Searching for Home: North American (Im)migration and the Reign of God

Searching for Home: North American (Im)migration and the Reign of God

This address was published in the March 2018 issue of Ecumenical Trends (Vol. 47, No. 3), a publication of Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute, Garrison, New York.

It may have something to do with the peripatetic nature of the ministry I’ve engaged in the last couple of decades, but I am increasingly aware of and convinced of the enduring truth of all the journey imagery in scripture.  It begins in the garden, as the earth creatures are sent forth and the gate barred behind them.[1]  Abraham and Sarah lead one of the principal voyage teams, who travel a sizeable part of the Middle East.  Moses and his clan leave Egypt for another land; the Hebrew prophets and John the baptizer urge road-building in the desert, and Advent and Incarnation both pave the way and make the road concrete – i.e., incarnate.  Our journey and human longing are homeward bound – for our ultimate home is in God, and God’s home for all is the peace that comes with right relationship or justice.  The homeward journey is life’s work for each one of us, for all humanity, and indeed for all creation.

We can see the same pattern in the deeper structure of the universe.  All that is has erupted from a singularity, expanding explosively, as time and space emerge together, as matter develops in complexifying star-cauldrons, alternately spewn forth into space and gravitationally gathered into new stars and occasional planets.  All is in motion, from the smallest particle or wave-field to the largest dimensions of the cosmos.[2]  This planet earth, our island home, is at least one locus of self-awareness, and while there may be others we have yet to encounter, we continue to search space for kin.  Our journey is here, although we earthlings rarely seem to act with the intentionality required to keep the whole of this home spic and span.  We’ve fouled the nest, and our scale of activity is rapidly undoing the life-giving qualities of this planetary home.  Some of us may have wild dreams of colonizing other worlds once this one is sufficiently used up or destroyed, yet our own history on this planet has something to teach us about the futility of trying to outrun or escape the worst of our proclivities.

I want to engage our history of journeying, migrating, and looking for home on this planet as a lens through which we might begin to shift our behavior at all scales toward building and/or discovering a home that might continue fruitful for us all.  The word migrate comes from an ancient root that means to change, or go, or move.[3]  In that sense, to be alive is to migrate, whether we speak of growing, learning, or searching for food or work or mates or new possibilities.  It is central to the spiritual journey of transformation, both inwardly as deepened rootedness in the divine and outwardly as justice.  In his recent book, “The Great Spiritual Migration,” Brian McLaren[4] challenges the church to live into our ecclesial vocation, to be semper reformanda.  Like the similar focus on jihad in Islam, Christians take seriously the work of reforming, repenting, and turning back to the path we know in Jesus.  Migration just might be a fresh take on words that have grown stale and static and stationary.

Our human ancestors have been migrating forever.  Our ancestral line of apes came down out of the trees and began to walk on two legs about 4 million years ago.  Our genus Homo is about 3 million years old, by then making tools, and by about 2 million years ago had spread beyond Africa.  A million years ago, species of hominids had migrated to China and SE Asia, as well as Europe.  The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived in Europe at least 600,000 years ago.  A third species (Denisovans) diverged from Neanderthals around 200,000 ya and is known to have been in SE Asia at least 40,000 ya and made unique genetic contributions to Melanesian and aboriginal Australian populations.  Geneticists estimate that the common ancestors of all extant human beings lived in East Africa 100-200,000 years ago.  That population likely shrank to around 15,000 individuals during a climate catastrophe about 70,000 ya.[5]  Our people were few in number, and nearly disappeared, yet the creative power of the universe brought a new and more conscious kind of life into being.[6]  Three ancestral species of Homo:  sapiensneanderthalensis, and altai (Denisovans) interbred until about 50,000 years ago and with other African hominins until perhaps 40,000 years ago.  Individuals and their DNA have been migrating forever.

Homo sapiens first reached the Near East about 125,000 ya, Yemen 75,000 ya, S Asia 50,000 ya, and Australia 46,000 ya.  Our species was present in Europe 43,000 ya, where they replaced Neanderthals within another 15,000 years.  Modern humans were in E Asia 30,000 ya.  The ancestors of indigenous peoples in the Americas probably reached North America at least 15,000 ya by the Beringian land bridge and spread across the Americas.  A later wave likely also migrated along the coast, particularly contributing to the indigenous populations of the northern Arctic and Greenland only in the last few thousand years.  A third wave is represented in the peoples who speak the related De’ne languages of the Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Apache-Navajo peoples.[7]

