery of the incarnation is that, while human migration tends toward an upward mobility and the greater realization of human dignity, divine migration tends toward a downward mobility that is even willing to undergo the worst human indignities (cf. Phil 2:5–11).  Scripture depicts the movement of a people toward a promised land, but God’s movement is just the opposite: it is an immersion into those territories of human life that are deprived of life and prosperity.  What we see here is God migrating into a world that is poor and divided, not because God finds something good about poverty and estrangement, but because it is precisely in history’s darkest place that God can reveal hope to all who experience pain, rejection, and alienation.  What Karl Barth said is significant, “Christ reaches out to all those considered ‘alien life.’  Christ moves not away from alienation, difference, and otherness but toward it, without ceasing to be who he is: He went into a strange land, but even there, and especially there, He never became a stranger to Himself.  God’s identification with humanity is so total that in Christ he not only reaches out to the stranger but becomes the stranger: He does not merely go into lowliness, into the far country, to be Himself there, as He did in His turning to Israel. But now He Himself becomes lowly.  He Himself is the man who is His Son.  He Himself has become a stranger in Him” [Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (New York: Continuum, 2004) 157–210].  Hence, in the journey into otherness and vulnerability, the Verbum Dei enters into total identification with those who are abandoned and alienated.  In other words, Migration becomes a descriptive metaphor for the movement of God toward others in the human response of discipleship.

  1. Missio Dei – The Mission of God

The mission theology expressed in the Latin, Missio Dei, articulates the belief that mission is God’s mission and we are God’s instruments in that mission.  Missio Dei has been an ecumenical mantra, possibly the most widely acknowledged metaphor, in missiology since the Willingen Conference in 1952.  The starting point of Missio Dei is a Trinitarian God: mission is the purpose and action of the triune God.  The church, as a community of God’s followers, becomes an instrument of God rather than the proprietor of the action.  At the same time, Missio Dei causes the church to understand its very purpose as missionary. The church is both an object and the subject of mission.

The missio Dei is to restore the imago Dei in every person through the redemptive work of the Verbum Dei.  A central dimension of this mission is Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, which deals largely with overcoming human constructions that divide the insider from the outsider.  Robert Schreiter outlines five distinctive elements of a Christian understanding of reconciliation in light of the migrant reality: (1) God is the agent of reconciliation; (2) healing begins with the victim; (3) the healing brought about in the reconciliation process takes the victim to a new place; (4) the migration story has to be reframed; and (5) the healing process of reconciliation is never complete. He notes that one of the common denominators in the ministry of reconciliation to migrants is dealing with trauma caused by leaving one’s homeland, traveling to a new place, and settling in an unfamiliar location [Robert J. Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2008)].

 Visio Dei – Face of God

Visio Dei is Latin for “face of God”.  Psalm 24:6 speaks of a “generation of those who seek Him… who seeks His face… the God of Jacob…”  That is what we want to be about as a church.  We want to be a group of people seeking and showing the face of God in our community and our world.  The notion of visio Dei is based in large part on the Matthean beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).   In a way, the imago Dei, Verbum Dei, and Missio Dei are all based on the Visio Dei.  A theology of migration seeks to articulate a renewed vision of God and human life.

Scholars usually focus on the meaning and intention of the first part of this beatitude (the matrix sentence), whilst very little attention is paid to the second part (the motivating clause introduced by ὅτι [for].  The problem with the understanding of this macarism starts with the problem of two biblical traditions with regard to the seeing of God.  The first states that no one can see the face of God and remain living (e.g. Ex 3:6, 19:21, 33:20; Jn 1:18; 1 Tm 6:15−16).  The second tradition regards the seeing of God as a blessed goal for this life or the life here after (Job 19:26; Ps 11:7, 17:15; Rev 22:4).  The question that then arises is how the promise of Matthew 5:8 would correlate with these traditions?  The concept of purity of heart is presupposed rather than explained. It implies internal purity and morality symbolized by external and ritual purification.  One can assume that the hearers would remember Psalm 51:10: ‘Create me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me’.  Put another way, Christian discipleship, while situated within the citizenship of the patria of this world, ultimately is grounded in citizenship of, and movement toward, the patria of the next.

A theology of migration seeks to articulate a renewed vision of God and human life as it is lived out between the eschatological horizon of faith and unbelief and a historical horizon of justice and injustice.  The visio Dei comes into focus in the person of Jesus Christ and the kingdom he proclaimed. The kingdom of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love, and peace brings people into a different kind of social and ethical territory.  Augustine, in De Trinitate 8.9.13 says, “The more ardently we love God, the more certainly and calmly do we see him, because we see in God the unchanging form of justice, according to which we judge how one ought to live”.  One way of describing Augustine’s notion of the blinding disfigurement of the image of God is to say the image is deformed by pride, that is, the love of power over justice.

The word most frequently used for sojourner in the New Testament is paroikos, from which is derived the English word “parish” (Eph 2:19; 1 Pt 2:11).  In Philippians 3:20 Paul describes Christians as living in this world but carrying the passport of another world: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The author of Hebrews speaks of the journey in hope toward a different place: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (Heb 13:14).

