Migration and Christian Theology

Ilsup Ahn

This article provides a comprehensive and in-depth Christian theological account of human migration by drawing on various biblical and theological resources. In so doing, it focuses on five key theological themes that lie at the foundation of migration theologies: the Bible, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church. Despite the apparent variations and differences among various kinds of migration theology, these five theological themes are frequently adopted, discussed, and addressed by many theologians. Although theologians tend to regard migration theology as a subcategory within the larger category of theological studies, it should be noted that before theology as an academic discipline was established, humanity had already experienced different forms of migration; migration preceded theology. Since humanity’s experience of migration became the nesting ground for reflecting on and questioning God, it is not too much to say that theology was born out of human migration.

As an academic discipline in theological studies, migration theology has exponentially grown in recent years with the increase of many different theological voices and perspectives (Groody 2022; Carroll R. and Bacote 2021; Cruz 2021; Phan 2020; Rieger 2020; Ahn 2019). The explosive growth of theological work on migration in recent years is not accidental. According to the World Migration Report 2022 (International Organization for Migration 2022), there were around 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, 128 million more than there were in 1990 and over three times the estimated number in 1970. It is no wonder that social scientists Stephen Castles, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller call the present time ‘The Age of Migration’ (2014). The recent expansion of migration theology is therefore a reflection of our world today. Given that migration touches so many aspects of life and society on a global scale (Groody 2009: 664), this article adopts an interdisciplinary approach in exploring various ideas and perspectives of migration theology.

1 Introduction

Before surveying and examining the phenomenon of human migration from diverse theological perspectives, the concept of migration must be defined. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), migration is defined as

the movement of persons away from their place of usual residence, either across an international border or within a state. It is a population movement, encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition, and causes; it includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification. (Ahn 2019: 2–3)

Simple as this may seem (the movement of people), it should be noted that migration is a ‘highly complex phenomenon, with significant economic, socio-political, cultural, and religious repercussions for the migrants’ (Phan 2013: 179). Although there are varied definitions of ‘migrant’, researchers generally adopt the United Nations’ description which refers to ‘any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country’ (Groody 2022: 26). From a theological perspective, Groody uses the word ‘migrant’ to refer primarily to those who ‘are poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, especially economic migrants, forced migrants or refugees, internally displaced people, and victims of human trafficking’ (2022: 26). Groody’s usage is a reminder that many migrants today may be identified as those whom Jesus called the ‘least of these’ in Matt 25:40.

As an academic discipline, migration theology is hermeneutically established as a theological reflection on various phenomena of human migration. For instance, Catholic theologian Peter Phan summarizes this hermeneutic approach with three steps. The first is a socio-political and cultural analysis of migration. It is crucial to note that ‘a theology of migration must be deeply rooted in the flesh-and-blood stories of migrants themselves as human beings whose dignity and rights have often been trampled upon’ (Phan 2016: 855). The second step, which he calls ‘hermeneutical mediation’, follows the first ‘socio-analytic’ step. This step involves the provision of proper theological meaning to the life stories of migrants, sociological, historical, and legal data, and theories of migration (Phan 2016: 855). The stories of migration in the Old and New Testaments, the teachings of the church on migration, and the history of the movements of Christians throughout history become important theological sources to interpret those socio-analytic data. The last step of migration theology is ‘practical mediation’. Phan argues that the theological understanding of migration should not remain at the level of rhetoric but should be translated into concrete actions with and for migrants (Phan 2016: 856).

What, then, constitutes the theology of migration? How does migration theology differ from other studies of migration, such as social scientific studies of migration? In answering these questions, this article incorporates a phenomenological approach as a theological method. From this perspective, there are three key aspects that are indispensable in establishing a theology of migration: the experience of movement, the journey of faith, and the encounter with the other(s).

First, the experience of movement. Since migration is not possible without the experience of movement, all migration theologies address humanity’s varied experiences of movement. Unlike social scientific studies of migration, which largely focus on the spatial phenomenon of migration (moving from one place to another), migration theology offers the distinctive perspective that migrants can experience movement not only as a spatial event but also as a progression in time. Through migration, humanity gets closer to ‘the end of the age’ (Matt 28:20).

The second aspect is the journey of faith. Unlike the social scientific descriptions of migration that explain the phenomenon of human migration as a result of ‘push factors’ and ‘pull factors’, many migration stories in the Bible portray the phenomenon of migration as a result of the migrant’s response to God’s calling. Groody thus writes, ‘migration is inextricably connected to the journey of faith and often functions as a root metaphor for the search for a deeper knowledge of God, the hope for a better life, and the path of salvation’ (Groody 2022: 66). As will be seen below, the theological meaning of various biblical narratives of human migration cannot be understood without considering the ‘faith factor’.

The last aspect of a migration theology is the inevitable fact of all human migration, i.e., the encounter with the other(s). When someone migrates to a new land or territory, often far away from her or his own native land, that person inevitably encounters the people of the land who commonly regard him or her as a stranger or an alien. Migration is a proven way to create social ‘others’ in any hosting society, and it can potentially entail social unrest and dissension, as well as societal growth and integration. From a theological perspective, how to integrate migrant people and hosting citizens thus becomes an indispensable theological issue. This entry explores these three key aspects of a migration theology by interfacing them with the three persons of God: the journey of faith – God the Father; the experience of movement – God the Son; the encounter with the other – God the Holy Spirit. Before doing so, however, it is important to examine what the Bible says about human migration.

2 The Bible and migration

2.1 The Hebrew Bible and migration

There are many legal, narrative, and prophetic references to human migration in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Among these, it should be noted that the Hebrew Bible makes a clear distinction between different types of foreigners coming into contact with or living in Israel. Hebrew Bible scholar Markus Zehnder writes:

Most often, differences are made between individuals without reference to their specific ethnic background—most noticeably the distinction between the ger (‘sojourner’) and the nokri (‘foreigner’), although specific ethnic labels are used in some instances. (Zehnder 2021: 20)

Mentioned in all legal collections found in the Hebrew Bible, ger refers to ‘a person of foreign origin who immigrates into Israel because of war, famine, poverty, or impending debt slavery or the like’ (Zehnder 2021: 21). Typically, a ger is a person who has come to stay in Israel for an extended period, and in many cases it is considered that he or she has the intention of becoming part of Israelite society. In this respect Theodore Hiebert argues that, although ger is conventionally translated in modern English language as ‘sojourner’, it would be better translated as ‘immigrant’ because Israel’s ancestors were ‘sedentary farming families’ not as ‘pastoral nomads’ (Hiebert 2023: 64). Hiebert also argues that this translation displays the close relationship between ancient and modern contexts. The experience of ancient Israel’s ancestors leaving one’s kinship network and its protections is closely paralleled by the experience of immigrants today, who leave their home culture and take up residence in another country without the rights and protections of citizenship (2023: 66).

Translated as ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’, nokri refers to a person who ‘comes to Israel not to seek permanent residency, but to stay there temporarily, in a typical case as a person involved in trade’ (Zehnder 2021: 29). Since a nokri remains emotionally, culturally, and religiously distanced from the receiving society, he or she is not eligible for receiving the ‘equal treatment’ available to legal residents. For instance, while loans to a nokri are typically granted in the framework of ordinary business relations, loans grated to a fellow Israelite are usually measures to grant survival in situations of pressing need (2021: 30). One could then ask if the exclusion of the nokri from the economic measures of promotion and protection for the Israelites and the gerim is discriminatory. According to Zehnder, since the regulations are rooted in the special covenantal relationship between Yhwh and his people, ‘the restriction of such measures to Israelites and gerim and the concomitant exclusion of the nokri from them can therefore not be described as expressing a “discriminatory” attitude’ (2021: 30).

