Recently, in the heated race in Kentucky between the incumbent Republican candidate for the Senate and his Democratic challenger, amid attack advertisements, one aired that was so chilling that it stopped me in my tracks. In this particularly egregious advertisement, the Democratic challenger was painted as an ally of terrorists and “people who seek to attack the United States,” by seeking to dismantle the office of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and refusing to “build the wall” to keep out “criminal aliens.” This racialized code-baiting managed to lump together the brown people south of the border with terrorism, criminal activity (an escalation of “illegal”), and social chaos in one fell swoop. The sense of alarm has been heightened by the daily reports of the “immigrant caravan” of thousands of fleeing refugees, south of the border, who have been repeatedly tagged as “criminal aliens” and “terrorists” who are “invading” this country to further degrade its quality of life and place [white] “American lives” in jeopardy and against whom 5,200 army troops have been mobilized. It is significant to note that this kind of race-baiting culminated in the anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, October 27, 2018, a congregation known for its support of refugees and migrants.
Migration has become the convenient football for political and journalistic punditry. “Dog whistle” sound bites have captured the national imagination while distorting the reality and history about migration in this country. Much as the “war on drugs” hid a racialized agenda that began in the Nixon era, creating the stereotyped imagery that evokes criminal violence in the popular imagination, so presently we are creating new stereotypes: that of Latinx people as “infesting” US borders by raping and pillaging, stealing jobs, and disintegrating the democratic ideals of a (once) “great America.” Migration has become a “problem” that must be stopped, the “criminals” detained or deported by military force and tear gas, rather than perceived as an actual gift that has been foundational to the national character of the country.
In this essay I argue that myriad factors, particularly the invading policies of globalization and climate change have forced people to migrate. I then present the notion of “freedom of movement,” arguing that it is a pneumatological imperative. As such, to impede freedom of movement is a sin. The Church is called to be a conduit of the Spirit, a kairosspace in which migrants and other vulnerable groups not only find freedom to move, but also the affirmation of their full humanity.
More often than not, migration is caused by conflict, financial distress, and increasingly, climate change. Globalization, which is undergirded by a socioeconomic philosophy known as neoliberalism, has led to the displacement of many. Neoliberalism has produced a number of economic policies largely driven by transnational corporations that include the privatization of government-based institutions and services, the deregulation of trade and lowering of trade barriers, and reduced government spending for essential social services. Globalization is an economic and social tsunami that has entered geographical spaces, disrupting local economies, social structures, and whole communities by insisting that the free movement of goodsand capital takes precedence over the wellbeing of the populace. Thus poor people adversely impacted by such policies are often forced to migrate. In this sense, the movement of migration is that of a people moving away from the powers and principalities that have caused death in their communities, and thus it is a movement of people seeking life.
The United Nations has declared freedom of movement a “human right,” and Nicholas De Genova argues that it is an ontological imperative(De Genova, The Deportation Regime, 39). I believe that a theological imperativeundergirds such movement, one with biblical roots in the Christian tradition. The creation narratives in Genesis begin with movement. The ruach(Spirit) of God “moved” over the waters to bring forth life. God spoke and soon the face of the earth was filled with myriad forms of life moving in the “heavens” and on the earth, and God saw that it was “good.” Spirit is “wind,” “breath,” movement, and life itself. In his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus states, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is witheveryone born of the Spirit” (John 3:35, emphasis mine). We go where Spirit takes us and we are movedby the Spirit; Spirit is the Third Person of the Triune God, the “Wild Child” who invites us to the dance. Spirit is life itself and as loving, swirling, loving, moving, inviting life, invites us to perichoretic(interpenetrating), loving vínculos(intimate ties) with God and with each other.
Accordingly, life in God is defined by this joyous freedom of movement, this loving and adventurous invitation to the dance. The Second Testament, in particular the book of Acts, is witness to the many who accepted this invitation: Peter moved to go to a Gentile centurion’s home, thus initiating a new ministry with global implications beyond his ken; Philip moved to a desert to encounter an African eunuch, thus establishing the basis for a fruitful life; Paul, felled by a call and moved to so many places, in each planting seeds of gospel (euaggelion)—good news to the poor, the sick, the hopeless, the left out and the leftovers—leaving behind hope and new life. Spirit is life and wherever Spirit moves there is life. Movement is foundational to life. Thus to impede movement is not only to hinder life but to hinder the very source of life itself. To force a “contra-movement” as in the case of deportation or the threat of deportation, by its very definition, impedes freedom and therefore the Spirit of movement. Such impediments are thus counter to the very being-ness of who we are as a created people and as a community of God. It is sin because it causes stagnation, and stagnation leads to death.
In these times, as the full force of Empire seeks to detain and deport, and as even religious and social leaders are tempted to fall into the falsehood of criminalizing migrants, the Church must steadfastly continue to ponder the question posed by Jesus: to whom and when am I neighbor (Luke 10: 25–37)? It is a question that must transcend nation-state fealties, ethnic pride, and racial categorizations. It is a question that must break with the increasing xenophobia and false nationalism that has gripped so many countries, allowing migrants and refugees to be the easy scapegoats of television personalities and political pundits. If the Church is to be true neighbor, it must begin by allowing the Spirit to move the Church to stand alongside the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the weak. In doing so, the Church must reclaim its role to be a sacrament of the Reign of God. It is not the Reign, but it is a sacrament—that is to say, a witness that reveals the Reign.
The Church as sacrament of the Reign is a divine space where the “Spirit blows.” As a pneumatological sacred space, it becomes a sacrament of freedom of movement. It celebrates Pentecost (Acts 2) daily. People of different nations and different tongues gather without fear as a community, invited to join in the “dance of the Spirit.” It is a dance of joy, love, peace, and koinonia(fellowship). Community is formed. God’s purpose and vision for all of creation is fulfilled. Justice and shalomare experienced within this pneumatological space. In such a space, the Church acknowledges the necessity of creating conditions conducive to living a quality of life so as to obviate the need to abandon one’s homeland. As such, the Church must speak out against the globalizing tendencies that have destroyed people’s communities and livelihoods. We must protesteconomic systems that place profit above people. We must detain the economic tsunamis that have robbed people of their “daily bread,” requiring them to move. Paradoxically, the pneumatological and prophetic impulses that move us to create conditions for people to remain in their geographical homes also require us to acknowledge that freedom of movement is a pneumatological imperative, and not a legislative privilege. Subsequently, the Church as sacrament of the Reign should never serve as a blockade for migrating populations. Rather, as a people of the Spirit, we say, “Come Holy Spirit, blow and move us freely. Grant us the gift to join in your dance of life and joy.” As a sacrament of the Reign, we stand at the border with water, clothing, and open arms. We acknowledge the call in Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”