In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We Have Forgotten Who We Are

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(This is the fifth in my Radical Reading series. It is also the one of my five essays that can be read as overtly political. I am sorry; the times require it. The topic, however, is not politics, and no political leaders are mentioned in this essay. The essay is a call to fellow people of the Christian faith, and the topic is remembering who we are – and what that means in a time of refugee crisis.)

THE SOS

Sos (Greek: “rescued,” “safe”) nothing is more core to Christian identity than this concept: that we, who were in danger, in peril, without refuge, have been made sos by a Soter (Savior). Each of us is soterion (saved), delivered by a Soter from slavery and from flight, made sos. The early Christians wrote and taught and believed that they were each a soterion, literally a refugee granted refuge. While on earth, they were paroikoi and parepidemoi, strangers in a strange land, sojourners without citizenship, who “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18) in God’s promise that they would find and arrive in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), in which they would have citizenship at last. In which they would be not slaves or exiles but huioi, sons and daughters (Galatians 4:4-6), adopted heirs and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

To my mind, nothing makes it more clear that a large swath of evangelical Christianity in America has sold its soul and lost its heart than the vocal support and encouragement from many quarters for bans on refugees and for walling out the xenoi: the “others,” the “aliens,” the “immigrants.”

THE XENOI

The radical statement of first-century Christianity, recorded in the Gospels and in the Epistles (both Pauline and otherwise)—a statement radical to a Greco-Roman world but traditional in the Hebraic world it was inherited from—was that we are all xenoi. We are all outsiders. The Christ himself was an outsider while on earth, and being one, he was able to welcome all outsiders to break bread with him. The kingdom of heaven, he taught, is like a banquet to which all outsiders are brought in, dressed, fed, and made at home (Matthew 22).

From this core identity as xenoi, as refugees on earth seeking citizenship in a heavenly country, derived the attitudes toward society, community, and alterity that characterized the earliest Christian writings and that often upset Rome’s heavily stratified and deeply xenophobic social order.

Thus, when Peter urges the early Christians to avoid slavery to earthly desires, he abjures them by their identity as refugees:

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [paroikoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)

It is our active remembering of our identity as sojourners that permits us to live differently, Peter insists. A paroikos is literally a “dweller-near,” one who lives outside the house (oikos) and is without citizenship, yet is dwelling near the house: a resident alien. Implicit in the Koine Greek is the idea that these non-citizens live closely in community with citizens; the word emphasizes their nearness to the house, not their distance or their origin in a faraway place. That’s why we often find the word translated “sojourner” rather than “exile.” The other word, parepidemos, means a “passer-through,” one who is here for a time but was not born here and may not die here.

Earth is not our country, Peter reminds us. We are passers-through, we are dwellers-near-but-not-of, and this identity must drive our choices, our beliefs, our commitments to ourselves and others, and our actions.

For the early Christians, the lovers of truth (that is, lovers of aletheia, literally “unforgetting”), the promise you were supposed to actively unforget, from hour to hour, from day to day, was the promise of soteria, of salvation and refuge, of heavenly citizenship. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, early Christians of Jewish descent are urged to remember their Hebrew forefathers who held faithfully to a strong hope of soteria:

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers [xenoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The archetype for the life of faith in Hebrews 11 is the journey of Abraham across Mesopotamia. Abraham, as a xenos, traveled across a wilderness in search of a new home, “hoping against hope” (as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans) for a better country, a country promised but as yet unknown. In the same way, the Hebrew prophets and the first-century Christians, the writer of Hebrews suggests, are xenoi—others, strangers, aliens in the countries they pass through [parepidemoi]. They are willing to endure any hardship on their journey because of the strength of their yearning for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Of such faithful refugees, God is not ashamed; he has prepared for them citizenship in a heavenly polis (city).