There is indeed a relatively clear demarcation against the religious others, such as the nokri, in the definition of Israelite identity as the elected people of God. However, the Hebrew Bible also indicates that as long as foreigners do not pose either a political or religious threat, they are tolerated and may indeed become part of the people (Zehnder 2021: 42). Despite the religiously-motivated demarcation against the ‘other’ in the Hebrew Bible, Israelites’ overall social stance towards the foreign others is still distinguished from that of other neighbouring societies. In this respect, Zehnder writes that

as opposed to the major ancient Near Eastern cultures and many others in the history of humankind, this demarcation is not – as we have already noted in the previous section – bound up with a general denigration of others as sub-humans or barbarians. (Zehnder 2021: 63)

The Hebrew Bible not only describes how Israelites treated the resident or foreign others in their society differently but also provides rich, diverse, and live narratives of faithful migrants. Without a doubt, countless numbers of migrant people in human history have discovered a source of spiritual power and theological inspiration in those stories. These migrants include, to name a few, well-known figures such as Adam and Eve; Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; Jacob and his family; Moses and the Israelites; Ruth and the prophets; and the Jewish people in the diaspora. From a theological perspective, their stories are important because, as Casey Strine points out, their migration stories can be employed as a ‘hermeneutical guide’. For instance, the Jacob narrative ‘foregrounds the experience of involuntary migration’ (Strine 2018: 497). In a similar fashion, Nigerian scholars Favour Uroko, Mary Obiorah, and Success Nnadi also discover an ethical-hermeneutical ‘limelight’ in the migrant stories of Jacob and his descendants (Uroko, Obiorah, and Nnadi 2021: 1). The migrant stories of the Israelites are also ‘integrally related to important theological themes like the fall, vocation, covenant, the exodus, the desert, the foreigner, the land, and human solidarity’ (Groody 2022: 66). For instance, although the migrant story of Adam and Eve is interlocked with the story of the fall and its subsequent alienating and violent consequences, it also gives readers a perspective concerning where they are originally from and where they are headed, in the grand historical trajectory of human migration from the land of exile in Genesis 2–3 to the land of promise in Revelation 21 (Groody 2022: 69).

The book of Genesis especially contains many stories of migration, such that Andrew Walls argues it should be called the book of ‘migrations’ (2002: 3). Among these, Abraham’s migration story seems most conspicuous, as he becomes the founder of what are known as ‘Abrahamic’ religions. In Gen 12:1–2, God said to Abram:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. (NRSV)

Important to note in Abram’s story is that after he accepted the call and left the familiar land God changed his name, in Genesis 17, from Abram to Abraham, meaning ‘father of a multitude’ or ‘father of many’. The theological significance of migration in the case of Abraham is that God’s calling to migration does not simply lie in the physical movement of people; rather it lies in helping people become who they truly are through the migrating journey. At the core of this journey lies the formation and transformation of faith. God renews the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 to assist him to continue his journey of becoming who he really is in God’s continual covenantal relationship. Genesis 26 and 28 also narrate that God’s original covenant with Abraham was passed down to Isaac and Jacob by way of the renewal of the covenant. Combined with the idea of the journey of faith within the context of the covenant, Abraham’s story of migration becomes an original theological paradigm, after which many migrants throughout history modelled themselves.

Although Abraham’s migration story is widely adopted and referred to as an archetypical paradigm, recent biblical scholarship shows that there is an alternative perspective in interpreting the multiple migrant stories of Genesis. For instance, in her article, ‘Migration as Foundation: Hagar, the “Resident Alien,” as Euro-America’s Surrogate Self’ (2018), Yvonne Sherwood develops a novel concept of the ‘Hagaramic’, as opposed to the traditional ‘Abrahamic’ perspectives. Sherwood uses ‘Hagar as a type of the shifting modern figure of the migrant, refugee or resident alien inside the national family’ (2018: 439). She then devises the term ‘Hagaramic’ to disturb the bland invocation of the ‘Abrahamic’ on the contemporary political stage (2018: 439). Who, then, is the contemporary Hagar? Sherwood argues that Hagar can be read as ‘a figure of the Egyptian/Arabic-Judeo-Christian, or the Muslim-American, or even better those “split, in-process, knotted, rhizomatic, transitional, nomadic subject[s]” [… Hagar] also stands for what has been expelled’ (2018: 466). Given the hostile contemporary political environment of European and American borders and identities, Sherwood’s Hagaramic is a relevant and foundational theological perspective. Indeed, Hagar ‘highlights the colonial and economic dependencies, denied by our official mythologies and balance sheets’ (2018: 466).

The story of Ruth’s migration is perhaps a unique case in the Hebrew Bible. She is identified in the book of Ruth as a foreigner seven times, and she labels herself as a nokriyah (foreigner, 2:10). Given that Moabites were forbidden from entering the ‘assembly of Lord’ (Deut 23:3) and mixed marriages with Moabites were strictly prohibited (Ezra 9:1–2), Ruth is regarded as ‘an alien who comes from a despised and barbaric country’ (Snyder 2012: 169). According to Susanna Snyder, what is so astonishing about Ruth and also the Syrophoenician woman in the New Testament (Mark 7) is that, despite their multiple layers of otherness, ‘the two women are also portrayed as sources of new life’ (2012: 171–72). Highlighting her role as a source of new life, Groody interprets Ruth’s migration story as follows:

Not only is the story about how the community of Israel saves one migrant from despair but also paradoxically how that same migrant saves a people. In the end, Ruth becomes a key link between the royal lineage of David (Ruth 4:13–17) and Jesus (Matt 1:5–6). (Groody 2022: 99)

The story of Ruth’s migration provides an important theological insight that migrants may be seen as an unlikely gift of God who is the Giver of all life. Along with the idea of migrants as a ‘gift of God’ is the theme of hospitality which also pervades the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis 19 to Judges 19 (Southwood 2018: 483). The theology and ethics of hospitality will be discussed further in section 5 as part of its consideration of the work of the Holy Spirit.

2.2 The New Testament and migration

The theme of migration is increasingly being recognized in New Testament studies ‘as a promising perspective for the analysis and understanding of the phenomenon of Early Christianity in general, and the spread of the faith in Christ across cultures in Greco-Roman antiquity in particular’ (Kahl 2022: 17). Indeed, as Werner Kahl points out, ‘the New Testament writings provide ample evidence for the centrality of the social phenomena of migration, displacement, resettlement and the emergence of cross-cultural faith communities in Early Christianity’ (2022: 19). For instance, migration takes a central position in all four Gospels, although they portray Jesus differently as homeless and abandoned (Mark), a refugee (Matthew), a permanent guest (Luke), and a stranger born from above (John). According to vănThanh Nguyễn, the marginal and alien status of Jesus is not estranged from the experience and life setting of the early Christians and their communities (2020: 83). From the beginning, the early church was on the move to carry out the great commission of Jesus to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), just as Jesus was constantly on the move from his birth to his death and resurrection. This prompts consideration of how Jesus and his ministry were deeply entangled with the experience of migration.

Matthew 2 describes the dramatic exodus of the Holy Family escaping the wrath of King Herod, who felt threatened by the news of the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. As Nguyễn writes, ‘Like many other immigrants before and after them, Jesus and his family were political refugees seeking asylum in a country that would open the doors for them’ (Nguyễn 2020: 71). The Holy Family’s exile to (and return from) Egypt allude to Israel’s exodus and liberation. Even after coming back from Egypt, Joseph and Mary had to take the child Jesus and migrate to the north, to Nazareth, a completely new place for them. Nguyễn also calls attention to the frequent usage of the Greek verb anachōreō in the book of Matthew (2:12, 13, 14, 22; 4:12, 13; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21), which is commonly translated as ‘to withdraw’, ‘to depart’, or ‘to take refuge’. According to Nguyễn, the word anachōreō is a verb that depicts ‘movement typifying migration and displacement’ (2020: 72).

The book of Luke also implies that migration was an integral nature of Jesus’ ministry. He was on a constant move from one town to another, without anywhere to rest: ‘Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). When Luke describes Jesus, he uses the Greek word paroikos, which can be translated as a ‘visitor’ (NAB) or ‘stranger’ (NRSV). For instance, in the Emmaus story (24:18), when the two disciples respond to Jesus, they ask: ‘Are you the only visitor (paroikos) to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ (Nguyễn 2020: 74). Since paroikos is equivalent to ger (singular) or gerim (plural) in the Hebrew Bible, it appears that Luke identified Jesus’ social status as one who was on the move, fulfilling his public ministry. Jesus regarded himself as a stranger in this world; in the book of John, ‘Jesus often says that his home is not of this world (18:36) but from above (19:11), and therefore he will return to his Father in heaven (16:28) to prepare a place for his disciples (14:3)’ (Nguyễn 2020: 75).