The temporal and geographic diversity of migration routes and populations has produced a human species with genetic contributions from several closely related ancestors.  Migration has been part of our history since before we were truly human, and it has contributed to the remarkably varied cultures and lifeways of all humanity.  Human beings have made homes almost everywhere they have gone – islands in the Pacific, the frozen Arctic, tropical forests, savannahs and deserts both cold and hot, and high in the mountains of South America and Asia.  Human beings, like their ancestors, have migrated in search of adequate food – plants, fish, and fowl, and the large animals of land and sea.  They’ve gone looking for easier climates and sought mates among friend and foe.  We and our ancestors searched for things we’ve believed valuable – clay for pots; metals for forging; pigment, baubles, stones and shells for adornment; feathers, plants, animal hides for building materials and clothing.  When we learned to farm we sought land for planting and water for growing.  We also have a long history of violence in seeking the goods of land and sea and sky, appropriating them for our own use, and driving out competitors.

The biblical narrative takes us from cosmic creation, including humanity, to earthlings planted in a garden for a season.  Their yearning for knowledge sets them on an ages-long search for home; we, their heirs, are still looking.  God sends Abram and Sarai out of Haran in search of a new home.  They get to Canaan and keep moving, to Egypt, and then back again.  Always there are struggles over who owns what and which land belongs to whom.  Yet eventually our ancestors began to tell our story as a search for home in God, along the straight road through the wilderness, a way of justice and peace.  This is about more than a plot of land; it’s about opening your hand to neighbors, whether you love, tolerate, or fear them.  The prophets began to challenge us about neighbors everywhere, not just our tribal kin.  We learned that we’re meant to love the difficult ones, the strangers, the widows and orphans and homeless.  We began to dream of God’s Reign, and a government that brings justice and peace everywhere, and a home where all can rejoice, give thanks, and live in harmony.

Just weeks ago we once again celebrated the coming of God among us in human flesh.  Over millennia we have struggled to learn and remember that God is always among us and within us and around us, yes, in human flesh, and also in the very fabric of the universe.  We have epiphanies when we realize or remember that we are at home in God, yet most of us spend most of our lives struggling to recover that knowledge, or to find it for the first time.  We often reject that reality in favor of asserting that we are the masters of the universe, owners of this plot of land or that, or worse, that any piece of this creation is commodity available for our taking.

The Christian chapter of our religious tradition begins in the midst of expansive empire building, and in spite of our Jewish heritage of repeated confrontation with empire and prophetic rejection of domination, we soon began to yearn for royal trappings.  Constantine was convenient, and his era began a very long and sinful history of appropriating lands and peoples who didn’t share our version of religious truth.  The Bible is filled with earlier stories of that struggle, beginning with Cain and Abel.  So is our history since Jesus walked the earth.  By the Middle Ages we were asserting that Christians should make war on Muslims and Jews and any other ‘infidels’ we might run across.  Beginning in the mid-15th century the Western church gave papal warrant to explorers to claim any lands they might find and enslave any peoples they encountered if they were not Christian.  Those formal bulls,[8] promulgated beginning in 1452, underlie what is called the Doctrine of Discovery,[9] and they still provide the underpinnings for land law in the United States and other colonial nations.  The Doctrine justified both European colonialism and the slave trade.  The indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, Africa, and the south Pacific continue to suffer the consequences of European invasion and slavery, and the later and parallel enormities committed by Americans.  The way we’ve interpreted biblical narratives about the promised land and entering Canaan has something to do with this, as well as with our continuing complicity in struggles over the same Middle Eastern geography.  Migration lies at the root of controversy around who should govern the land of the Holy One, as some cry, ‘we were here first!’ and others respond, ‘no, you left,’ and both sides often assert the other is a figmentary people, even if they’ve been around for generations.

Similar claims and challenges pervade the North American context.  The Doctrine of Discovery permitted Columbus, Cabot, Balboa, and many others to claim these non-Christian lands for European crowns, and to enslave the natives.  Despite later debates over whether indigenous people had souls, on first encounter many were slaughtered, captured as slaves, and their lands, goods, and families stolen.  In the decades following first contact, some 80% of the indigenous population of North and Central America rapidly died of diseases brought by Europeans and their vermin.  As indigenous peoples died, and forced evangelization became the order of the day, Africans were imported as slave labor.  Their somewhat greater resistance to European and tropical diseases and the fact that many were Muslim made their enslavement entirely convenient to the Doctrine of Discovery.

