A Theological Exploration of Statelessness: Part 3- Statelessness within a theology of place and a theology of exclusion and embrace

Much of my 2015 was spent looking at two important topics: statelessness and faith.  The following is a section of my graduate thesis for a Master of Religion at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  While grounded in the specific context of Lebanon, the research is relevant to greater discussions on statelessness and displacement.  This Part 3 begins the theological discussion on statelessness.

Statelessness as a Theological Dilemma

Section One: Logic for Theological Exploration

Statelessness presents many dimensions and a growing body of literature is examining the problem from diverse disciplines, but faith perspectives on the subject are scant.  Though it is recognized that faith propels global engagement in a wide range of humanitarian issues,[1] statelessness has yet to receive focused theological treatment. This is unfortunate since theology is a fundamental aspect of faith and profoundly impactful when addressing problems at all levels.  Statelessness is at its core and edges a theological quandary that requires nuanced responses from the Christian community.  As Rupen Das writes, “any Christian ministry, Christian ethics and church’s response to social issues need to flow out of the understanding of contextual theology.”[2]

True Christian faith is about belief and action, and theological reflection on statelessness must be grounded in scripture while inciting active responses.  Selecting particular parts of the Bible will not do; a faithful reading requires consideration of the biblical narrative as a whole.  The outcome of theology cannot simply be a series of systematic doctrine but rather a dynamic interchange of thinking and living.  In the words of Alistair McGrath, “Christian theology is not just a set of ideas; it is about making possible a new way of seeing ourselves and the world, with implications for the way in which we behave.”[3]  The result is “theology needs to be systematic but it also needs to be relevant in each and every context where the church is present.”[4]

In the context of Lebanon, statelessness is a crisis that involves the very nature of the church.  The problem crosses religious and social divides, and in every instance it undermines human core needs.  Calling for robust theological engagement does not simply flow out of the church’s function of mission but out of her very sense of identity.  As Miroslav Volf states, “the identity and the mission of the church [are] inextricably intertwined.  The church’s identity is its mission and the church’s mission is its identity; the church is what it does in the world and the church does in the world what it is.”[5]   For the church in Lebanon, statelessness cannot merely be a socio-political matter; it must be a theological question that calls forth the very nature of the church.

There is global consensus that statelessness is a serious violation of fundamental human rights, but where does it stand within a system of biblical ethics?  Can scriptural teachings direct a posture towards statelessness, or is the matter inconsequential for biblical faith?  This chapter explores these questions by applying three primary theological frameworks to the phenomena of statelessness: land theology, a theology of place and a theology of exclusion and embrace.  The discussion results in various theoretical streams coalescing into a robust river of theological thought that frames the issue within themes of scripture.  In doing so, it aims to foster biblically-based conceptions and responses to the current statelessness crisis.


Section Two: Statelessness within a Theology of Place

Nationality is a significant aspect of the human experience in the modern world and the Bible provides fruitful insight on the topic.  New Testament scripture includes the language of citizenship and provides commentary on the matter of official political-entity membership.[6]  However, contextual differences between the first century and the present do not allow for direct parallels in a discussion on citizenship.  The modern world’s system of nation-states greatly differs from the ancient world of kingdoms and empires, and notions of citizenship must be viewed in light of the varying backgrounds.  While official nation-state membership may not be a thoroughly biblical concept, the matter of belonging to place certainly is.  Since nationality denotes an important type of belonging to a particular place (the nation-state), a theology of place provides a meaningful tool for examining the statelessness phenomena.

Place is a central aspect of the human experience.  Where we are is deeply bound to who we are, and the relationship we share with our places directly impacts corresponding relationships around us.  Biblical scholar Gary Burge rightly captures this facet of humanity when he says, “each of us wants a place that we can call home, a place we may think of as our own, where familiar things are available, where old stories may be retold, where we experience connection with a legacy that stretches out behind us.”[7]  Craig Bartholomew refers to this as implacement, the idea that existence itself is tied to having a place.[8]   Need for place is more than just a human sentiment; it is at the very fabric of God’s nature and His purposes for creation.  The Bible reveals that God “intends for humans to be at home, to indwell, in their places; place and implacement is a gift and provides the possibility for imagining God in his creation.”[9]  Humanity is therefore embedded with a need to belong to particular places in ways that shape the very knowledge of reality.   Statelessness matters to God precisely because belonging to place matters to people.