From a theological perspective, Jesus being a stranger in this world means that ‘the way and the truth and the life’ of the gospel (John 14:6) are not bound by the laws and customs of this world, and anyone who follows Jesus can adopt this transborder migrant identity. By becoming ‘the other’ as a Divine Migrant, Jesus also demonstrates that the inclusion of the other lies at the heart of his ministry in this world. It is important to note that the ‘inclusion of the other’ also becomes the key missional goal in the ministries of Jesus’ disciples, and ‘inclusion’ was already practised in the circle of their ministerial leadership. For instance, when Paul and Barnabas had served together with three others as prophets and teachers in Antioch (Acts 13:1–3), ‘two of those three colleagues were diaspora Jews with an African origin: Symeon who was also called Niger (from Latin: “black man”) and Lucius from Cyrene in northern Africa’ (Kahl 2022: 26, original emphasis; see Theology in Africa). Referring to this, Kahl writes: ‘The gospel from the Pauline-Lucan perspective fundamentally means the complete inclusion of “all nations” into the covenant of God with his people while not losing their cultural identities’ (2022: 21). The New Testament testifies that even after Jesus’ resurrection, migration continues to be a major source that characterized the theology of the early church. In that regard, Jehu Hanciles observes:

‘In the postresurrection period, the theme of migration emerges not only as a defining element in the life and expansion of the church but also as a distinguishing factor in the identity and survival of the new community of faith’ (Hanciles 2016: 40).

Among the early church leaders, Paul was especially called to become the primary ecclesial instrument of carrying the message of repentance and salvation to the Gentiles in regions such as Galatia, Asia Minor, Greece, and the heart of the empire – Rome. Kahl thus calls Acts 1:8 the ‘structure for the whole narrative’, according to which Paul’s story is a story of moving ‘from the margins of the Roman Empire to its centre, ending with Paul’s house arrest in Rome’ (2022: 21). Paul ventured into uncharted territories, establishing Christian communities across those areas. Nguyễn, therefore, writes: ‘His relentless determination to share the good news of the risen Christ altered the landscape of the Mediterranean basin within a short period of time’ (2020: 78).

How, then, would Paul’s migratory experience affect the formation of his theological perspective? There is a glimpse of the answer to this question in Galatians 3, where Paul writes: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28, RSV). According to Kahl, this verse shows Paul’s fundamental insight into the meaning of the gospel as the message of Christ to ‘put into effect the crossing of societal divides between people of different status and origin’ (2022: 30, original emphasis). It therefore seems right to construe that Paul theologically appropriates the migratory experience of ‘crossing boundaries’ in a way that extends God’s justice and salvation universally. Kahl thus writes ‘the justice of God and His salvation have been extended universally’ (2022: 30). The same theological plot (crossing boundaries) and its meaning (universal salvation) also appear in Acts 10, which narrates Peter’s vision (10:9–22) and visit to Cornelius’ house (10:24–48).

There was a particular historical situation that propelled the early apostolic churches and Christians to disperse and move out to other areas across the Roman empire. New Testament scholar Donald Senior summarizes the background as follows:

Christianity did move out rapidly from its Judean and Galilean origins […] The increasingly oppressive Roman occupation and the eruption of the Jewish revolt in AD 66, with the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, would bring profound and wrenching changes to all factions of Judaism and to Jewish Christianity itself. (Senior 2008: 24)

Without a doubt, migration was one of the key social, political, and religious factors that distinctively characterized Christian identity at its origin. There was a meaningful difference, however, between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament regarding their theologies of migration. In the New Testament, migration is intrinsically interconnected with new theological visions, such as ‘salvation of all flesh’ (Luke 3:6) and the transformation of the society from the xenophobic exclusion of the Roman empire to the xenophilic inclusion of the kingdom of God (see Rivera-Pagán 2019): ‘The stranger who migrates across one’s borders is also a sign of the full scope of the human family, a scope that, within the New Testament vision, transcends bloodlines and national boundaries’ (Senior 2008: 30).

3 God and migration

Theology is speaking about God. As Catholic theologian Peter Phan writes, ‘theology is logos about theos, a human discourse about God that is made possible and authorized by God’s own speech to humanity, that is, God’s self-revelation in history’ (2016: 858). Migration theology is then speaking about God concerning humanity’s diverse experiences of migration. There are roughly two ways of speaking about God in the field of migration theology. One is by way of referring to ‘who God is’ whereas the other is by way of alluding to ‘what God does’. The following section examines how these two different approaches enhance and expand theological understandings of the phenomenon of human migration.

3.1 ‘Who God is’ and migration

From a critical perspective, speaking about ‘who God is’ is an impossible project because – in Karl Rahner’s terms – God is the ineffable Absolute Mystery. There is an inherent agnosis (non-knowledge) in human gnosis (knowledge) of God, and ‘our speech about God, even the most learned, is nothing but a stammering, by means of analogies, to describe who God is’ (Phan 2016: 859). Despite this intrinsic deficiency of human language about God, Phan argues that some of these metaphors, images, and analogies to speak of God are ‘authorized’, that is, used and licensed by the Bible, and therefore should not be discarded without cause. Phan goes on to say:

It is in this context that a theology of migration can refer to God, I suggest, as Deus Migrator (God the Migrant). Of course, the threefold movement of affirmation-negation-transcendence in God-talk must also be applied there: God is, is not, and is infinitely a migrant. With this caution in mind, we can explore how the Christian God can be thought of as the Deus Migrator, ‘God the Migrant’ or ‘Migratory God’ or ‘God-on-the-Move.’ Even though the term ‘migrant’ is not used of God in the Bible, there are hints suggesting that God possesses the characteristics commonly associated with migration and migrants. (Phan 2016: 859, original emphasis)

How is the theological statement that God is ‘the Primordial Migrant’ possible? Why does Phan argue that God is Deus Migrator? Phan answers the question by reinterpreting the theological doctrine of God’s creation. Phan begins by saying that there is an indispensable element of movement in God’s creation, and a migration theology can be developed based on this basis. Phan shows how migration and creation can be interlinked by pointing out the necessary component of ‘crossing the border’ in God’s creation. He describes this necessary component as follows: ‘In creating that which is other than Godself, God crosses the border between Absolute Spirit and finite matter, migrating from eternity to temporality, from omnipotence into weakness’ (2016: 860). Phan’s migration theology is established through his theological imagination of God’s creation, as well as the phenomenological analysis of the migration experience. This theology culminates in the statement that ‘[i]n the creative act, God experiences for the first time the precarious, marginalized, threatened, and endangered condition of the migrant’ (2016: 860).

In answer to the question of what the theological statement that God is Deus Migrator has to do with humanity. Phan emphasizes that we should be reminded how God created human beings in God’s own image. If God is understood as the Deus Migrator, migration is then considered to be an important theological theme that characterizes who humans are and what we should do. Migrants become the imago Dei, created in the image and likeness of God who is the ‘Primordial Migrant’. Phan calls attention to the theological significance of his statement:

What is distinctive and unique about the migrant is that he or she is the imago Dei migratoris, the privileged, visible, and public face of the God who chooses, freely and out of love, to migrate from the safety of God’s eternal home to the strange and risky land of the human family, in which God is a foreigner needing embrace, protection, and love. (Phan 2016: 861)

Phan’s theological idea, that migrants are quintessentially the imago Dei, is especially significant when considering that the human rights of many migrants such as refugees and undocumented migrants are often ignored or even denied by the state or hosting societies, leaving them in politically and economically vulnerable positions. From the perspective of the Deus Migrator, all human beings created in God’s image come to have the ontological ground of human rights. Other Christian theologians such as Daniel Groody, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Mary Catherine Hilkert all agree with Phan regarding the theological significance of imago Dei related to migrants. For example, Groody writes, ‘[d]efining 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’ (2009: 644). Cahill and Hilkert, respectively, also note the importance of the Christian idea of the image of God (Cahill 1980; Hilkert 1995). As Groody summarizes: ‘The image of God is the primary Christian category or symbol of an interpretation of personal value’, and ‘this symbol grounds further claims to human rights and gives rise to justice’ (Groody 2009: 644).

Although theological language such as Deus Migrator and imago Dei is not commonly circulated and is often ignored in the public discourse, these ideas may still indirectly impact society, especially regarding the protection and promotion of human rights and dignity of migrants. For instance, inspired by a theology of migration, Christian believers could initiate or participate in social movements to change peoples’ views on migrants by advocating for the removal of such dehumanizing terms as ‘illegals’ or ‘illegal immigrants’ from the public discourse.