The writers of the New Testament are informed here by the Jewish Torah and Nevi’im, by the Old Testament, by the recurring insistence of Moses and the Prophets that we are all strangers in the land, that God may grant us a residence in a promised land, but that we remain sojourners on an earth we do not own. “Shelter the strangers in the land,” Moses says also, “for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebraic law urges that immigrants be treated with justice—“one law, for the homeborn and for the immigrant”—in memory of the time the Hebrews themselves wandered in the wilderness. And, lest they forget that they remain sojourners even today, the festival of Sukkot remains a time when an increasingly settled people are urged to leave their homesteads and their towns and dwell in temporary booths and shelters in the countryside for a brief time.

This is what Deuteronomy instructed its readers to “unforget,” when they would lie down and when they would wake up and when they would walk down the road—this is what they were told to bind on their foreheads and write on their doorposts (Deuteronomy 6): their core identity as refugees and delivered slaves, brought across a wilderness and granted refuge. And it was as their Deliverer, their Rock and their Refuge, that they were to know their God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” – an authoritative line that repeatedly punctuates passages in the Torah.

By recalling in their daily lives that identity as refugees granted Refuge, they would be less likely to live lives of pride—the ostentatious lives of “self-made” people who, secure in their houses, would not see the children starving outside their walls. It is this forgetting that the author of Jeremiah finds so abhorrent in pre-exilic Jerusalem. Idolatry is abhorrent to Jeremiah largely because of what he sees as the consequences of forgetting the covenant; he describes women who bake cakes for Astarte and have houses full of bread while others’ children sit famished in the street outside. These are not the lives, Jeremiah insists, of people of the covenant—of people who live in daily awareness that their homes are temporary, of people who know their history as refugees and sojourners granted safety at last.

Terence (who, according to the writers of antiquity, was himself a freed slave of foreign birth who became one of the great playwrights in the Roman world) famously wrote, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; therefore I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” There are no xenoi or paroikoi in Terence’s thinking; all humans are in the oikos, in the house. There are no dwellers-near who lack citizenship in humanity.

The early Christians, commenting on the Torah, arrive at a similar sentiment, but from an opposite point of origin: We are all outside the house. We are all strangers in the land; knowing this, no human can be a stranger to me. We are all xenoi, and we are all refugees. Because we are all shivering in the cold outside the house, and because we are all passing through a strange land hoping for refuge, it is no longer either desirable or rational ethically to wall anyone out. This was more than a metaphor for Paul, for Peter, for the author of the letter to the Hebrews: it was a way of describing the lived experience of a disinherited and diasporic people granted a new hope, a hope of citizenship in a city they had never seen, a city they had not built, a city to which they were being delivered by a Soter, a city they believed they were called to live their lives worthy of.

If evangelical Christians today forget their identity as xenoi and paroikoi—as refugees on the earth—then they will forget both their Soter (Savior) and what it means to be sos (saved, given refuge). If men and women of faith permit themselves to “harden their heart” (Jesus’s phrase) against refugees and deceive themselves into thinking themselves owners of homes (oikoi) and “homelanders” whose country must be defended against all comers, then they will have forgotten who they are. The entire story of the New Testament is that of refugees granted a heavenly city, brought there out of violence and sin and pain by a heavenly Soter, and then urged to imitate that Soter and to live as “citizens of heaven.”

How do citizens of heaven live? How did the Savior live? By giving refuge. By rescuing others. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That is what it means to live as a community of what the Romans (who were obsessed with security, with law and order, with property, “their minds set on earthly things,”) called “the little Christs,” the Christians.

To see refugees as “others” is to forget yourself.

It is to forget your core identity as xenoi, as others.

It is to forget your core identity as the sos, the refugees saved.

THE PTOCHOI EN PNEUMATI

How did we get here?

