hero default image

Challenges, Callings, and Complications

Blanchard Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College

Challenges and a Calling

I appreciate very much the opportunity to respond to Dr. Emilie Townes’ closing address and paper, “Displacement and Trauma.” Not surprisingly, it is a powerful poetic expression through wordplays and vivid imagery of moral indignation at the state of affairs at this country’s southern border. Dr. Townes correctly observes that this topic is one of a range of ethical challenging issues facing the Christian church today.

She wisely turns in the second section of her presentation to review the three stated purposes of the conference, suggesting—as she does throughout—that a gathering such as the “Migration and Border Crossings Conference” carries with it a burden of accountability. One should not, and cannot, attend a conference like this and return to life-as-usual. Of course, what that means for each attendee will differ, but this opportunity to sharpen perspectives, engage in stretching conversations, and be exposed to a variety of opportunities for on-the-ground engagement makes these realities difficult to ignore.1 Our work as educators, pastors, and activists carries with it a responsibility before God, the church, and society.

Lastly, as an Old Testament professor, I applaud Dr. Townes’ appeal to the prophets. She mentions specifically Ezekiel and Micah—the former as voicing the cries of the exile’s

displacement and trauma of forced migration; the latter as raising questions about the role of our liturgies in shaping a people of justice, compassion, and humility, who can lament, yet with hope.2

In what follows, I want briefly to do two things: complicate the immigration situation and expand the biblical appeal in order to extend Dr. Towne’s prophetic appeal.


I am struck by how the situation at the southern border has changed since the conference in February. The humanitarian issues are more acute, the political rhetoric on both sides more shrill, and the lack of constructive policy proposals appalling. In light of these circumstances and other realities, I would like to complicate the conversation a bit with a few observations. An awareness of the complexities may help to orient us toward the necessary pragmatics, which must be grounded (for confessing Christians) in the deepest roots of our faith.

1. The conference, even by its title (and the worship service) tended to focus on the im/migration problems at the Mexican—US border. Does this unnecessarily reduce the target? The history of humanity is a history of migration, the overwhelming numbers that are on the move today is unprecedented. In the last year I have been in Spain, Australia, England, France, and Argentina, and all are grappling with the desperate attempts of thousands upon thousands of people to come and find work, safety, and a new life. The socioeconomic and cultural systems are strained, and the politics, unsurprisingly, is moving to binary positions. Each of those countries is tightening requirements and controls (Canada is another case in point). I was in Guatemala in March and, of course, the issues there are different—not only because of the many thousands leaving (impacting the economy, family and community life, etc.), but also because its national territory has become a transit zone (with all the problems this brings) for those heading north, not only from Honduras and El Salvador, but also from the Caribbean and other parts of the world.3 One also could mention the millions of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria who are pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; the millions who have left the dictatorship and ruins that is Venezuela and seek reprieve in Colombia and other South American countries; the refugee camps in Kenya… let alone the exploited workers of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia who toil in Japan, Singapore, and Middle East. There also is the fact of millions of internally displaced people, who have not left their homelands. The list is endless, the trauma unfathomable.

In other words, discussions on migration cannot be limited to our southern border. Broadening the scope of the vision actually could deepen Dr. Towne’s disquiet and outrage. These are global realities that have historic and interconnected causes that cross every continent, all economic connections and systems and political arrangements. What is happening in Altar, Juárez, Tijuana, and in the detention centers are symptoms of larger problems that will require long-term, multilayered solutions both here and abroad.

2. Another complicating dimension that was not handled at the conference is that, in the case of this country, about 40% of the undocumented come in a proper manner through authorized ports of entry. They arrive on student visas, tourist visas, short-term work visas, and religious visas and then stay when that permission expires. To talk of the humanitarian crises at the border is to miss this group entirely, not only in terms of numbers, but also ethnically. Now the discussion shifts, for instance, to Indians, Chinese, and South Koreans and is less centered on those from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). How might these facts redirect the theological and pastoral discussions, let alone this country’s political discourse and scapegoating of Latin Americans? The challenge is to maintain our moral outrage at the circumstances at the border, while extending our sensibilities to the other myriad immigrant matters beyond the entry of those desperate individuals.

3. Another challenge for those of us who champion immigrant rights and lives is how to make the necessary step toward policy suggestions. The southern border issue today is a case in point. Tens of thousands have arrived seeking asylum (I read in a Guatemalan paper today [July 27, 2019] that over 160,000 from the Northern Triangle have sought asylum so far this year). That is a specific category under current US immigration law, which requires that a person be able to document that they have come fleeing persecution or death; this process, obviously, takes time (I was told that normally this could take 6 months to two years). But the law never contemplated processing thousands at a time. So, under current law and in the meantime, the only thing that the US government can do is detain these persons, which generates the conditions that we are seeing.