The slavers did not stop with non-Christian foreigners.  England in particular, but also France, and briefly, Scotland sent convicts into exile and forced labor.  Those transported included political prisoners, prisoners of war, felons, debtors, and minor criminals.  They were sent, either as prisoners or indentured servants, to the American and Caribbean colonies, New Caledonia, and Australia.  The labor potential of these transported persons was often a primary consideration in their sentencing, as women and the weak were often simply imprisoned.[10]  Some could eventually serve their term or buy their freedom, but few were able to return to their homes in distant lands.  Similar practices were resurrected under Jim Crow, as life for African-Americans was increasingly legally circumscribed and the practice of convict leasing exploded in the South.  Loitering, unemployment, or debt could send a man to Mississippi’s Parchman Farm and keep him there for decades of prison labor.  Nearly all were Black.  Black Lives Matter is responding to today’s similarly stolen lives.

Colonial era migration to what became this nation was largely British, and slavery or near-slavery was an ongoing theme.  Up to half of the early migrants became indentured servants to pay their passage.  Africans were indentured as early as 1619 in the Jamestown colony.  Colonists soon forced native peoples to migrate, through European disease, depleting the land of game, and appropriating their traditional lands.  Forced migration of Native Americans continued in the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears in 1830, and repeated displacement and slaughter of tribes as settlers moved into their lands.  Forced cultural migration, intended to assimilate Native peoples into white society, began in the 1600s and continued into the 1990s.  The boarding school legacy is profoundly complicated, with a long history of cultural deprivation and myriad forms of abuse, as well as developing agency for not only coping with but confronting the dominant culture.

There is great irony in the reality that many colonists came seeking religious freedom from the same traditions that fomented so much forced displacement of non-Christians.  New England was settled first by English religious nonconformists, followed by Dutch traders and farmers, and later, Germans.  The Middle Atlantic colonies were settled by British, Scots, and Germans, as well as Swedes and Finns.  The Western reaches of the colonies attracted Scots and Scots-Irish, as well as French Huguenots and Germans.  A fair portion of all the colonial migration involved religious non-conformists:  Quakers, Puritans, Huguenots, and others who held beliefs at variance with the established religion of their native countries.  The southern colonies were populated primarily by British settlers and imported African slaves.

Other parts of what is now the United States were settled sparsely by Spain (Florida, Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona) beginning in the late 16th century, and retained some of their Spanish or Mexican character after absorption by the US in the mid-1800s.  France established a number of outposts along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers, with significant settlements in Detroit and St. Louis, as well as in Louisiana.

The Revolutionary War pushed out about 60,000 loyalists, who migrated to Canada, the Caribbean and other British possessions.  Thereafter, immigration to the U.S. nearly ceased until about 1830, when British, Irish, German, Scandinavian and Central European migrants began coming to farm or work in factories and railroads.  The 1850s saw a rise of nationalism much like what we see around us today, though the equivalent “latrine” countries of the 19thcentury were Ireland, Germany, and France, and Roman Catholicism the major religious target of nativists.  It’s ironic how many of their descendants serve in government today.  Revolution in Europe and famine in Ireland and Scandinavia continued to fuel migration into the 1880s, when unemployment in Russia and southern Europe began to shift the locus of migratory pressure.  A significant portion of the population of Quebec migrated to the US between 1840 and 1930, mostly to New England.

After the Civil War, states attempted to set their own immigration policies, which resulted in the Page Act of 1875, defining this as a federal responsibility.  It excluded Chinese labor, and was repeatedly renewed.  Yet significant numbers of Chinese continued to enter via a relatively uncontrolled border with Canada.  Between about 1880 and the mid-1920s, millions of Central Europeans, primarily Roman Catholics and Jews, entered the U.S., as well as Lebanese and Syrian Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Literacy tests were promulgated in 1917 in attempt to limit low-skilled immigration.

The 1924 Immigration Act (with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921) gave preference to migrants from Central, Northern, and Western Europe, and limited migration from southern Europe and Russia to 2% of the 1890 numbers.  That act was also the basis for refusing entry to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during WWII.  In the same era, migration within the Western Hemisphere was basically uncontrolled to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.

Some adjustments were made after World War II, to include war brides and fiancées, as well as Filipinos, and the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 permitted European refugees.  Communists were excluded beginning in 1950; the Quotas of 1924 were reinstated in 1952; and from 1956-1960, 1/4 million arrived as a result of the Hungarian Revolution.  Cubans were welcomed after the 1959 Revolution.

