A Theological Exploration of Statelessness: Part 4- Statelessness in Light of Heavenly Citizenship

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 4 continues the theological discussion on statelessness.

Statelessness in Light of Heavenly Citizenship

Ambitious initiatives are actively addressing the widespread statelessness problem, but what if remedies are not found?  What if statelessness numbers remain or increase?  Regrettably, the underlying issues of statelessness look to persist in the 21st Century and countless numbers of lives are at high risk of leaving this world having never known official citizenship within it.  So what then of the stateless individual?   Must she resign herself to the lot of the modern world’s sojourner condemned “always to be an outsider, never belonging, always without right, title, or voice in decisions that matter?”[1]  Is her fate in the international nation-state system to be, in the words of Arendt, forever “rightless, the scum of the earth?”[2]  While scripture decries statelessness as an egregious exclusion and a violation of God’s design for creation, tragedy need not be the final story.  The Bible reveals a message of freshness and hope in the midst of a lifeless situation by transforming the notion of what belonging to place, what a real citizenship, truly means.   A faithful reading of scripture provides reason to reject statelessness as a narrative of defeat for with God there is a new story for the stateless to tell.  Discussion now calls for a return to the wilderness narrative.

As previously stated, wilderness struck Ancient Israel with an overwhelming physical, psychological and spiritual struggle for survival in a barren state of landlessness.  In the despair of lifeless wilderness, Israel is tempted to forsake the promise of land and return to Egypt where there “may have been slavery but it was filled with life-giving resources.”[3]  Nevertheless, God protests against apparent despair and preserves His people.  Israel does not return to bondage and she does not perish in the wilderness. The ultimate testimony of the wilderness narrative, according to Brueggemann, is not one of hunger but nourishment; not one of death but life.  In the midst of landlessness and disorder, God faithfully shows Himself to Israel to ensure that she lack nothing.[4] In a most gracious of paradoxes, “He acted decisively to make for landless Israel an environment as rich and nourishing as any landed people had ever known.”[5]  Contrary to the order and prosperity of Egypt, wilderness is not managed land but it can indeed be gifted land.[6]  God surprises Israel by showing that, when He is present, even a land without resource will sustain life.  The enduring memory for Israel is that “[God] is seen in the wilderness, the sure and certain sign that he is with his people in their land of abandonment, with them in his inscrutable way to transform situation.”[7]

The stateless may be abandoned by today’s international political institutions, stuck in a “wilderness” beyond the nation-state system, but they need not suffer a final abandonment.  They may be denied citizenship’s protections and privileges but they are not without the mercies of God; He works with the sojourners in the wilderness to make “protests answered, bellies filled, needs supplied, cries heard!”[8]  God’s kindness and care for sojourning Israel is a testimony that the stateless too are given nourishment and life as they struggle to actualize rights and stake location.  Brueggemann could be discussing statelessness when he asks, “what would it mean for the rootless in our own time to discover that he is a god peculiarly present to the landless, but in ways consistent with the experience of landlessness, which means less than sure and guaranteed?”[9]  It would mean the stateless individual has great hope in this life for her wilderness is not far from God and it is not final.  She can proclaim that “[God’s] glory is known, his presence discerned, and his sovereignty acknowledged… to transform the situation from emptiness to satiation, from death to life, from hunger to bread and meat.”[10]

While the Bible contends that statelessness need not mean lifelessness, the stateless individual still remains without crucial recognition in today’s world.  What does this mean in heavenly terms?  Is there a type of membership that supersedes any other form of membership in this world?  The Bible provides hopeful responses to such questions in teaching that ultimate citizenship is not found within any nation-state but within God alone.  A new understanding of statelessness is therefore in order, one demonstrating that though the stateless may lack an important form of belonging she need not lack the essential belonging.

It is important to acknowledge that place in this world is, and always has been, fundamentally problematic.  Brueggemann points out that land has never succeeded in achieving its potential.  A chronic problem for Ancient Israel was that “the very land that promised to create space for human joy and freedom became the very source of dehumanizing exploitation and oppression…time after time, Israel saw the land of promise become the land of a problem.”[11]  Israel too often distorted the dynamic relationship between God, people and land by turning to the gift of land, rather than the giver, to secure her protection.[12]  The consequence was episodes of Godly judgment via exile and landlessness.  Place has ever since failed to secure human fulfillment, especially in our contemporary globalized world where “we have lost the very human sense of place.”[13]  Our current international political system contributes to this crisis.  The triumph of the nation-state during the 20th Century, in the words of Elie Wiesel, ushered “the age of the expatriate, the refugee, the stateless-the wanderer.”[14]  Arendt has convincingly critiqued the nation-state system’s failure to protect the rights of the non-citizen, but citizenship too falls short of securing the essential need for place and belonging.[15]  If nation-state citizenship cannot provide wholeness, is there any type of citizenship that can?  The Bible believes so.