3.2 ‘What God does’ and migration

In the Western theological tradition, there are roughly two ways of doing theology: apophatic (or negative) theology and cataphatic (or positive) theology. While the former focuses on the infinite qualitative difference between humanity and divinity, rendering it impossible to identify God by any positive terms, the latter emphasizes the relationality between humanity and divinity, making it possible to achieve a certain positive knowledge of God by measures such as analogy. From the cataphatic approach to theology, speaking of ‘who God is’ is then possible. Apophatic theology, however, finds it difficult to say positively who God is. Regarding the nature of God, apophatic theology can speak of ‘who God is’ only negatively, because any positive identification of God may be liable to idolatry. From the perspective of apophatic theology, the close relationality and even similarity between humanity and divinity may lead us to perceive God based on our own self-understanding. Therefore, there is a higher chance that cataphatic theology may become ‘ontotheology’. Joeri Schrijvers summarizes the logic behind the ‘idolatrous’ logic of ontotheology as follows:

This ‘God’, then, is often modelled after causal and mathematical theories – as much as each house requires an architect as its cause, the totality and diversity of beings require a ‘prima causa’, a First Being (Schrijvers 2006: 222, original emphasis)

Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology (2005) epitomizes the idea of ontotheology in the context of secular politics.

Although the idea of apophatic theology is not widely shared by scholars within the community of migration theology, this article incorporates its theological explorations here with the purpose of expanding the theological imagination on the migration of people. How, then, does apophatic theology start to talk about God? Catherine Keller answers this question by exploring Gregory of Nyssa’s (332–395 CE) apophatic theological works, especially his The Life of Moses, in which Gregory uncovers the apophatic source of theology in the story of Moses’ intimate encounter with God in the cloud on Mount Sinai. Keller then captures the key aspect of apophatic theology by distinguishing knowing that from knowing what: ‘[W]e know that he is, but admit we are unable to understand his Being’ (Keller 2015: 61). According to Keller, Gregory is right when he develops the distinction between ‘the unknown essence of God’ and the ‘relationally trusted existence’ (Keller 2015: 61, original emphasis). Regarding how this perspectival shift from the essence of God to the trusted existence of God is possible, Keller agrees with Gregory, who answers the question by holding that this shift is possible through seeing what God does: ‘For us […] [God] comes to be known as existing by means of his activities bestowing only faith, not the knowledge of what he is’ (cited in Keller 2015: 61).

Jean-Luc Marion also explicates Gregory’s theological insight by prioritizing the phenomenon of ‘giving’ over ‘Being/being’. According to Marion, then, apophatic theology is possible because giving precedes Being/being. He recapitulates this core element of apophatic theology as follows: ‘The gift crosses Being/being […] The gift delivers Being/being’ (1995: 101, original emphasis). In a similar vein, he also writes: ‘Because God does not fall within the domain of Being, he comes to us in and as a gift’ (Marion 1995: 3).

This leads to the question of what connection there is between apophatic theology and migration. What theological significance could we draw from apophatic theology regarding the matter of human migration? One of the key theological inspirations from apophatic theology is a new theological insight that the global phenomenon of migration can be viewed in terms of what Kathryn Tanner calls the ‘economy of grace’ (2010: 174). The origin of this new economy lies in God’s apophatic love of giving, and there is nothing that can prevent it from its establishment. Stephen Webb writes, ‘[t]he theory of giving helps us understand how grace works by creating its own kind of economy, quite different from the economics of exchange that pervades the modern spirit’ (Webb 1996: 10). Regarding migration, an important theological insight from the apophatically-inspired economy of grace is that ‘the global migration of people should be recontextualized in God’s divine economy of grace, as part of God’s apophatic unfolding gift-giving love’ (Ahn 2019: 57). In this new perspective of the economy of grace, migrants – especially those who are commonly labelled as ‘illegal’ immigrants – may become the gift of God.

Some theologians and church leaders have begun to identify these migrants as God’s gift. Rowan Williams, in a public lecture delivered in London sponsored by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, proclaimed that migrants should be regarded as a ‘gift’ (Ahn 2019: 57). Arguing against Lord Carey of Clifton – who claimed in The Times newspaper that migration threatens ‘the very ethos or DNA of our nation’ (10 September 2008) – Williams emphasized that migrants ‘help us see who we are’. He then went on to say,

[t]he vocal anxieties we hear from some quarters about the survival of British identity in the face of migrants and refugees betrays a lack of proper confidence in the capacity and the commitment of our society both to learn and to teach. (Gledhill 2010: 24)

In a similar spirit, Archbishop of Colorado Samuel J. Aquila states that Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and in many cases identify themselves as American) are a tremendous gift (Ahn 2019: 58). Across the Pacific in the Philippines, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle also argues that Christians should approach the immigration crisis not as ‘migration and the refugee problem’, but as ‘migrants and refugees as Sacred Gift’, adding: ‘This requires a shift from viewing them as a problem in need of solutions to situating them within the horizon of gift and opportunities’ (Ahn 2019: 58). In an increasingly globalized society that is administered by the neoliberal economy of contract, exchange, and scarcity, Christian communities across the globe should reorganize their social ministries, especially for migrants and refugees, to become the primary care and advocacy agency to receive them as the gift of mysterious and unknowable God.

4 Christ and migration

There is an intrinsic relationship between the story of Jesus ‘the Nazarene’ and the experience of migration. As briefly mentioned above, Jesus’ family was not only forced to migrate from their home due to violent political persecution but their return from Egypt was also marked with displacement, since they could not go back to Bethlehem because of Archelaus’ despotic reign (Alfaro 2022: 67). This section explores the theological significance of the salvific ministry of Christ Jesus with regard to the experience of migration. In so doing it focuses on such key theological themes as incarnation, crucifixion, salvation, and the kingdom of God.

4.1 Incarnation as migration of the Word

From a phenomenological perspective, Jesus’ incarnation is quintessentially a phenomenon of migration. According to John’s Gospel (1:14), the Word became flesh. This means that without supposing the aspect of movement – the movement from high above to here below, from heaven to earth, from divinity to humanity – incarnation cannot be conceived. If incarnation takes a central position in Christian theology, so does migration. Highlighting this essential relationship between the theology of incarnation and the phenomenon of migration, Groody writes:

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. (Groody 2009: 649)

There are at least three key theological aspects that Jesus’ incarnation signifies in regard to the phenomenon of migration.

First, the incarnation of the Word in Christ Jesus means that ‘for God, there are no borders that cannot be crossed, neither within himself nor in the created world’ (Groody 2009: 650). The incarnation is a ‘border-crossing event’, and at the centre of this event lies God’s unfathomable love of humankind, out of which God empties Godself so that God can more fully identify with humans, entering completely into our vulnerable condition and accompanying us in a profound act of divine-human solidarity (2009: 652). As Groody points out, ‘even as human beings erect barriers of every sort, God walls off no one from the divine embrace’ (2009: 650).

