Statelessness: Banned from Belonging

The Institute of Middle East Studies

By Brent Hamoud

Much has been made of US President Trump’s executive decisions temporarily banning select nationals and refugees from entering the USA. The order has been met with opposition in forums ranging from airport terminals to federal courts, which have so far blocked the executive decision from going into full implementation. The ban stirred strong feelings across the globe; there is something about singling out particular nationalities and rejecting the extremely vulnerable that simply does not sit well in the hearts of many. (The topic received the IMES treatment here.)

While I personally have been unsettled by the logic and the implications of Trump’s proposed travel and refugee resettlement ban, I see it as a comparatively small issue compared to a much larger, harsher ban that has been enduring for the better part of the past century.

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Nationality, the Syrian refugee crisis and statelessness

The Syrian Civil War and subsequent refugee crisis is an affair of intense global implication.  It is making an impact on international and domestic policies in states and regions across the globe.  It has saddened me to see a country and people I have long known and loved become synonymous with death, destruction and displacement.  Oftentimes I long for the old days when most people in the world would have been hard-pressed to locate Syria on a map.  Too often looked in this predicament called “Syria” are millions of individual lives that have been tragically turned upside down.  The scale of the statistics is staggering: over 400,000 deaths, 6.5 million internally displaced and over 4.8 million displaced to another country.  Immeasurable numbers of Syrians are struggling to forge life in situations where lifelessness seems the dominant reality.  Every development of this conflict seems to present a new chapter of an unending nightmare.

In the midst of this displacement crisis is the global crisis of statelessness.  For many Syrians statelessness is a daily reality that undermines their pursuits of the most basic rights, opportunities and experiences.  For countless others, the condition looms silently in the shadows constantly threatening to undermine futures.  Though now emerging in new ways, statelessness is a reality that that has long existed in Syria; the current crisis is simply fanning more flames in the hellishness of war.

I have become rather familiar with this problem over the past few years because 1) I have engaged in intensive studies on statelessness in recent months and 2) many of my Syrian refugee family members are directly encountering statelessness and its threat.  The recent release of Understanding Statelessness in the Syrian Refugee Context from the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion and the Norwegian Refugee Council is a boon of knowledge and clarification concerning this complex situation. The document provides a comprehensive picture of Syrian nationality and statelessness from legal and social dimensions and provides a toolkit with specific information pertaining to the various countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees.  In an unexpected way I found the report to be rather optimistic and positive (which is surprising because I usually find seems most statelessness literature rather despairing and draining).  This isn’t because the problem is minimized or downplayed in the report but because it emphasizes the pathways and opportunities for statelessness to be curtailed among Syria’s displaced populations.  It affirms that nationality is in reach for many, many Syrians and provides information on the practical ways this can be achieved.

Even so, many challenges exist that make this report urgent and significant.  The stakes are high and action is needed in order to see that many Syrians actualize their right to nationality.  Churches in Lebanon and elsewhere in the MENA region have in many ways been at the forefront of responding to the Syrian refugee crisis.  The situation has demanded that churches stretch their reach into new horizons of humanitarian action.  The resulting consequence in many contexts has been spiritual and practical renewal as faith communities discover that the very heart of the gospel is revealed and magnified by serving “the least of these.”  As many church leaders in the region are testifying, we are experiencing a new season in the life of the Church in the Middle East, and it isn’t all doom and gloom.  My hope is that as churches worldwide continue their outreach to refugees, especially Syrian refugees, that they will recognize nationality as an urgent human need and take action to provide this to those in need.  It’s a big undertaking, but this document is a great way to start the process.

Please visit for more information about this important topic.

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.

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, (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.

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.