In his seminal work The Land, theologian Walter Brueggemann presents a valuable study on land as a biblical motif loaded with implications for place and belonging.  He states, “land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.  Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.”[10]  Land for Brueggemann is understood biblically in a literal sense as material space as well as in a symbolic sense.  He explains that “land is never simply physical dirt but is always physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience.”[11]  Place, therefore, serves as “a primary category of faith,”[12]  and statelessness can be seen as a faith predicament in the way it strikes at an individual’s sense of place within the community of nation-states.

The issue at hand is not space- for all stateless know, occupy and exercise freedom within some degree of space- but rather place.  “Place is space that has historical meanings;” it is where identity is formed and transmitted across generations.[13]  Despite the absence of official paperwork or documentation, many stateless claim historical meanings to their land of residence by virtue of their personal and familial experiences.  What they lack is roots.  Brueggemann’s words apply aptly to the particular problem of statelessness when he declares “it is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crises.”[14]  Statelessness’s sting is not that it denies space in the nation-state but that it denies place.  In our modern times, the stateless can truly decry a loss of place in this world altogether.

Place as a literal and symbolic concept permeates the entirety of the Bible.  The opening drama of Genesis presents a theology of place “in the context of a complex, dynamic understanding of creation as ordered by God” where humanity is placed within, not above, the fabric of creation.[15]  The subsequent fall leads to displacement from Eden in an act of godly judgment, and consequently “the challenge of implacement and the danger of displacement are a constant part of the human condition.”[16]  Place is likewise tied to humanity’s restorative journey with God.  The Abrahamic covenant features place at the center of its promise, and land is a primary character in Ancient Israel’s anticipation, gain and loss of place throughout her narrative.  Old Testament law strongly affirms the regard and potential for place as “laws themselves connect life in the land to a recovery of God’s Edenic intentions.”[17]  Land takes new meaning in the New Testament with Christ’s incarnation spiritualizing, but never diminishing, dimensions of place.  The “incarnation implies that places are the seat of relations or the place of meeting and activity in the interaction between God and the world.”[18]  The Bible thoroughly asserts an intentional link between place and belonging, and scripture’s concluding eschatological promise is that of a place; a promise that God’s ultimate hope for humanity is settlement in eternal placement.[19]

Anglican theologian John Inge argues that the Bible consistently demonstrates two theological principles concerning place: “first, that place is a fundamental category of human experience, and that, second, there is a threefold relationship between God, his people, and place.”[20]  A biblical understanding positions place within a relational dynamic between God and humanity as demonstrated in the following model:

Inge claims that a general problem with modernity is the “notion that place is not integral to our experience of God or the world but simply exists alongside us as an added extra.”[21]  He represents this configuration in the model:


The rejection of place within the relational God-humanity dynamic leads to the very challenges of displacement and “rootlessness” endemic to a fallen world. Statelessness poses a potent expression of such misalignment as denial of nation-state membership undermines rootedness and identity in the modern world.  This results in the stateless person as a type of sojourner, a term that Brueggemann explains must be understood beyond the technical definition of “resident alien:”

[Sojourner] means to be in a place, perhaps for an extended time, to live there and take some roots, but always to be an outsider, never belonging, always without right, title, or voice in decisions that matter.  Such a one is on turf but without title to the turf, having nothing sure but trusting in words spoken that will lead to a place.[22]

The implications of ‘stateless-sojourning’ are certainly severe.  The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion articulates the matter well when it says,

Stateless persons are deemed and treated as foreigners-mostly unwanted-by every country in the world, including the country in which they were born, the country of their ancestors, the country of their residence, the country they happen to find themselves in today and the country they find themselves expelled to tomorrow.[23]

Hannah Arendt pungently decries statelessness when writing about the rampant European displacement she personally experienced in the aftermath of World War I.  Commenting on this historical moment of massive human upheaval, she declares:  “Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.”[24]  Existing in space but never belonging to place continues to be a desperate challenge for the modern world, and the Bible keenly addresses the dilemma within the Old Testament wilderness narrative.

Ancient Israel’s dramatic exodus from Egyptian bondage should have been quickly followed by triumphant entry into a place of promise.  However, a journey that ought to have lasted mere weeks became a forty-year saga of bitter wondering through an uninhabitable domain.  The Israelites were in a crisis of “landlessness par excellence” where their struggle was not simply to exist as aliens or outsiders, but to sustain life “in a context hostile and destructive.”[25]

The Bible’s wilderness motif sheds searing insight into today’s challenges of statelessness.  Wilderness is land of bleakness and disorder; a type of vicious displacement “like the empty dread of primordial chaos.”[26]  It is a territory where, in Brueggemann’s words, “not only is nothing growing, but nothing can grow.  It is a land without promise, without hope, where no newness can come.”[27]  As has been documented in this paper, the stateless individual faces a constant struggle to forge a life in the absence of recognized identity or exercisable rights.  Even the most basic of activates (such as vocation, education, healthcare, travel, and family) are perilous ordeals into unknown territory.

