Yet until recently this migrant identity has not been part of my theological reflection. Being involved in planning and teaching a course dealing with the church and migration stimulated me to begin to reflect on the theological challenge posed by the movement of people across the world as an integral and pervasive feature of globalization. The recent sinking of a ship drowning over 800 refugees in the Mediterranean, the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, and reports of refugee boats being turned away from Malaysia and Indonesia have sharpened this challenge for me.
To rephrase Wesley’s famous quote from a European perspective: “The world is coming to our parish.” What does this mean for the church? In a recent Blog Michael Nausner discussed some aspects of this challenge. I plan to continue the discussion in a few blogs reflecting theologically on different aspects of this challenge.
The presence of “the world in our parish” provides an often ignored but profoundly radical challenge to the way we think about what it means to be the church. It is radical because it confronts us with a long forgotten understanding of the identity of the church that is ironically hidden in the word “parish”. In contemporary English parish refers to a small bounded local area. The related word “parochial” refers to being focused on a local area to the exclusion of the broader world.
The irony is that the word parish comes from the Greek word parokia which means a stranger or a sojourner. It was a word used by the early church to describe itself (see I Peter 2:11) as communities of foreigners who were never fully at home in the societies in which they lived. They were strangers because they owed an ultimate loyalty to the One who was rejected by the religious and political establishment and then tortured and executed as an enemy of the empire.
The presence of the world in our parish is a call to remind us that our primary identity and loyalty can never be defined by citizenship of a particular nation state. The church can never be “at home” in any country or socio-political system, for we are citizens of the dominion of the Crucified One. The church is always to be a restless community of foreigners looking for and embodying in a partial way the coming dominion of the Jesus. It is from this identity that we should address the ethical challenge posed by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (a topic for a later blog).
The presence of the world in our parish reminds us that the community of the Crucified transcends national and geographic. Significant numbers of the migrants coming to Europe and North America are Christians – many are Methodists; in fact, many are United Methodists. To be a Christian, to be a Methodist, to be a United Methodist, is to be part of an international community of communities. We are part of the “catholic” church, in the words of the Apostles creed, or to use a more contemporary word, “ecumenical” church; that is, the church that is present across the whole inhabited world.
The presence is a summons to break out of a “parochial” mindset (in its contemporary English meaning) and discovers our spiritual siblings in other countries and continents, people who live in such situations of need that they engage in long, potentially deadly journeys in search of a new life. Many of us are ignorant of the lives of these fellow members of the church – these strangers who come and those strangers who die on the way.
It is a particular challenge to the UMC as a church that affirms its identity as an international or even global church. To be an international or global church is not merely about participating in mission trips, nor about sending finances and resources to people in need, nor about the logistic and theological complications of having people from other countries at General Conference; it is about the challenge to recognize these people as our spiritual siblings, fellow members of the body of Christ whose lives, sufferings and joys ought to be part of our primary concern. The question is how can we embody this in the structures of the UMC, in the lives of our local congregations, and in the programs of our General Boards, agencies and other institutions, not as an extra concern, but as integral to our identity?