How did we forget, as people of faith, that we are the outsiders, not the insiders—that we are the sojourners “dwelling near” (paroikoi) the house, not the dwellers in the house. We have forgotten that earth is the wilderness and heaven is our home. We let go of the truth: the aletheia, the ongoing act of “unforgetting.” We forgot that we are exiles and that we are poor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With these words, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount. In Koine Greek, the word chosen here for “the poor” is the most extreme word possible: hoi ptochoi. This is not hoi penoi (the day-laborers without savings accounts, working for their daily bread) or hoi penichroi (those needing daily bread), but hoi ptochoi, the utterly without-refuge.

To be poor in this way—to be ptochos—is to be unclothed, to be utterly destitute and without resources and to know it. To be ptochos is to be stripped of everything, your skin bare to wind and weather. The man who is ptochos lies naked in the dirt, his face pressed to the ground, utterly at the mercy of the one he is pleading to. To be ptochos en pneumati—poor in spiritis to know that you are made of ashes, that you will go back to ashes, that belief in your own sufficiency is a delusion.

It is that delusion—that faith in our bank account, or in our personal virtue, or in the solidity of our house, or in our cunning, or in our family heritage, or in our religious standing—that keeps us from living big, blessed lives. (Makarioi, “the blessed,” as I discuss in Lives of Unstoppable Hope, are literally those whose lives are made big in the sense of their impact on others; like Abraham, others’ lives are blessed—made bigger—through them. The root of makarios, “blessed,” is mak, “big”; in English, we get macro and mega from that same root).

The Emperor cannot be big and blessed in his new clothes, because those new clothes in which he is so confident are nothing more than an illusion. They might blow away at the wind of a child’s words. Even so, might our house or our religious standing or our bank account or our cunning fail us. Like the Emperor in the story, we all of us stand naked in the cold world, but some of us, experts in denial, choose to believe we are clothed.

The ptochoi en pneumati—the poor in spirit—are not blessed because they are poor, because they are naked, or because they are without resources.

They are blessed and able to live big lives because they know they are poor, naked, and without resources.

And, recognizing their own nakedness, the “poor in spirit” are no longer able to lord their possessions over others, or to look upon the unclothed with contempt. Yearning themselves for refuge, it would be nonsensical of them to deny refuge to others. (And, recognizing themselves as xenoi, the “poor in spirit” cannot afford xenophobia.)

They are the Emperors who have stopped believing in their invisible clothing. Naked, nothing more can be stripped from them. Poor, nothing more can be stolen from them. These are the people who can live day to day, as Mother Teresa did. These are the people who can lie on their side in the dirt without pride or self-imposed stigma, as Ezekiel did, if by doing so they might move the hearts of others, or who can sit night after night beside a loved one who suffers, if by doing so they might offer one sliver of comfort. These are the people that can march in defense of civil rights, no matter what slurs or fists or bullets are hurled at their faces. They have given the day to a higher cause or a higher God than themselves: “. . . having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

These vagrants, these exiles, these poor in spirit, seek a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They yearn for our world to be more like that. They may march, they may weep, they may doubt, they may die, but they will never give up. The call home—the allure and vision of a world where no man is oppressed, no woman is beaten, and no child suffers needless illness, hunger, or violence—is too insistent to ignore.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the first beatitude and the first description in the Gospels of living the saved life, the blessed life, of living life as a citizen of heaven.

THE CALL TO UNFORGET

If Christianity is to be not only “relevant” but critical and active in the years ahead, people of faith must remember who they are. We must remember—in fact, we must unforget, from hour to hour—that we are sos (saved). We must find ourselves again—as refugees on earth, as strangers in the land, as strangers to whom no other human being can be strange. As others (xenoi) who “other” no one. As citizens of heaven, hoping for a new city and yearning for home.

Our Soter requires that we hold to this truth (this aletheia, this “unforgetting”) and thus hold to Him.

Our fellow human beings require that we unforget that we are xenoi together—because, having forgotten, we are hurting them.

And we must do this unforgetting for ourselves, too. Because what will it profit us if we gain “the world” but forfeit our soul?

Stant Litore