Statelessness is more than simply a practical struggle to get by; it is an ordeal of “devastating psychological toll.”[28]  Such a situation is on par with the biblical portrayal of wilderness as an environment “where desolation is as much psychological as physical.”[29]  Testimony from stateless individuals reveals that the condition’s utter cruelty is in its attack on the mind; the insistent feeling of being unwanted and unrecognized in one’s country of residence contributes to traumatic mental strain.  Ancient Israel of old and the stateless of today share a “dominant memory of landlessness, to be at the disposal of an environment totally without life supports and without any visible hint that there is an opening to the future.”[30]  What was true then can be said of the stateless today, “in the wilderness, bereft of resources, faith is not easy.”[31]

In summary, biblical theology recognizes humanity’s core need for place and belonging.  God’s creation was constructed as a place where each part is designed to belong, and scripture never diminishes the ultimate importance of place.  Land, literally and symbolically, is maintained within a dynamic relationship between God and humanity.  Sin’s fallout was a vicious form of displacement; a tragedy that has persisted from the expulsion of Eden until today.  The result is that “the central problem in our age is not emancipation but “rootage,” not meaning but belonging, not separation from community but location within it, not isolation from others but placement deliberately between the generation of promise and fulfillment.”[32]  Hence the fundamental struggle of the stateless: to exist within a national community but, in the absence of official recognition, to claim no “rootage” and to know no location.  Such a condition is never compatible with God’s intention for creation.

Section Three: Statelessness within a Theology of Exclusion

The study will now examine the implications of statelessness within a theology of exclusion.  Theologian Miroslav Volf’s brilliant work Exclusion and Embrace is an important resource for conceptualizing a whole host of devastating problems involving identity and otherness.  Central to his framework is the notion of exclusion, which he claims not as “what lies at the bottom of all sins” but rather “what permeates a good many of sins we commit against our neighbor.”[33]  The term effectively captures the quandary of statelessness.  According to Volf, the creation account of Genesis demonstrates an intentional establishment of differentiation, “the creative activity of “separating-and-binding” that results in patterns of interdependence.”[34]  Inherent distinction is a trademark of God’s handiwork; it is by design and positive.  As Volf says, “we are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.”[35]  This understanding of differentiation permits, even affirms, systems of differing nationalities by recognizing that separation does not pose a threat when it is partnered with binding.  However, the danger of nationality, as radically seen in statelessness, arrives when humans succumb to the temptation of exclusion.

Exclusion for Volf is what happens between two parties when the separating and binding dynamics of differentiation are corrupted resulting in either severing the bonds that are intended to connect or erasing the separation that is needed to distinguish.  This leads to injustice that “takes place when the violence of expulsion, assimilation, or subjugation and the indifference of abandonment replace the dynamics of taking in and keeping out as well as the mutuality of giving and receiving.”[36]  Statelessness, the rejection from the global community of nation-states, can be considered exclusion par excellence.  Millions are denied full national membership on grounds of a “politics of purity” where dominant voices declare, “we want a pure world and push the “others” out of our world; we want to be pure ourselves and eject otherness from within ourselves.”[37]  In the Lebanese context, a quest for purity takes the form of maintaining sectarian status quos in order to preserve imagined demographic realities.  The result is nationality laws that discriminate on grounds of gender, ethnicity, and social status.  Different groups (such as Palestinians, Dom, and Bedouins) have found themselves institutionally rejected from entry into the national fabric of Lebanon despite credible claims of genuine links to the state.  Laws are designed to exclude many thousands of individuals in ways that violate principle human rights and fall far short of the biblical teaching of inclusion or, as Volf calls it, embrace.[38]  It can be argued that statelessness is a thoroughly compounded evil in that it is a type of exclusion that launches countless other exclusions.