Scripture contends that God is indeed concerned with “rootage” in the global system of nation-states, but ultimate concern for human placement lies within the eternal Kingdom of God.  God’s desire for His chosen people in the Old Testament was to provide a preview of the kingdom that would come when His reign arrived in fullness.  Prophetic scripture paints a picture of a coming place where sorrow ceases, pain is no more and injustice eliminated.[16]  Jesus built on this tradition by personally proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom, but a peculiar kingdom it was.  Rather than establishing a realm, he declared a reign of God where all spatial elements are superseded by heavenly dominion.  The gospels thus present a world where “sacred space is no longer defined simply in terms…but wherever Jesus is present with his followers.”[17]  Such truth makes earthly entities of every kind, including the nation-state, ultimately inconsequential.  “No longer is a geographical place a destination of religious faithfulness”[18] nor can any form of earthly nationality grant a heavenly identity.  Jesus instructs in Matthew 6:33 to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and prioritizes belonging to a domain free of time-space restraints; the only kingdom that is an everlasting kingdom. (Psalm 145:13)  The Apostle Paul emphatically accentuates the point when he announces to God’s people, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)  Today’s stateless may lack official nationality but they do have access to the most important of citizenships.

The Bible’s ordering of placement calls believers to embrace the experience of landlessness and become sojourners of promise.  This theme permeates through scripture, especially in the narratives of the Patriarchs of Genesis.  Abraham faced a perilous prospect when he heeded God’s command, “Get from your country, from your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)  Expulsion from his land of family roots and memory launched a period of practical landlessness that threatened to dissolve into a saga of displacement.  However, instead of landless tragedy God reveals in Abraham a narrative of what Brueggemann deems a second biblical history about land.  It is a history that speaks profoundly to the condition of statelessness.

While scripture’s first history of land involves “people fully rooted in land living toward expulsion and loss of land,” the second is “about not having land but being on the way toward it and living in confident expectation of it.”[19] Abraham and his family exhibit a people not in possession of place, but rather in possession of promise and faith-filled anticipation of its fulfillment.[20]  This second history presents another type of sojourner, not a hopeless wonderer but a pilgrim “clearly being on the way somewhere.”[21]  Though denied a place that claims him as its own, “he knows of a promised place, and that changes his sojourn.”[22]  The theme is found throughout scripture.  Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were never settled in a place yet always firmly at home in the promises of God and the hope of placement for their heirs.[23]  Though Ancient Israel was tempted to decry the “wilderness as unbearable abandonment to be avoided by return to slavery,” the Bible emphatically asserts that the passage through wilderness is in fact “the route of promise on the way to land.”[24]  The theme is affirmed when the psalmist declares himself before God a sojourner of this world (Psalm 39:12, 119:19). The New Testament likewise calls believers to become anticipating sojourners, “for we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).  Scripture is essentially a narrative of journey, and here we see that “the aim of this journey, indeed the destination of this pilgrimage, is never a place, never a geographic location: it is salvation provided by God.”[25]

Where does this leave the stateless of today as they navigate the insecurity of living excluded from the community of nation-states?  Can the stateless claim a place, a “rootage”, as real as any provided by citizenship?  The Bible claims such.  Stateless individuals know all too well Brueggemann’s statement that “our lives are set between expulsion and anticipation, of losing and expecting, of being uprooted and re-rooted, of being dislocated because of impertinence and being relocated in trust.”[26]  In many ways they epitomize the struggle of existing “between” as they suffer the modern world’s flux without the protections of legal status.  Yet the Bible protests against any final exclusion for the stateless.  The enduring message of scripture is clear: True human placement is not found in any physical place among us, but rather in God calling us out into a new consciousness.[27]  The ultimate hope for the stateless, and for all, is that “the anticipation, the promise, is of landedness, a place which is rooted in the word of God.”[28]