The humanitarian crisis, then, is inescapably a policy crisis. To deal with the former without addressing the latter realistically and pragmatically will not solve the issue. The political discourse tends to go either to the humanitarian side or to the security/order side (always the binary!), when both are fundamental dimensions that need addressing. My complicating point, after working with this topic for over a decade, is to ask how we can channel our Christian convictions to inform and propose viable, realistic policy alternatives? Dr. Townes knows, as an ethicist, that this is a formidable task which could take different directions depending on one’s theological tradition.

4. The final complication is historical perspective. To study the history of immigration into this country and the history of immigration legislation is to become aware that suspicions of the outsider have existed since before the founding of the republic. The same is true around the world. Prejudice, and all that accompanies it, sadly, is a generic human trait. There have been difficult times before; biases based on country of origin, ethnicity, race, religion, social status, gender, and more (e.g., the forced migration/importing of African-Americans; the Know-Nothing Party of the mid-nineteenth century; the abuse and lynching of Chinese immigrants in California that eventually would culminate in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the holding entry point of Angel Island; the ghettoization of Irish and Italian Catholics; the deportation of hundreds of thousands to Mexico after the First World War and at the Great Depression; the over 2.5 million deported under Obama; we could go on).

This historic national reality and intrinsic human condition underscore Dr. Townes’ appeal to liturgy: The church must develop liturgies designed to shape a different kind of people. These liturgies must be historically aware (even as the Old Testament liturgies appealed to historical memory) in their nurturing of a different view of the world and another set of allegiances.

Extending the Biblical Scope

Importantly, there is a growing field within biblical studies of the appropriation of diaspora, forced migration, refugee, and trauma studies to texts in both testaments. This has been generated in part by the global experience of migration. Ironically, then, these conditions have opened up valuable discussions about the nature of God and the identity and mission of the people of God.

1. Dr. Townes’ mentions Ezekiel and its contribution to this discussion. And as she would know, there are more resources within the Bible. Recent work on Jeremiah is exploring how diverse are the voices of that prophetic book (more rural, isolated) and the different migration experiences (urban, culturally embedded) described in Jeremiah (most famously in Jer. 29) and that of the group which fled to Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah (2 Kgs. 25:26; Jer. 41-44). To appreciate the various historical moments and contexts of Haggai, Zechariah, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi is to get a glimpse of the scope of immigrant experiences across generations (both forced migration and return migration) that can resonate with populations today. To point to Ezekiel encourages us to investigate other exilic and post-exilic literature (along with migration stories and words in other books).

This reading needs to be done by native-born and immigrant together and apart, so that the text can do its work on each and on both in concert. For non-immigrants who have securities immigrants do not have, these readings can open eyes and sensitize hearts. These same texts, on the other hand, can open eyes as to the truth of God’s accompaniment and commitment and serve as scriptural vindication of the reality and value of immigrants’ experiences and vulnerability. To read these texts together can be mutually challenging and edifying, even as it may also be uncomfortable and painful. But, ultimately, this must happen in immigrant communities and not be circumscribed to an academic exercise by professors and students. Ideally, this process will engage the daily life of immigrants in their local churches and barrios, the workers and their families, the young and the aged, those who experience the higher incidence of spouse, drug, and alcohol abuse of stressed immigrant families, the unique challenges of immigrant youth who are leaving the churches…

2. My work in the prophets has focused primarily on Amos, and there, too, one finds an emphasis on the inseparability of liturgy/worship and social ethics (5:4-6 with 5:14-15; 5:21-24; 8:4-6). Other books come to mind as well (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi). Of course, as Christians, we should speak of the Lord’s Table and relate the biblical discussion to the hospitable inclusion demanded by the eucharist.

The eucharist also points to our hope of one day things being made right. Hope is an important element of Dr. Towne’s paper, and my suggestion is that we reconsider the Table, where native-born and immigrant alike are one body before God. There we are reminded that the cross defines who we are and how we are to live, carrying our own crosses of self-sacrifice for the sake of others in the name of Jesus. We are to be at and live from that Table until he returns. There we all are identified as strangers in a strange land, with obligations to the strangers among us and with whom we live.


There is much more one could say to probe and extend the fine thoughts of Dr. Townes. I hope that my thoughts might stimulate others to think through how to appropriate her prophetic call on behalf of the immigrant.


1 All of these matters are particularly noteworthy for me, as I am organizing a conference on im/migration at Wheaton College next spring.

2 She cites a piece by Walter Brueggemann, who more than anyone else has grasped the profundity and efficacy of the language of the Old Testament.

3 I have read Guatemalan reports of Africans and Asians, who had come for this reason, being detained.