Second, divine migration is unlike human migration. Human migration tends towards an upward mobility and greater realization of human dignity and wellness. Divine migration, realized in the incarnation of the Word in Christ, tends toward a ‘downward mobility’ that is even willing to undergo the worst human indignities and sufferings. Groody thus writes that although ‘[s]cripture depicts the movement of a people toward a promised land, God’s movement is just the opposite: it is an immersion into those territories of human life that are deprived of life and prosperity’ (2009: 650). This downward movement is so radical that God ultimately becomes one of the lowly and the strangers, not just reaching out to or living among humanity but identifying with them: ‘God’s identification with humanity is so total that in Christ he not only reaches out to the stranger but becomes the stranger’ (2009: 650–651). In a similar yet more radical manner, Miguel De La Torre contends that ‘Jesus, a colonized man, was an undocumented alien, a victim of political circumstances beyond his comprehension or control’ (2016: 155). According to De La Torre,

[t]he radicalism of the incarnation for Christians is not so much that the Creator of the universe became a frail human, but rather that God chose to become undocumented, fleeing the oppressive consequences of the empire of the time. (De La Torre 2016: 155)

Third, the incarnation of the Word in Christ may also ‘offend’. It can particularly offend those who regard themselves as the guardians of the society, establishing law and maintaining order, and as the defenders of their world, their social norms, and their religious ideals. The incarnation moves people beyond a narrower, more self-serving identity into a greater identification with those considered ‘other’ in society, particularly those like migrants and refugees who are poor and thus regarded insignificant. Therefore, it is more likely to offend. In this respect, Groody writes,

[i]t challenges especially those who exclude on the basis of superficial notions of private property, legal status, and personal or even national rights without any social, moral, or divine reference point, or any regard for the exigencies of distributive, contributive, and restorative justice that flow as a natural consequence from divine gratuity. (Groody 2009: 652)

4.2 Christ and the crucified Lord of all migrants

According to the gospels, Jesus’ border-crossing incarnation ultimately leads him to his violent death on the cross. Kanan Kitani captures it as follows:

A marginal person throughout his life, Jesus also died as such. His violent death on the cross was a direct result of his border-crossing and ministry at the margins which posed a serious threat to the interests of those occupying the economic, political, and religious centre. (Kitani 2020: 141)

This leads to the questions of what Jesus’ crucifixion has to do with those who are on the move at the margins of society, and what theological significance can be discovered in the event of Jesus’ crucifixion as we develop a theology of migration in an age of migration. Christian theologian Gioacchino Campese answers these questions by demonstrating that many migrants, especially those undocumented and unauthorized, are indeed what Ignacio Ellacuría (1993) and Jon Sobrino (1994) call the ‘crucified people’.

Ellacuría draws an engaging parallel between the figure of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh – found in Second Isaiah – Jesus, and the ‘crucified peoples’, identified as the collective body of the poor, insignificant, and oppressed majorities of the world (Campese 2008: 284). The paralleling commonalities include these features:

They are chosen by God; they suffer for historical reasons; they are rejected and considered sinners even if they are not responsible for what they are suffering; they accept carrying the sins of those who are really responsible for their suffering; and finally, precisely because of their willingness to carry the burden of sin, they become the ‘light of the nations’. (Campese 2008: 283)

One of the key hallmarks of the crucified peoples is that ‘they are victims of an institutionalized violence, of a violent system that, because of its ability to cover-up, often goes unrecognized and unchallenged’ (Campese 2008: 291). In this respect, Campese argues that many undocumented migrants who died at the US-Mexico borders due to controversial US immigration laws and policies should be referred to as ‘the crucified people’. Campese calls these people ‘crucified immigrants’. He then writes, ‘[t]he lives of these crucified immigrants are the concrete manifestation of the incarnation of the Crucified Christ in history’ (2008: 292).

The core of Christian theology lies in the belief that the crucifixion of Christ is not only about God’s participation in human suffering and death, but ultimately it is also about the salvation of people. This leads theologians to consider how the ‘salvific power of crucifixion’ can be discovered in the theology of ‘crucified people’, and how those crucified immigrants may offer salvific power. Campese engages with these questions by focusing on theological ideals and moral values that enable ‘new life in the midst of death’ (2008: 292). He illustrates these ideals and values as follows:

They [crucified immigrants] also reveal the values that these immigrants carry: courage in the midst of apparently insurmountable obstacles; faith that recognizes in the Crucified Christ a faithful God who understands and accompanies them, and suffers with them; hope in a better future and a new life because God is good; solidarity with those who suffer; a sense of community; hospitality in a world that is suspicious about strangers; willingness to sacrifice for the sake of their families; and so on. (Campese 2008: 292)

From the theology of crucified people, then, the US-Mexico border and the Mediterranean Sea become the modern-day ‘Golgotha’, illustrating a theological truth that ‘God’s grace and salvation can be found in the most unlikely places’ (Campese 2008: 293).

4.3 Salvific migration and nearing the kingdom of God

The sections above have examined how ‘crucified people’ at the US-Mexico border may be identified as today’s Crucified Christ. According to Ahn, a more holistic theology of migration is possible only when one seriously engages in the reality of ‘suffering’ to which many migrants are vulnerable. Ahn asks what the theological nature of this suffering is, and what theological commonality there is between the suffering of many migrants and the suffering of Crucified Christ. To begin, Ahn identifies the suffering of many migrants (especially of undocumented immigrants) as ‘destructive suffering’ by adopting Michael Stoeber’s distinction between ‘transformative suffering’ and ‘destructive suffering’ (Stoeber 2003: 429). Ahn then argues that ‘the mounting destructive suffering of many migrant people is deeply interlocked with what is commonly known as “terror,” especially the type of state terror’ (2019: 26).

In studying the relationship between the destructive suffering of migrants and what David Tombs calls state terror (terror administered by the state), Ahn argues that many countries adopt state terror as a political strategy (e.g. the Trump administration’s family separation policy) against unauthorized migrants in a militaristic and criminalizing fashion (2019: 27). Many migrants and refugees (especially ‘illegal’ migrants) fall victim to destructive suffering because of skewed geopolitical politics and an unjust neoliberal global economy, as well as due to the ‘state terror’ of the countries of destination (Ahn 2019: 29). Ahn then argues that Jesus himself also fell victim to state terror in the form of crucifixion, yet there is an important theological significance to the state terror that targeted Jesus: its purpose was to deter Jesus and his followers from migrating to a new theopolitical statehood called ‘the kingdom of God’. According to Ahn, then, crucifixion is quintessentially interlocked with the idea of migration, in that migration is theologically conceived as an indispensable process to come near and enter the kingdom of God. The state terror of Golgotha is also theologically conceived as a political measure to prevent this salvific vision of migration from being carried out. The suffering of many migrants is then theologically interconnected with the suffering of Crucified Christ because of the existence of state terror and the violated vision of migration.

According to Ahn, a new theology of migration is possible because Jesus’ crucifixion further changes the nature of migration itself. Due to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, migration is theologically envisaged as an essential aspect of the kingdom of God. In other words, migration is no longer regarded solely as a personal, socio-political, or socio-economic issue: ‘migration allows all nations, all tribes, and all people to interact with each other across all borders rendering it possible to create a new unity, solidarity, and brotherhood and sisterhood amid differences and otherness’ (Ahn 2019: 35). Since this conducive social effect of migration refers to the eschatological vision of the kingdom of God described in Rev 7:9, people’s migration itself becomes a key theological matter. The author of Revelation portrays this eschatological vision of the kingdom of God as follows:

After this, 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. (Rev 7:9)

From the perspective of migration theology, Jesus’ resurrection is deeply entangled with the imagery of migration, because the resurrection of Christ signifies that even state terror cannot deter people from migrating to the kingdom of God. In sum, the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as his central message of the kingdom of God, become the Christological foundation of migration theology.

5 The Holy Spirit and migration

As Sam George and Godfrey Harold put it, ‘migration is one of the mega-themes of the Biblical narratives’ (2021: 1). Migration is also one of the mega-themes that characterize God’s divine nature. The earliest story that reveals God’s migratory nature is Gen 1:2, which reads, ‘the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’ (NRSV). Other versions (such as KJV or NIV) change the ‘wind from God’ to ‘the Spirit (Ruach) of God’. Indeed, even before God spoke creation commands in Gen 1:3, God was on the move hovering above the surface of the earth. George and Harold observe that the hovering image of the Spirit of God (Gen 1:2) may be compared to the image of an eagle hovering over its nest (Deut 32:10; 2021: 2). Since the movement of the Spirit of God over the formless, empty, and dark earth is sequentially entailed by God’s creation of the ordered, abundant, and luminous earth, it can be said that the work of the migrating Spirit of God is aligned with creative, formative, and conducive nature, rather than divisive, destructive, and chaotic quality. This section examines how the Holy Spirit involves the various aspects of migration. As will be seen, the divine work of the Holy Spirit is essential in developing a more holistic theology of migration.

5.1 The Holy Spirit and the empowerment of all migrants

In the creation narrative in Genesis, the Spirit of God or the divine breath is not only transcendent over the creation (1:2) but also immanent within it (Yong 2011: 357). Gen 1:30 narrates that all living creatures have been constituted by God’s (Elohim’s) ‘breath of life’. The infusion of the breath of life to human beings is particularly noticeable because they were personally visited by the creator God: ‘[T]he Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). If the infused breath of life originates in the Spirit of God, which was on the move hovering above the surface of the earth, one can infer that all living creatures – especially human beings – are originally meant to migrate. In other words, migration is the ontological DNA of human beings. It is therefore not too much to say that to be alive is to be able to migrate, and, in a similar manner, that the essential hallmark of resurrection will be the resumption of migration.