U.S. migration policy has almost always been haphazard, directed at whichever nationality or religion seemed particularly odious at the time.  Migration policy has been directed at those leaving as well as those entering.  Forced labor and the commodification of human persons has often been a central focus in making such policy, and it continues in what we euphemistically call human trafficking as well as waves of refugees fleeing wars and violence.  We are beginning to see forced migration as a result of climate change, particularly in the Syrian crisis, which was at least in part the result of declining supplies of irrigation water.  Climate migration is itself the result of human behavior toward the planet that parallels the Doctrine of Discovery’s colonial attitudes toward the sub-human other.  All of it is provoked by the possessive and exploitative urge to dominate and control human beings, so-called natural resources, land and creatures, water and minerals.

The only fortunate reality in the midst of forced migration, whether intercontinental migration, fleeing slavery in search of freedom, or the journey from life to death, is a continued push for altered ethical reasoning.  It has often been a minority voice, even a tiny minority, yet the vision has continued to expand.  Today, we can affirm that all peoples are human, made in the image of God; that each one merits the ability to live into that creative and loving divine image; and like the widows and orphans of the Hebrew prophets, no one is beneath regard and loving care.  Some have been on that path home into God’s dream for centuries; some have only begun the journey; and some are still lost in the desert of self-worship.

We are a nation of immigrants and their descendants.  Today our government is doing all it can to close the door in spite of Emma Lazarus’ assertion that this is a land willing to ‘Mother Exiles’ and welcome the “tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free.”[11]  In the throes of this nation’s entry into World War II, we repeatedly refused entry to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  Only some were deemed worthy of refugee status.  We are facing that hellhole again, and the refusals are again based on religion and national origin.

We exploit migrants to grow our food, build our houses, and care for our elders.  This nation continues to incarcerate people of color (especially young men) for trivial offenses, with unjust penalties, and for unconscionable lengths of time.  Our penal system still takes, and wastes, lives as a means of social control.  Migrant children are punished for the actions of their parents; some are deported unaccompanied; and others left to fend for themselves after their parents are deported.

Migration is most often motivated by a desire to live in peace, whether the driving chaos is the violence of war, pestilence, natural disaster, dictatorial government, economic deprivation, or inner and spiritual turmoil.  As a global community we have made some progress toward explicating what human rights are universal.[12]  We have seen experiments in wider geographic groupings of nations committed to freer migration within their borders, even if they are evoking challenges at present.  We are increasingly globalized in terms of economics, the consequences of political decision-making, global warming and climate change, offensive weaponry, overexploitation of fisheries and forest destruction, and communications, electronic in particular.

We can no longer pretend to exist in isolation, and North Korea is perhaps the best witness to that truth.  None of us is an island, unconnected to the global main.  Ultimately, as the human species, part of a global ecosystem, we will live and die as one.

When it is in the best interest of all of us to ensure the life possibilities of the least among us, why is it so challenging to respond in life-giving ways?  We are created to migrate – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – for we have not yet arrived at home, or recognized the home in whose hands and heart we are already held.

We are made to migrate in the sense our ancestors spoke of Wisdom, “more mobile than any motion… a breath of the power of God, into which nothing defiled gains entrance… a reflection of eternal life, a mirror of the working of God and an image of God’s goodness.”[13]  That vision echoes the road we know in Jesus, reflected in compassion and care for the least of God’s creatures, in turning and returning to the only home we will ever know in its fullness, the heart of God.

We are one humanity, together reflecting something of the fullness of God’s mobile and creative urge, and together with all creation we are meant to become a home in which the fullness of God’s peace might dwell.  We have a long way to travel on that road.  As we continue to repent and return, may we pray for Wisdom’s mobile and creative inspiration on that migratory road.  So be it.

[1] Genesis 3:24
[2] The Bible has a similar recognition in Wisdom 7:24  “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”
[3] Latin, migrare, to move to another place, < *mei- to change, go, move.
[4] ConvergentBooks: 2017
[5] Caused the explosion of the Toba volcano in northern Sumatra
[6] A delightful echo in Ps 105:12,14 “when they were few in number… he allowed no one to oppress them” and in Deut 7:7  ‘you were the fewest of all peoples’
[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/science/native-americans-beringia-siberia.html?_r=0
[8] Among them Dum Diversas 1452; Romanus Pontifex 1455; Inter Caetera 1493.
[9] An introduction may be found here:  http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/
[10] A more recent parallel can be found in Ireland, where inconvenient women and children were enslaved in laundries and work houses, the last of which closed in 1996.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/world/europe/magdalene-laundries-ireland.html?_r=0
[11] “New Colossus” 1883, sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
[12] http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[13] Wisdom 7:24-26

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