The Failure of Old Understandings and the Return to Foundational Texts
Authored by the Rev. Clelia Pinza-Garrity, LCSW
“…I am convinced that if the community of faith loses touch with its Scriptures, it loses its identity…when the Word is no longer proclaimed, taught, and heard individual Christians and churches have no basis for making ethical decisions and thus stand mute in the face of pressing problems in the church and society.” (M. Thomas Norwood, Jr. A Study of the Call of God in Genesis. Pittsburgh: The Kerygma Program, 1988)
In these past six years I, have devoted hour upon hour in search of and then reading, or listening to, literature and scholarship that pertains to the phenomenon of forced migration in the 20th and 21st centuries. Specifically, what are the etiologies of the ever-growing mass of people moving from one place to another and how has our global community responded to those who seek asylum from terrorism and other forms of oppression?
Pondering the phenomenon of forced migration has taken me down several additional paths of investigation. What is true humanitarian aid? How can the immigration system in the US be better organized? Who should we partner with to ensure a global system of asylum that is realistic as the number of forced refugees skyrockets?
But the one question that has become a driving force in my studies, conversations, prayers, and reflections is: What is the theology and praxis of forced migration in the Episcopal Church? Both at the local and national levels.
Specifically, are we as Christians living into God’s divine instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai when he said, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy… When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger who lives as a foreigner with you shall be to you as the native-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you lived as foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.” (Leviticus 19:1-3; 33-34)
“You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” God is not content to limit holiness to himself. God instructs us that we are expected to be holy as well, a people consecrated, sanctified, and hallowed. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann has called this the “obligation tradition,” where “the purpose of Israel’s life is to host the holiness of Yahweh.” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 199, 428).
“Holiness is meant to be something contagious, something which gets inside us and changes us forever. Hosting divine holiness means more than maintaining ritual purity or devotional piety. It means embodying justice and peace as well, uncontaminated by the dehumanizing, violent and oppressive practices of the dominant culture. Such holiness requires the consecration and dedication of every aspect of life to the will and purpose of God.” (Jim Friedrich, The Religious Imagineer, February 16, 2016)
As a holy people who diligently and continually struggle to maintain firm footing as Christ’s disciples amidst the chaos of a confusing, divisive, and complex global society, are we succeeding? Are we succeeding in keeping ourselves separate from the dehumanizing, violent, and oppressive practices of the dominant culture and maintaining our connection with Scripture as our basis for making ethical decisions? Are we as the Episcopal Church weathering the storm of uncertainty and doubt as we struggle to sort through the political to find the holy; or have we lost touch with Scripture and therefore lost our moral compass as God’s holy people?
Where do we stand on the challenge of forced migration? Are we comfortable with and committed to a role of advocacy, compassion, and welcoming the forced migrant, loving them as Jesus loved us? Loving them as our ourselves? Loving them as our neighbor?
As the global challenge of forced migration becomes increasingly grim and disheartening these questions become increasingly relevant to our call to be a holy people. Optimistic and humane treaties, such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention, that emerged as a result of the First and Second World Wars and more recently the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, have, in reality, become obsolete in their vision of equal human rights for all and freedom of movement for the politically oppressed. Each day borders are closing and those who flee are violently and frequently inhumanely rejected and placed in alternative living situations such as primitive and overcrowded refugee camps that all too frequently become permanent homes.
In 2016 the UN General Assembly Declaration endorsed a set of commitments that apply to both forced refugees and economic migrants. The Declaration includes a commitment to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons, in transit and upon arrival and to give primary consideration at all times to the best interests of the child. The United States is a signatory to that declaration.
In 2018 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved Resolution 2018-D009 which sets forth many principles that address human migration. Among them: We stress the importance of demonstrating hospitality and welcome as Christian values at the local level, preaching hospitality and positive storytelling to overcome xenophobia, and we insist that the United States of America and other powerful, wealthy nations, and all nations to the best of their ability, contribute to resettlement, establish and maintain safe and orderly humanitarian protections for refugees, internally displaced persons, and other migrants seeking long-term solutions and safety.
Are we aware of these commitments?
Living into our divine holiness by observing the great commandments put forth in Scripture must remain the center of our moral compass as we strive to be a holy people, advocating and participating in the repair, restoration, and healing of forced migrants and the institutions, and systems which they must traverse as they seek welcome and safety.
Our “obligation tradition” demands that we continually ask ourselves a key question: How can we use our insights, assets, and relationships for the sake of justice-making and healing? How can we remain in touch with Scripture to maintain our moral and holy identity? How does our holiness invite us to embrace the most vulnerable people in our communities as beloved neighbors? How do we dedicate every aspect of our life to the will and purpose of God?
The Rev. Clelia Garrity is a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast currently serving the community of St. Simon's on the Sound in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Garrity is also a member of the diocesan Commission on Global Mission Engagement.