The next questions to ask are what the Holy Spirit does in the history of human migration, and how the work of the Holy Spirit regarding the global phenomenon of migration should be understood. Amos Yong notes that ‘the Spirit is at work not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of society and its various political and economic structures’ (Yong 2011: x). Adopting Yong’s pneumatological vision – ‘the work of the Spirit is to redeem and transform our world as a whole along with all of its interconnected parts, systems, and structures’ (2011: x) – enables the development of a new pneumatological theology of migration, distinguished from the old paradigm of the individualistic, spiritualistic, and ecclesiocentric approaches. Yong argues that there is an important theological connection between the Pentecost and the Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant:

Since the Day of Pentecost was the traditional Feast of Weeks which occurred fifty days after the Feast of Passover (Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–12) and Jews celebrated the wheat harvest as symbolic of the renewal of the Mosaic covenant, the Pentecostal experience would have a theological connection with the Mosaic covenant. (Ahn 2019: 69)

This has theological significance regarding the phenomenon of human migration. The core of the promise made to Abraham was the establishment of a new nation and the eventual blessing of all the nations (Gen 12:2; 22:18). Pentecost has to do with the fulfilment of this promise: ‘In the Pentecost event, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and national barriers between Israel and the Gentiles are overcome, making clear the universal scope of God’s promises’ (Yong 2011: 12). The phenomenon of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) at the Pentecost event is important because it signifies a theological vision, that the work of the Holy Spirit is to include and embrace all ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious others in the progression toward the kingdom of God. Since the encounter with others cannot be conceived without peoples’ migration, migration is integrated and enfolded into the all-encompassing work of the Holy Spirit. Ahn thus writes, ‘[s]ince the event of the Pentecost in Acts 2, migration has historically been a major conduit through which the kingdom of God on earth has been continuously extended beyond all borders and boundaries’ (2019: 71).

In two ways, the Holy Spirit works specifically in humanity’s migratory journey toward the kingdom of God: the empowerment of those on the move and the reconciliation between migrants and hosts. Most biblical scholars and theologians agree that the Spirit of God is indispensably interlinked with power. For instance, in his study of Pauline pneumatology, Gordon D. Fee writes that ‘[t]he single most notable characteristic of the Spirit of God is his power’ (1994: 906), going on to say:

The Spirit of God, therefore, meant the effective working of the power of God. It is probably fair to say that even though the two words (spirit and power) are not coterminous, the presence of the one (spirit) always implies the presence of the other (power). (Fee 1994: 907)

Regarding the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a critical theological paradox: the Spirit of God is experienced not in an occasion in which believers feel powerful but in which they feel their weakness and helplessness. James Dunn writes, in connection with Rom 8:26–27, that it is an ‘astonishing feature of Paul’s pneumatology’ that the power of Spirit is experienced in human weakness (1998: 438). Fee also argues in the same manner that the relationship between the Spirit as God’s empowering presence and the theme of weakness is an important one in Paul’s theology. Fee, however, goes further, clarifying what Paul meant by ‘weakness’. He distinguishes the weakness in the sense of ‘life in the flesh’ and the weakness in the sense of ‘life according to the flesh’. This distinction is needed to avoid the so-called Spirit-flesh dualism. Fee thus writes,

‘weakness’ is taken to encompass all of our present existence, including our sinfulness […] This term does indeed apply to life ‘in the flesh,’ that is, our present life in the Spirit that is still lived in the context of suffering and debilitation. (Fee 1994: 823)

One can then ask how the Pauline notion of the power of the Spirit in human weakness relates to the case of human migration. Given that a countless number of migrants are socially, economically, culturally, and psychologically marginalized, discriminated against, and even systemically oppressed due to their otherness, the Pauline notion of the power of the Holy Spirit in human weakness seems to perfectly apply to many cases of migration, especially to unauthorized migrants. Indeed, for many of these, ‘the power of the Holy Spirit is the only hope they cannot but depend on in the midst of their tribulations and weaknesses’ (Ahn 2019: 75). In a more specific way, Groody also holds that ‘the suffering they [migrants] experience is an important starting point for a discussion about their spirituality’ (Groody 2002: 32). According to Groody, moral conversion from powerlessness to empowerment begins when migrants realize that they have ‘something to say, something to offer, and something to contribute’ (2002: 98). As a result of God’s empowerment, when migrants begin to realize that they are active instruments in the coming of God’s kingdom, they no longer see themselves as immigrants but as ‘children of God with a divine mission to accomplish’ (2002: 101).

5.2 The Holy Spirit and the works of hospitality

According to May Ling Tan-Chow, the Holy Spirit initiated a pneumatic movement in the early church by demonstrating an extraordinary kind of inclusiveness and hospitality: ‘Pentecost is a decisive revelation of the radical hospitality of God – the Father’s open house and also the opening up of human persons for filial perichoretic existence with the triune God’ (2007: 35). As testified by the apostles, the hallmark of the Pentecostal Spirit was the equal regard and universal acceptance of all, transcending without being hindered by any borders and boundaries. According to Tan-Chow:

Subsequent outpourings of the Spirit upon the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17), the Gentiles represented by Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44), and the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7) are indicative that boundaries are no longer impregnable, but made permeable by the universal and ecumenical sweep of the Spirit. (Tan-Chow 2007: 31)

Peter sums it up in Acts 10:34: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’. Ahn points out that there is an unequivocal connection between this newly established culture of hospitality enabled by the Pentecost and the covenantal hospitality offered to unknown visitors by Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:1–15). The demonstration of hospitality is an unmistakable sign of the presence of the Spirit, especially on the part of the host.

It is not an exaggeration to say that ‘[m]igration is quintessentially a theological event of the covenantal-pneumatological progression that encompasses both migrant people and hosting citizens as the agents of missio Spiritus’ (Ahn 2019: 73). Equal regard for all and radical hospitality are particularly needed in the contemporary world which witnesses the rising number of unauthorized migrants and various types of refugees. It seems evident that if these hosts in destination countries are not willing to show the spirit of hospitality then many migrants will suffer, and more heightened walls and fortified barriers will appear not only on state borders but also in human relations. Consideration of the theological importance of the practice of radical hospitality in ‘an age of migration’ leads to exploration of diverse theological-ethical perspectives on hospitality, and to questions such as: what is the Christian theological-ethical understanding of hospitality, and what makes Christian hospitality distinguished from other types?

From its origins, Christian hospitality focuses on the inclusion and acceptance of those regarded as the ‘least of these’. According to Amy Oden, although hospitality is largely known as the welcoming of strangers, ‘its meaning within the Christian biblical and historical traditions has focused on receiving the alien and extending one’s resources to them’ (2001: 14). In the same vein, Christine Pohl argues that, compared to its Greek and Roman contemporaries, Christian hospitality was distinguished due to its ethos that ‘offers a generous welcome to the “least” without concern for advantage or benefit to the host’ (1999: 16). The contemporary Roman society also practiced hospitality by establishing the law of hospitality (ius hospitii). Unlike that of early Christianity, however, the Roman ius hospitii emphasized formal reciprocal obligations between the givers of hospitality and its receivers, and ‘the tradition emphasized the worthiness and goodness of recipients rather than their need’ (Pohl 1999: 18). Regarding the theological focus on the ‘least of these’, as Kristin Heyer warns, it is especially important not to treat migrants as passive beneficiaries of hospitality: ‘Considering migrants as passive beneficiaries or burdens fails to appreciate their agency and contributions’ (2016: 93).

By referring to this original distinctiveness of radical hospitality, Christian ethicists such as Luke Bretherton develop a Christian cosmopolitan duty of care to refugees. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Bretherton identifies refugees as ‘bare life’. He then goes on to argue that ‘the involvement of churches with refugees should be characterized as the hallowing of bare life’ (Bretherton 2006: 55). As he points out: ‘The hollowing of bare life is intrinsic to the command to hallow the name of God’ (2006: 55). This leads to the question of what is the theological ground of Christian radical hospitality, and why does Christian hospitality particularly focus on refugees, strangers, foreigners, and even enemies. Arthur Sutherland answers this by pointing out that, although Christians were once both strangers and enemies to God, they now have been brought into a relationship with God through an act of divine hospitality (2006: 26). Sutherland’s remarks are a reminder of some key verses of the Hebrew Bible, in which God commands the Israelites to remember that they were once aliens in the land of Egypt (Exod 22: 21; 23: 9).

