A Theological Exploration of Statelessness: Part 5-A Nuanced Theological Reflection on Statelessness

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 5 concludes the 3-post theological discussion on statelessness.

The study has so far provided two predominant theological streams for framing the problem of statelessness.  One stream exposes statelessness as a grave injustice incompatible with God’s intention for creation while a second stream minimizes all earthly affiliation by magnifying heavenly citizenship above any other. Both streams proceed from biblical teaching, but the question remains if either one alone is suitable for fostering the church’s heart and mind towards effective engagement with statelessness.  On the one hand, recognizing statelessness as contrary to God’s desire for humanity is essential for beginning any meaningful response.  An evil cannot begin to be addressed until it is rightly identified as deplorable sin.  Simply working to make citizens of heaven while simultaneously showing little concern for their nation-state membership status effectively resigns the stateless to lives of deprivation, struggle and violation.[1]  On the other hand, it would be severely shortsighted to suggest that nationality can secure an individual’s need for placement. Recognizing heavenly citizenship as the ultimate, above-all citizenship is essential for experiencing true belonging and wholeness.  This study suggests that a good theological posture for the church synthesizes primary streams into a robust river of biblical theology for statelessness.

Theological discussion must be anchored on all sides by a firm understanding of the central mission of Christ for in it the church finds her fundamental purpose as “the continuation of Christ’s anointing by the Spirit.” [2]  The gospels consistently display Jesus’ core ministry of restoring individuals to wholeness.  By pursuing the derelicts of society (the outcast, sinner, maimed, and possessed), Christ acted scandalously against the norms of the day in a singular focus of “making whole of bodies, persons, and relationships.”[3]  Though ever-focused on spiritual restoration, Jesus never neglected the importance of practical well-being.  He demonstrated that “the rebirth of persons who live in this material world, and who with this world make up the good creation of God, cannot be complete without the redemption of their bodies.”[4]  Placement is part of such redemption as it works to give the landless a secure place of belonging.[5]  Jesus desires to see the non-citizen restored to citizenship and the “rightless” to rights.  The stateless have solace in knowing their plight is at the very heart of Christ’s gospel; “things that seem hopeless need not stay as they are.”[6]  As Brueggemann states, “Jesus’ ministry affirms that the land promise is still in effect.  And it is operative precisely for those who are without land.  His actions serve to fulfill that promise for the seemingly rejected heirs.”[7]    When considering statelessness, it is essential to keep mindful that “the Bible never denies that there is landlessness or that it is deathly.  But it rejects every suggestion that landlessness is finally the will of Yahweh.”[8]

While most will acknowledge that statelessness is an unfortunate condition in need of a remedy, the depth of political implication in the Lebanese context easily thwarts meaningful action.  As such, the temptation for the local church is to minister to stateless individuals while leaving the systems that create statelessness unengaged.  This cannot do; Jesus’ mission and message was not just for individual souls, but “was inescapably and deeply social, even political.”[9]  As Volf remarks, “by making the “Kingdom of God” the central feature of his message and “the poor,” the main recipients of his good news, Jesus gave an unmistakably political edge to his whole ministry.”[10]  Therefore the church cannot be faithful to the mission of Christ without exhibiting social engagement.  So says Volf:

The church ought to pursue its social mission out of the heart of its own identity.  We must retrieve and explicate the social meaning of the divine self-giving in order to reconcile sinful humanity.  Ministry has an inalienable social dimension because reconciliation between human beings is intrinsic to their reconciliation with God.[11]

Providing faithful witness of Christ among statelessness in Lebanon requires that the church navigate a delicate walk of engaging society and politics while not becoming primarily political.  After all, “Jesus had no aspirations to political leadership, and he did more, much more, than what we would expect of a politician.”[12]  The very nature of Lebanese statelessness ought to make the church a threat to social and political status quos just as Jesus was a threat to the establishments of exclusion during his time.  Brueggemann’s words appropriately capture the tension between Jesus’ teachings and the Lebanese system of nationality exclusion, the political “game of numbers,” when he says, “Jesus and his gospel are rightly received as a threat.  The new enlandment is a threat to the old arrangements.  And he evokes resistance from those who wish to preserve how it had been.”[13]  It is not enough for the church to simply address individual cases of statelessness; she must demonstrate God’s heart to the stateless by being an active prophetic voice against unjust systems.  It is a voice that preaches “radical transformation of a historical, political situation” in proclaiming “the good news that god transforms those who are displaced and makes them a home, gives them secure turf.”[14]  How different statelessness would look if the church was faithful to declare the full extent of the good news.

Holistic engagement with statelessness is concerned with the sociological and political dimensions of nationality status while also considering eternal realities.  The church must recognize the Kingdom of God by working to make citizens of earth and citizens of heaven.  This more than recognition of a future state that will someday arrive to terminate all the world’s ills; it is recognition of a reality that is here and now.  As Das states, “the reign of God, which will one day come in all its fullness, has already started with the coming of Christ.”[15]

The church must now be a “community that gathers.”[16]  Volf sees this function as central to God’s work of redemption: “As the community of faith reaches into the world to touch all dimensions of its life, it will find that the Spirit of Christ at work in the community is the Spirit of life at work in the whole creation.”[17]  This work includes gathering people into the community of nation-states as well as into God’s dynamic community of faith.  What the Apostle Paul wrote of Gentile believers should be true of the stateless, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)  Fellow citizenship must be sought at all levels, the worldly and the heavenly.