Again we turn to Hannah Arendt to see statelessness as exclusion in a Volfian sense.[39]  Arendt argues that “the tragedy of the nation-state, and by extension the international system of states, was embodied in the fact that the legal protection of rights extended only to those persons recognized as “nationals.”[40]  Consequently, “the identification of citizenship with nationality rather than humanity became the precondition for effective possession of human rights.”[41]  Nationality is, as she argues, the “the right to have rights;”[42] the right that allows one to access all other rights.[43]  In the absence of nationality the stateless are left only with their humanity and their claim to human rights to protect them.  However, “within an international system predicated upon the supremacy of national sovereignty, human rights cannot be enforced outside the state.”[44]  This leads to a conclusion “that once a person is stripped of her or his political persona and citizenship, that person appears as an abstract human being who, precisely because of this abstraction, does not appear fully human.”[45]    For Arendt, the fundamental ordeal of statelessness is not that it excludes people from belonging to a community, but it effectively results in “expulsion from humanity altogether.”[46]

Nationality laws will naturally include certain individuals while excluding others.  This can be accepted, but when systems produce millions who have no right to any citizenship anywhere, the outcome is a sharp and unforgiving form of exclusion.  Statelessness leaves humans with nothing more than their humanity, which, in today’s organization of nation-states, is the same as belonging “to no internationally recognized community whatever and thus outside of mankind as a whole.”[47]  In a world where God created all things to be bound together in dynamic relationships of differentiation, statelessness should not belong.

[1] As the Forced Migration Review has noted, “there are many organizations (and individuals) inspired by their faith or religion to assist people in need, and many faith leaders and communities who act locally to provide protection and aid.”(Marion Couldrey and Maurice Herson, “Faith and Response to Displacement: Letter from Editors,” Forced Migration Review 48 (2014): 3.
[2] Rupen Das, Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom (Leicester: Langham Global Library, 2015), 27.
[3] Quoted in Das, 24.
[4]Ibid, 27.
[5] Miroslav Volf, “The Nature of the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology 26, no, 1 (2002): 69.
[6] One example is when the Apostle Paul appeals advantageously to his Roman citizenship in the book of Acts chapter 22.
[7] Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), ix.
[8] Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), Kindle Location 174.
[9] Ibid, Kindle Location 698.
[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd Edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 3.
[11] Ibid, 2.
[12] Ibid, 4.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Bartholomew, Kindle Location 296.
[16] Ibid, Kindle Location 698.
[17] Ibid, Kindle Location 1338.
[18]John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003), 57.
[19] Ibid, 58.
[20] Ibid, 46.
[21] Ibid, 47.
[22] Brueggemann, 6.
[23] Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, The World’s Stateless, (Oisterwijk, The Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2014), 32.
[24] Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism.  Cleveland, OH: the World Publishing Company, 1958.
[25] Brueggemann, 28.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] UNHCR, I Am Here, I Belong: The Urgent Need to End Childhood Statelessness. (UNHCR: Division of International Protection, November 2015), 1.
[29] Inge, 37.
[30] Brueggemann, 28.
[31] Ibid, 7.
[32] Brueggemann quoted in Inge, 35.
[33] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 72.
[34] Ibid, 65.
[35] Ibid, 66.
[36] Ibid, 67.
[37] Ibid, 74.
[38] Gender discrimination is among the most abject examples of institutionalized exclusion and contributors to statelessness.  Lebanese nationality law is further evidence to Volf’s claim “that the problem of sexual difference is the most important challenge humanity faces, more significant than the problems of religious, economic, political, or racial differences and conflicts.” (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 167)
[39] It is important to note that Arendt’s working definition of stateless is broad and includes what is commonly referred to as non-citizens, including those that are “refugees, internally displaced persons, resident aliens and immigrants threatened by denationalization, ineffective nationality, or who are unable to prove either their nationality or that they are legally stateless.”  Her concern is for any case where an individual is, “for all practical purposes, unable to enjoy the rights and protections afforded by citizenship.”  Since this most certainly applies to the study’s definition of statelessness, Arendt’s thoughts are directly applicable to the discussion. (Patrick Hayden, “From Exclusion to Containment: Arendt, Sovereign Power and Statelessness,” Societies Without Borders 3 (2008): 255-256.
[40] Hayden, 252.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Arendt, 296.
[43] Indira Goris, Julia Harrington and Sabastian Kohn, “Statelessness: what it is and why it matters,” Forced Migration Review 32, (2009): 4.
[44] Hayden, 253.
[45] Serena Parekh, “Beyond the ethics of admission: Stateless people, refugee camps and moral obligations,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 40, no.7 (2013): 652.
[46] Arendt, 297.
[47] Arendt quoted in Parekh, 650.

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