In the New Testament’s arrangement of land, any form of geographic placement is supplanted by being ‘in-Christ.’  According to biblical scholar W.D. Davies, Jesus elevates dimensions of place by spiritualizing land and creating a new reality where “the person of Jesus becomes ‘the place’ which replaces all holy places.”[29]  When the beatitude states “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:5) the inheritance is for a divine kingdom, not a physical entity.[30]  The New Testament is therefore much more concerned with individuals being ‘in-Christ’ than being in any physical land, for “inheritance ‘in-Christ’= the land of Christians, the new creation.”[31]  Jesus upends old concepts of place and reorders the meaning of true location.  As Brueggemann states:

Jesus embodies precisely what Israel has learned about land: being without land makes it possible to trust the promise of it, while grasping land is the sure way to lose it.  The powerful are called to dispossession.  The powerless are called to power.  The landed are called to homelessness. The landless are given a new home. Both are called to discipleship, to be “in Christ,” to submit to the one who has become the embodiment of the new land.[32]

The revelation of the Kingdom of God causes us to rethink the very status of the stateless.  By positioning the true meaning of place within the person of Jesus rather than any physical entity, scripture suggests that the stateless actually occupy a spiritually privileged position within the arrangement of God’s kingdom.  Lebanese scholar Martin Accad echoes such sentiment when he says, “In the Bible’s perspective, it is the stateless first, the non-citizens, the refugees and immigrants-before those of us who are complacently “stateful.”[33], [34]

Stateless individuals around the world protest against their deprivation by forging life even when their very lives are officially unrecognized.   The actions of vocation, marrying, growing families, and setting stakes in unwelcoming ground are in and of themselves acts of defiance against systems that refuse to honor human dignity.  In their audacity to carry on life amidst the denial of place, the stateless demonstrate the core biblical assertion that “the human community need no longer live away from the land, always departing and being driven out, but can live toward the land, always on the way in joy.”[35]  For in Christ, and within the firm placement of God’s kingdom, the condition of statelessness is but a temporary struggle that will be finally remedied with fulfillment of the promise of a new place, a new creation.  Inge’s words are a testimony of scripture’s enduring message of hope to the non-citizen and the citizen alike when he states:

The ultimate importance of the material that the Christian faith declares is something to which sacramental encounters in the church and the world point.  They point towards our ultimate destiny which is to be implaced, where the nature of the places in which we will find ourselves will be a transfigured version of the places here and now. [36]

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd Edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 6.
[2] Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism.  Cleveland, OH: the World Publishing Company, 1958, 267.
[3] Brueggemann, 29.
[4] This is seen most practically in the daily provision of manna and quail, physical reminders of God’s presence bringing life to wilderness.
[5] Brueggemann, 31.
[6] Ibid, 33.
[7] Ibid, 38.
[8] Ibid, 30.
[9] Ibid, 38.
[10] Ibid, 31.
[11] Brueggemann quoted in John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003), 40.
[12] Inge, 45.
[13] Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), Kindle Location 183.
[14] Wiesel quoted in Inge, 15.
[15] Political philosopher Aliastair Macintyre presents a scathing, yet admittedly witty, appraisal when he declares: “The modern state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, and never does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere…it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” Quoted in Inge, 126.
[16] Rupen Das, Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom (Leicester: Langham Global Library, 2015), 57.
[17] J.K. Riches quoted in Bartholomew, Kindle Location 2061.
[18] Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 99.
[19] Brueggemann, 15.
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid, 6.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid, 22-25.
[24] Ibid, 35.
[25] Burge, 102.
[26] Brueggemann, 15-16.
[27] Ibid, 16.
[28] Inge, 37.
[29] W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land, (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), 318.
[30] Inge, 362.
[31] Ibid, 219.
[32] Brueggemann, 171-170.
[33] Martin Accad, “’The World is Yours!’ A Brief Reflection on Citizenship and Stewardship,” The Institute of Middle East Studies. Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, 30 July, 2015, https://imeslebanon.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/the-world-is-yours-a-brief-reflection-on-citizenship-and-stewardship/ (accessed 28 August, 2015).
[34]Ibid.  Accad draws this thought by considering how today’s non-citizen, among other marginalized, fit within the words of 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have mercy.”  The discussion begs him to ask within the article: “Many Palestinians, some aboriginal peoples, those whose parents were too poor to have afforded registering them at birth, those who are considered by the world as “stateless” – are they perhaps, in the Biblical worldview, far closer than the average person today to being true citizens of heaven?”
[35] Brueggemann, 16.
[36] Inge, 141.
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