The church’s ministry of redemption fits into something Volf considers the converse of exclusion: embrace.  Embrace as a concept “combines the thought of reconciliation with the thought of dynamic and mutually conditioning identities.”[18]  Its practice is seen fully on the cross where “God renews the covenant by making space for humanity in God’s self;” the open arms of Jesus show “a sign that God does not want to be a God without the other-humanity- and suffers humanity’s violence in order to embrace it.”[19]  Place is the natural setting for God to display embrace.  As Craig Bartholomew states, “Place is a creational structure involving space and time, subjectivity and objectivity, self and other.  God has made the world such that these components are established in relation to each other only within the structure of place.”[20]  Therefore the church is needed to play a leading role of acting out the drama of embrace within the theater of place.  As Inge states:

The Christian community can witness to the fact that roots, place and destination are all important to human existence.  It needs to help the rest of the world to recover some imagination about what place can be, for how we imagine communities and places of the future becomes part of what our future is.[21]

In the current context of the international nation-state system, citizenship is a significant way for the church to be agents of embrace.  The practical importance of citizenship is evident, but there are profound emotive and cognitive dimensions as well.  While citizenship denotes a type of community, it is something more “since it implies responsibility for making community happen in a particular place.” [22] At all levels of place (local, national and global), the relationship between communities and places mutually reinforce the identity of the other, and good citizenship promotes this dynamic in positive ways. [23]  Making citizens out of those who are not citizens is a crucial step to fostering places where reconciliation can happen between mutually conditioning identities.  In Lebanon, and certainly all the world, shared possession of official nationality is imperative for fostering embrace.

Much of the aforementioned argument is of little necessity if we simply draw from the basic principles taught and lived by Jesus.  In the “Nazareth Manifesto” Christ emphatically proclaimed, “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)  The declaration reveals that “compassion was at the core of His ministry and what He did…the advocacy for justice and proclamation of the Good News that the Kingdom of God had now come and will one day come in all its fullness.”[24]

The church is to do what has always been required of God’s people: act with compassion.  God gifted Ancient Israel with land and instructed them to care for one another, especially the landless.[25]  The Law and Prophets demand compassion and justice towards the ‘stateless’ by commanding concern for the stranger, the exile, the foreigner, and the sojourner.  Christ builds on the message when he asserts that God’s people will be identified by their compassion.  This is seen vividly in the imagery of Matthew 25 when the King gathers all nations and welcomes those on His right into the kingdom explaining that “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (35-36).  Let us not be surprised at the gathering of all nations if the King welcomes His people into the inheritance of the kingdom and says, “I was stateless, and you gave me citizenship.  Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The church’s position towards statelessness ought not to dismiss nation-state citizenship for heavenly citizenship, nor should its concern be limited to simply achieving nation-state membership.  Christ-honoring engagement with statelessness recognizes the need for coalesced theological streams to provide robust theology that is deeply mindful of the importance of belonging to the world’s political systems while likewise rooted in the hope of belonging to God’s eternal kingdom.  God’s desire is for all people to experience a true dual citizenship, citizens of heaven and citizens of this world.

[1] One can approach the matter by considering the following:  It would be unthinkable to tell someone fighting cancer, “Don’t worry, you will be healed in heaven.  There’s no need to concern ourselves with your healing in this world.”  Nor would a Christ-follower engage victims of slavery with the logic, “You will be free in heaven, no need to concern ourselves with your freedom in this world.”  Such attitudes are wildly incompatible with Biblical faith, yet often the attitude to the stateless says something along these lines, “You can be citizens of heaven.  No need to concern ourselves with your earthly citizenship.”
[2]Miroslav Volf, “The Nature of the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology 26, no, 1 (2002): 69.
[3] Ibid, 70.
[4] Ibid, 74.
[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd Edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 163.
[6] Ibid, 126.
[7] Ibid, 163.
[8] Ibid, 119.
[9] Volf, Nature of the Church, 71.
[10] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 112.
[11] Volf, Nature of the Church, 73-74.
[12] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 112.
[13] Brueggemann, 163.
[14] Ibid, 126.
[15] Das eloquently captures the implications of such a reality: “With the future breaking in now, Jesus through his teaching and actions showed what the reign of God is like.  It meant good news for the poor because one day there would be justice and freedom from exploitation by the rich.  Those living in the edges of society, the lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors would be treated with dignity of God created human beings.  Justice would reign and there would be peace from the violence that had torn the land.  The process had begun with Christ’s first coming, giving us glimpses of what it would be like when Christ returns and the reign of God is evident in all its fullness.” (Rupen Das, Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom (Leicester: Langham Global Library, 2015), 85-86)
[16] Volf, Nature of the Church, 75.
[17] Ibid, 75.
[18] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 156.
[19] Ibid, 154.
[20] Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), Kindle Location 4724.
[21] John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003), 137.
[22] Ibid, 132.
[23] Ibid, 133.
[24] Das, 69.
[25] Brueggemann, 61.
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