A Theology of Migration
In his incarnation, Jesus overcame all borders between us
By DANIEL G. GROODY
Migration has always been part of human history. But because of widespread changes caused by globalization, more people are migrating than ever before, prompting some to call our own generation “the age of migration.”
In the last 25 years the number of people on the move has doubled from 100 million to nearly 200 million people. One out of every 35 people around the world is now living away from their homeland. This is roughly the equivalent of the population of Brazil, the fifth-largest country on the planet.
Many migrants are forcibly uprooted: Approximately 30 million to 40 million are undocumented, 24 million are internally displaced and almost 10 million are refugees.
As one of the most complex issues in the world, migration underscores conflict not only at geographical borders but also between national security and human insecurity, sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law, and citizenship and discipleship.
Much has been written about the social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of immigration, but surprisingly little has been written about this hotly debated topic from a theological perspective, even less from the vantage point of immigrants themselves.
Yet the theme of migration is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. From the call of Abraham to the exodus from Egypt, to Israel’s wandering in the desert and its later experience of exile, migration has been part of salvation history. From Jesus’ birth — understood as the movement of God into this alien world as a human being — to his resurrection as a return to the Father, and from the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to the missionary activity of the church, the very identity of the people of God is inextricably intertwined with the story of movement, risk and hospitality.
Migration shapes the heart of who are as human beings before God.
The current global economy precipitates situations that push people out of their homelands while pulling them toward places of greater opportunity. At present, 19 percent of the world lives on less than $1 a day, 48 percent lives on less than $2 a day, 75 percent lives on less than $10 a day, while 95 percent live on less than $50 a day. The richest 1 percent of the world has as much as the poorest 57 percent taken together. And the three wealthiest individuals have as much as the poorest 48 nations combined.
Given this economic reality, migration must be understood not as a problem in itself but as a symptom of deeper issues rooted in widespread inequality. Because the density of global capital resides in the Northern Hemisphere, migration flows tend to move in a south-to-north direction, not so much because people want to become rich but because many are just seeking a means to survive and live beyond the minimal existence of daily needs.
The basic premise of a theology of migration is that God, in Jesus, so loved the world that he migrated into the far and distant country of our broken human existence and laid down his life on a cross so that we could be reconciled to him and migrate back to our homeland with God and enjoy renewed fellowship at all levels of our relationships. Reading the Christian tradition from a migrant perspective involves perceiving what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ and understanding God’s desire to cross over the various barriers that divide and alienate our relationships.
Theology offers not just more information but a new imagination. It supplies a way of thinking about migration that keeps the human issues at the centre of the debate and reminds us that our own existence as a pilgrim people is migratory in nature. By seeking to overcome all that divides us in order to reconcile our relationships, Christian discipleship reminds us that the more difficult walls to cross are the ones that exist in the hearts of each of us. We are unable to cross these divides by ourselves. Christian faith rests ultimately in the one who migrated from heaven to earth and, through his death and resurrection, passed over from death to life. If the term “alien” is to be used at all, it has little to do with one who lacks political documentation. It applies more to those who have so disconnected themselves from their neighbour in need that they fail to see in the eyes of the stranger a mirror of themselves, the image of Christ and the call to human solidarity.
[Holy Cross Fr. Daniel G. Groody teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.]