Tuesday, August 18, 2015

David N. Field: Encountering the Migratory God

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. David N. Field.  Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

In what experts are now claiming is the largest movement of people since World War 2 over 188 000 refugees have arrived in Europe so far this year. The influx of migrants has placed a significant challenge on the resources of countries through which they are passing as well as their destination countries. At an event discussing migration at the UMC’s Switzerland, France and North Africa Annual Conference, Ivan Abrahams, the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, argued that mass migration is a Kairos for Churches in the Twenty First Century – a moment of challenge and opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God. This is particularly acute for European churches.

Abrahams challenged Methodist churches to become “churches of the stranger”. This has begun to happen in many Methodist Churches across Europe. The Italian Methodist Church supports refugees as part of Italian Federation of Protestant Churches’ project Mediterranean Hope. The conference of the British Methodist Church passed a motion calling on churches to offer sanctuary to refugees and calling on the British government to continue providing financial assistance for refugees, to adopt a more generous and compassionate approach to them, and to accept an increased number of refugees. The arrival of migrants in Germany is inspiring a new sense of mission and social engagement in many Methodist congregations. The small Methodist Churches in Serbia and Macedonia are providing for the needs of migrants passing through their countries.

This engagement with migrants is particularly significant when seen in the perspective of John Wesley’s understanding of “entertaining strangers” as a “work of mercy”. Works of mercy were for Wesley a means of grace – a means through which we grow in the transforming knowledge of God. Hence this Kairos offers the opportunity to discover again what it means to be the people of God as we come to know God in a new way.

Migration is a significant component of the great revelatory narratives of the Bible. God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and migrate across the Near East and later appears to them as a nomadic stranger to reaffirm the promise of a son. After dining with Abraham and Sarah the divine company then leaves to go to Sodom where it is threatened with gang rape. Later God hears the cries of an oppressed and exploited migrant community in Egypt and accompanies them on their journey to a new land. During their wanderings the Israelites construct the archetypal sanctuary – a tent that can be packed up and moved when God movers on. The era of David and Solomon was associated with the building of a fixed sanctuary and the identification of God with one place – Jerusalem. Yet David is portrayed as the decedent of the Moabite migrant Ruth and he becomes a refugee amongst the Philistines. The forced migration of the Exile shattered the identification of God with Israel’s national interest and gave rise to new understandings of God. Ezekiel dramatically portrays its significance in his vision of God enthroned on surreal chariot who later leaves the temple to going into exile with the people. Much of the Old Testament reached its final shape or was written in the shadow of the Exile.

In the New Testament Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus mentions four women, two Canaanites, one Moabite and one who was the wife of a Hittite. Matthew describes Jesus as recapitulating Israel’s experience of being migrants in Egypt. Jesus grows up to become a wondering homeless preacher whose life culminates in his being rejected by the religio-political leadership, handed over to the foreign rulers, and crucified outside the city, thus symbolically excluded from his people. For the Romans, crucifixion was the ultimate act of rejection and degradation, and for the Jews, it was a sign of God’s rejection. The resurrection is the declaration that this excluded and degraded one is the ultimate revelation of God in history. In the language of John’s gospel the life of Jesus is the journey of the Son/Word of God from the presence of the Father into the distant country where he sets up his tent amongst us. The incarnation is thus the redemptive migration of God into the world.

The biblical portraits of the migratory God are not to be interpreted in an exclusivist or totalizing manner restricting God’s migration to past narratives and confining God within traditional interpretations of these narratives. Israel’s experience as migrants became the motivation for laws providing for the wellbeing of migrants. Deuteronomy 10:18 (CEB) declared that the Lord “loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” Amos declared that the Exodus was not a unique event for God had been present in the migrations of the Philistines and the Arameans. In the parable of the sheep and the goats the nations’ rejection of strangers is a rejection of the divine judge. Hence the biblical narratives are paradigms through which we can interpret where God is present and what God is doing in our contemporary contexts. God is still on the move in the midst of suffering migrants, accompanying them on their journey, entering into their suffering, rejection and exclusion, identifying Godself with them. To be the people of the migratory God is to accompany God into the midst of migrating people to allow our ideas of God and God’s purposes to be challenged, deepened and enriched through the encounter with these suffering, rejected and excluded “strangers”.


  1. Excellent post! Picking up for UM Insight.

  2. Thanks for reminding us that God's chosen people have been refugees and migrants. So many Christians appear to be xenophobic and cannot imagine reaching out to help the disenfranchised.
    Proofreading question: wonder vs. wander?