Because of the human tendency to make God into our own disordered image and likeness, however, visio Dei demands conversion, individually and collectively (ecclesia semper reformanda).  Exodus 20:2 states, “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”  The word “Egypt” (mitsrayim) literally means “double straits,” (a reference to upper and lower straits that form the territory of Egypt through which the Nile flows), “narrow places,” or “narrow confinement.”  The Hebrew letters for “Egypt” are those found in Psalm 116:3: “the snare [literally “the oppressive confinement” or “narrow straits”] of Sheol” and Psalm 118:5: “out of my distress [literally “strait,” “narrow confinement,” “tight place”] I called on the Lord.”  There is an exact match between the unvocalized Hebrew “Egypt” and “narrow straits” as it is spelled in Lamentations 1:3: “All her persecutors come upon her where she is narrowly confined.”  The author is clearly using a play on words here between “narrow confinements” and Egypt.  Beyond the literal reading of the word mitsrayim, the subsequent figurative interpretations are striking.

In its story of migration, Israel was delivered not only from a specific national territory but also from a narrow way of thinking.  Liberation at Sinai means more than simply taking off the shackles.  It involves a cognitive migration, taking on a new mindset, adopting a new way of looking at the world, living out a different vision, and ultimately learning to love as God loves.  The migration of Israel after the Exodus was meant to help Israel re-envision how to live in the world, a task that proved more challenging than the geographical migration: it was easier to take Israel out of the mitsrayim than to take the mitsrayim out of Israel.  After coming to power and becoming more prosperous, Israel frequently forgot its history and subsequently those who came to them as strangers and immigrants.

The New Testament also addresses the visio Dei by giving the disciples a new imagination about strangers.  Looking into the face of Jesus includes an inescapable dimension of judgment. From the perspective of a theology of migration, no text is more central than Matthew 25:31–46. While scholars continue to debate who are the “least” (elachisto¯n) in this passage, what is significant for my discussion here is that this text describes the social location of many migrants and refugees: hungry in their homelands, thirsty in deserts they attempt to cross, naked after being robbed of their possessions, imprisoned in detention centers, sick in hospitals, and, if they make it to their destination, they are often estranged and marginalized. This text implies that crossing borders makes possible new relationships, and it puts the verdict of judgment, to a great extent, in people’s own hands: the extent to which people cross borders in this life determines to what extent they will cross them in the next (Lk 16:19–31).

The visio Dei also challenges people to move beyond an identity based on a narrow sense of national, racial, or psychological territoriality.  It holds out instead the possibility of defining life on much more expansive spiritual terrain consistent with the kingdom of God.  Corresponding with the positive dimensions of globalization that foster interconnection, it challenges any form of ideological, political, religious, or social provincialism that blinds people from seeing the interrelated nature of reality.  The visio Dei involves not only passively gazing on God’s essence in the next world (visio beatifica) but also in creating communio in this world.   Salvation means restoring sight to people who have lost a sense of the imago Dei, offering them a new imagination through the work of the Verbum Dei, and inviting them to live and move in the world in a different way through the missio Dei.


The imago Dei, Verbum Dei, missio Dei, and visio Dei are four foundations of a larger theology of migration.  Rereading themes such as exodus, exile, and diaspora in light of the contemporary experience of migrants and refugees can contribute much to our understanding of God, human life, and the relationship between the two.  This article has begun to explore some elements of migration in light of traditional theological themes such as creation, incarnation, mission, and the salvific vision of the kingdom of God.  Migrants and refugees bring to the forefront of theological reflection the cry of the poor, and they challenge more sedentary forms of church in social locations of affluence and influence.  The migrant reveals the paradoxical truth that the poor are not just passive recipients of charitable giving but bearers of the gospel that cannot be encountered except by moving out into places of risk and vulnerability (Mt 25:31–46).

Three focal points in particular begin to bring out some of the implications and ramifications of migration as a theological concept.  First, a theology of migration is a way of speaking about the meaning of human life within the economy of creation and redemption.  In the early church “oikonomia collectively referred to the way God’s household is ordered or administered, and in that sense economized.  God’s household, God’s grand economy, is one in which holiness and truth, justice and love, and above all, peace (eirene or shalom) prevail.”  what makes for a sound economy is “the full flourishing of everyone who is part of God’s economy, household, or community.  To be human means being on the way to God (in statu viatoris), moving forward in hope between the borders of Christ’s first and second coming, between the present life and the life to come, between the earthly Jerusalem and the new Jerusalem.  “The virtue of hope is the first appropriate virtue of the status viatoris,” notes Josef Pieper; “it is the genuine virtue of the ‘not yet.’”  The migrant gives expression to the transitory nature of existence and to the courage needed to move forward amid the risks, tensions, vulnerabilities, sufferings, and disappointments of life.  The closer people move toward union with God and communion with others, the more such union will manifest itself in breaking down walls that divide, exclude, and alienate.  The further people move away from integration with the Divine, the more that movement will manifest itself in a fear that creates walls and barriers on every level of human existence.

The Rt. Rev. Dr Daniel S. Thiagarajah PhD
Bishop of the CSI in the Jaffna Diocese, Sri Lanka

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