The second distinctive feature of Christian radical hospitality lies in its non-conformist or even resistant attitude to the discriminatory or oppressive ordinances of secular governance toward vulnerable migrant people. It is critical to recognize that hospitality has both ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ dimensions. Spiritually, believers are on their way to what Augustine calls the heavenly city (Civitas Dei), yet socially they remain in a particular social, political, economic, or cultural context. Many contemporary migrants are greatly affected by the unjust structural formations of hosting societies, whether as a result of a neo-liberalized global economy or hostile political governance, which Kristin Heyer calls ‘social sin’ (2010). British theologian Anna Rowlands describes the hostile social dimension as follows:

1) intensification in the use of cruel and draconian powers of detention and forced expulsion by the state; 2) use of legislative power to remove welfare support and legal provision in order to deter future asylum claimants; 3) new practices of displacement of the responsibilities of the sovereign state onto private actors, and into offshore and inter-territorial spaces. (Rowlands 2012: 184)

The consideration of this hostile social dimension clearly shows why the practice of hospitality needs to be a non-conformist or even resistant act. It should be also noted that the church adopted this radical trait from its beginning. According to Amy Oden, because of the political and social oppression they experienced, the early Christians were able to identify themselves with exiles and refugees, and this rendered them more radical in terms of providing hospitality to unwanted or unwelcome people:

Because Christians were at times under threat from civil authorities, the act of harbouring refugees who were brothers and sisters in Christ became imperative. Sheltering strangers was essential to the survival of Christianity in a hostile empire. (Oden 2001: 38)

One of the great temptations for the contemporary church is a social pressure to conform to what Jakub Walczak calls ‘the growing dichotomy between the spiritual and social dimensions of hospitality’ (2021: 95). Spiritual awakening to hospitality is necessary for the church’s practice of radical hospitality; its spiritualization, however, is likely to lead the church to be complicit in social sin.

The final distinctive aspect of Christian radical hospitality is that it can be regarded as ‘scandalous’ due to the boundless or ad hoc nature of its scope and practice. Thomas Reynolds writes: ‘Christians are called to hospitality. Yet this is no easy matter, for welcoming the stranger requires becoming vulnerable’ (2006: 191). Reynolds illustrates a particular case in which a church community decided to cover its sanctuary’s cross as it hosted a Jewish funeral. Reflecting on this case from a theological perspective, Reynolds arrives at the conclusion that ‘hospitality is not a matter of regulations and procedural codes, a law to be applied univocally’ (2006: 201). Instead, he holds: ‘Hospitality is a work of the Spirit, the divine figure who works between boundaries to join together in solidarity what was estranged’ (2006: 201–202). Similar ‘scandalous’ demonstrations of radical hospitality are found in the New Testament – Cornelius’ call for Peter followed by Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman in John 4. As these two cases illustrate, spirit-filled hospitality ultimately brings in the redemption of people despite its seemingly scandalous nature.

The question for the contemporary church is how to revive this quintessential ecclesial virtue of radical hospitality in the age of migration. As an example, Tan-Chow points to the Pentecostal revival of Azusa Street from 1906 to 1915, which was characteristically distinguished by ‘all-embracing inclusiveness’: ‘What makes the Azusa event special and significant is the recovery of an experience of the living presence and power of God in the persona of the Holy Spirit that transcends all barriers’ (2007: 46). Tan-Chow especially focuses on what the Pentecostal movement leader William J. Seymour was experiencing. According to Tan-Chow, disillusioned by white Pentecostals who continued to mistreat their Black fellow believers, Seymour realized that ‘the surest sign of the Spirit’s Pentecostal presence’ was ‘not tongue speaking but the dissolution of racial barriers’ (2007: 47). Tan-Chow goes on, saying, ‘Seymour saw the outpouring of the Spirit as the divine event to bring into existence a church that is characterized by an “all-embracing inclusiveness”’ (2007: 47). The following section therefore investigates the church’s ecclesial role and responsibility related to this characterization, considering the rising global phenomenon of human migration. The expectation for the church’s role and responsibility concerning the crisis of global migration is high and urgent.

6 The church and migration

It was seen above that Christian theology is born out of migration; in a similar manner, the church is born with migration. Ulrich Schmiedel thus writes: ‘There would be no church without migration’ (2020: 156). He concurs with Peter Phan’s claim that migration is a ‘marker of church, both historically and systemically. Church is always already on the move’ (Schmiedel 2020: 156). If the church is always on the move as a migratory community heading toward the kingdom of God, there will be a constant event of encountering others in the church, because the encounter with others is a necessary component of all migrations. The ‘other’ here does not always mean ‘other peoples’; it could include new ideas, unfamiliar cultures, foreign languages, different lifestyles, or unconventional theologies. Susanna Snyder conceptualizes the four types of encounters in which the church and faith-based organizations are called to engage (2012: 36–45).

First, encounters of grassroots service. These encounters have ‘to do with the pastoral care of individuals and represent the “cuddlesome” face of religion valued by governments. They are person-centred and rooted in the activities of befriending, listening, visiting and service provision’ (Snyder 2012: 36).

Second, encounters with power structures. This ‘designates activities of lobbying, campaigning, advocacy and transforming attitudes in relation to asylum aimed at the established population—and particularly people or structures with power’ (2012: 39). Snyder clarifies the notion of power by explaining:

‘Powers’ indicates both people with authority on asylum matters in the UK and the systems, institutions, and structures which influence the experiences of those seeking sanctuary. These include governmental departments, politicians, the civil service, the media, local authorities, key public and corporate figures, and think tanks. (Snyder 2012: 39–40)

Third, encounters in worship. This ‘refers to engagement with people seeking sanctuary in the context of Christian liturgy and prayer. Such encounters take different forms’, including worship services and special services (2012: 43).

Fourth, encounters in theology. This indicates ‘engagement with people seeking sanctuary through theological reflection. These encounters are manifest in the choice of biblical verses for project tag lines, the worship resources mentioned above, and a growing body of academic work’ (2012: 45).

The following section explores the nature of these encounters more extensively, considering the different roles and responsibilities of the church in conjunction with the rising crisis of global migration. This includes focus on two areas: the church’s caring ministry for vulnerable migrants and the church’s engagement in promoting social justice for oppressed migrants.

6.1 The church on the move and the caring community of all migrants

As Gemma Tulud Cruz points out, ‘[i]nternational migration is a reality that touches nearly all corners of the globe today largely due to the structures and processes of globalization’ (2021: 205). The age of migration overlaps with the age of globalization. The key features of globalization are thus closely connected with the rising phenomenon of international migration. Globalization has divided the world into ‘First World’ (or Global North) countries and ‘Third World’ (or ‘Majority World’, also known as the Global South) countries, entailing an enormous wealth gap between them. The ever-widening wealth gap becomes the ‘push’ factor in countries in the Global South and the corresponding ‘pull’ factor in the Global North countries, and these ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors played a major role in the global phenomenon of human migration. As Cruz observes, ‘[f]or many people, especially those from the Global South suffering from calamities caused by human and natural disasters, migration is the best, if not the only way, out of poverty and death-dealing conditions’ (2021: 206). The church’s caring and advocating ministries are contextualized in this changing global setting.

Many migrants in an age of globalization share certain commonalities as ‘needed but not wanted’ people. For instance, Cruz (2021: 189) describes three key features of contemporary cross-border labour migrants in the Asia Pacific region. First, migration of people occurs primarily under temporary (contractual) migration regimes and for low-skilled work. Second, migrants are highly gendered depending on the types of work they would be engaged in. Third, unauthorized migration of people occurs in parallel with authorized migration. By default, many low-skilled migrants constitute the underclass in their destination countries. As a result, they are commonly confined to vulnerable positions in society and then become easy targets for exploitation and abuse by various actors in the process of migration. The church’s caring ministry is then geared toward assisting these migrants. As seen above, the moral and pastoral imperative to care for these migrants is not only biblically grounded but also ecclesiastically approved in Christian tradition. For instance, Gaudium et Spes, one of the four constitutions resulting from the Second Vatical Council, stipulates it as follows:

When workers come from another country or district and contribute to the economic advancement of a nation or region by their labour, all discrimination as regards wages and working conditions must be carefully avoided. All the people, moreover, above all the public authorities, must treat them not as mere tools of production but as persons, and must help them. (Cruz 2021: 194)

Kristin Heyer exemplifies the church’s caring ministry for migrants by visiting and interviewing with the Kino Border Initiative. According to her, ‘the Kino Border Initiative’s origin and approach embody essential values for ecclesial responses to migration’ (Heyer 2016: 84). Established in partnership with Jesuit Refugee Services, the bordering dioceses and Jesuit provinces, and the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the Kino Border Initiative is devoted to three goals: (1) offering humanitarian assistance to deported migrants on the Mexican side of the border; (2) educating and forming communities on the US side; and (3) supporting research and advocacy on migrant abuses and immigration policy (2016: 84).

The church’s pastoral caring ministry for migrants is an ecclesial practice of transforming ‘xenophobia’ into ‘xenophilia’ on a societal as well as on an individual level, on the understanding that xenophobia is theologically unwarranted and opposed to God’s plan for humanity. As Alejandra Guajardo-Hodge argues, ‘[x]enophobic speech and acts are a direct disregard of the image of God in humans and disobedience to God’s call for unity and a redemption of human relations in Christ’ (2022: 92). On the contrary, xenophilia is a concept that comprises hospitality, love, and care for the stranger. Therefore, as Luis N. Rivera-Pagán writes, in times of increasing economic and political globalization xenophilia should be the duty and vocation of the church, as a faith affirmation not only of believers’ common humanity but also of those vulnerable beings living in the shadows and margins of their societies (2019: 207). Concurring with this, Cruz writes, ‘[i]n an economically globalized world that feeds on the discrimination, exploitation, and abuse of migrant workers, the churches are challenged to serve as a counterforce for harmony, an institution for transformation, and a home for all’ (2021: 201).

6.2 The church of migration and the politics of hope

The church’s social justice work and initiatives also make a big difference to the livelihood of many migrants, in addition to its pastoral ministry (Cruz 2021: 197). Cruz outlines ‘three discernible forms’ of the church’s justice ministry for migrants. The first is public and academic research that not only helps in understanding the experience of migrant workers but also in determining effective pastoral solutions. Researchers’ contribution to the promotion of justice, human rights, and dignity is critical, in that their research helps both the public and policymakers have a better understanding of what is really going on in many instances of the migration crisis.

The second form of justice-oriented social ministry is ‘political advocacy’. Some examples of this advocacy ministry include church leaders’ calling for action and ecclesial organizations’ involvement in lobbying. For instance, ‘Filipino bishop Ruperto Santos […] called for action against maid auctions in Saudi Arabia and accountability on the part of placement agencies, especially those who send minor-aged domestic workers’ (Cruz 2021: 197). Meanwhile, ‘Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) was at the forefront of lobbying the Australian government for the work payment of the twenty-two seasonal workers from Vanuatu’ (2021: 197).

The third form of the church’s social ministry for migrants relates to practical services that try to address causes of suffering. Cruz introduces the ‘Safe Migration’ project of Caritas Asia and Caritas Luxembourg in Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, as examples. These projects ‘support people who want to go abroad and work by educating them about the risks of unsafe and unauthorized migration’ (Cruz 2021: 197).

Ulrich Schmiedel’s concept of a ‘coalitional church’ refers to an ecclesial model for the church’s social engagement in justice for both migrants and citizens:

a coalitional church is open to coalitions with religious and with nonreligious partners for the sake of the other. Openness to otherness, then, is the central criterion of the coalitions which it enters. In these coalitions, it is not concerned with saving its identity, but with saving its alterity – the other. (Schmiedel 2020: 162)

This coalitional church recalls William J. Barber II’s ‘fusion coalition’. Barber’s fusion coalition is the inclusion and solidification of all people across all lines to uphold justice. He confesses that he learned the importance of fusion coalitions from his own social ministry of community organizing: ‘I was learning the awesome power of what happens when people come together. And I was learning it in the church’ (Barber 2016: 38). Both Barber and Schmiedel regard the inclusion and solidarity of all people as the core of the church’s social ministry, and it should be noted here that in a coalitional church, the other becomes ‘the subject of church rather than object of charity’ (Schmiedel 2020: 163).

The Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s in the US is an excellent example of the social ministry of a coalitional church, especially concerning the reception of ‘undesirable aliens’. According to researchers, at the peak of its movement up to 600 churches and secondary sanctuary groups joined the movement across the country, declaring themselves official ‘sanctuaries’ (Chinchilla, Hamilton, and Loucky 2009: 106). There are two distinct aspects of the Sanctuary Movement. First, the movement had a significant social impact on the American public, a rare thing for the church to achieve in a secular society. The idea of ‘sanctuary’ itself spread out and affected other civil institutions including schools and colleges, cities and states, and even other religious organizations (Ahn 2019: 95). Second, the movement exemplified the church’s spirit of resistance against structural injustice that victimizes the marginalized and the disenfranchised. Thus Susan Krehbiel writes: ‘Sanctuary is an act of resistance: resistance against government actions and policies that are contrary to our moral traditions, resistance against fear, resistance against divisions that pit us vs. them’ (2017: 21).

Carmen Nanko-Fernández points out that ‘the phenomenon of migration brings human differences of all kinds into our churches, our neighbourhoods, and within our respective national borders’ (2015: 20). As a community of faith, the church may consider ‘this new diverse reality’ as a call to advance God’s kingdom. Indeed, ‘people on the move point to the universal kinship of the human family which necessarily requires, at the very least, tolerance, respect for identity, and an appreciation for religious and cultural solidarity’ (2015: 20). In responding to the rising number of ‘unauthorized’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants in the contemporary world, the Christian church across the globe can also acknowledge that, as the body of Christ, its central mission is to provide unconditional care for those in dire need. The church should stand in solidarity with the voiceless, not only to protect their God-given human rights and dignity but also to promote justice against structural injustice by initiating or joining a coalitional ministry.

As Victor Carmona and Robert Heimburger point out, the church’s solidarity work will likely have to face the secular ‘populism’ (especially, they believe, ‘right-wing’ populism) that ‘furthers the perception of immigrants as a threat’ (Carmona and Heimburger 2022: 40). Against this challenge, as demonstrated by Catholic and Anglican churches in the US and the UK, the church faces the challenge of continuing to confront populist immigrant policies directly and indirectly, in light of scripture (Carmona and Heimburger 2022: 43). Without hope, no one can live a meaningful human life; this is even more so for those who are in hopeless situations due to systemic and structural reasons. The church can be the place where these people find hope. In this respect, the church’s engagement in all types of coalitional activities for ‘the least of these’ can be called a ‘politics of hope’. From the perspective of a migration theology, the church becomes itself when it engages in the coalitional politics of hope, globally as well as locally, in the age of migration.


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  • Further reading

    • Ahn, Ilsup. 2013. Religious Ethics and Migration: Doing Justice to Undocumented Workers. New York: Routledge.
    • Allard, Silas W., Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (eds). 2022. Christianity and the Law of Migration. New York: Routledge.
    • Carroll R., M. Daniel. 2020. The Bible and Borders: Hearing God’s Word on Immigration. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
    • Cruz, Gemma Tulud. 2010. An Intercultural Theology of Migration: Pilgrims in the Wilderness. Boston: Brill.
    • Cruz, Gemma Tulud. 2014. Toward a Theology of Migration: Social Justice and Religious Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
    • De La Torre, Miguel A. 2009. Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
    • Firth, David G. 2019. Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
    • Groody, Daniel G. 2002. Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
    • Heimburger, Robert W. 2018. God and the Illegal Alien: United States Immigration Law and a Theology of Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Heyer, Kristin E. 2012. Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethics of Immigration. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
    • Pohl, Christine D. 1999. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Rajendra, Tisha M. 2017. Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Sweeden, Nell Becker. 2015. Church on the Way: Hospitality and Migration. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
    • Snyder, Susanna, Agnes M. Brazal, and Joshua Ralston. 2016. Church in an Age of Global Migration: A Moving Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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