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1893 Parliament of World Religions, Chicago (Wikimedia Commons)

Citizenship, Globalized Religion, and the Tightening of Borders

Globalized religions like Christianity and Islam speak of their communions as universal and welcoming of all people, yet are often caught up in the nationalist and protectionist discourses of individual nations.

This symposium explores the tension between nationalist and protectionist political discourses on the one hand, and universal and globalized theological narratives on the other, especially in light of the Syrian refugee crisis at the borders between Christian and Muslim nations, and the escalating conflict at the US Southern border between Christian humanitarian aid providers and a secularized US border enforcement policy.

According to the demographic projections by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, Christianity and Islam are the world’s largest religions–with Islam representing the world’s fastest growing religion–and by the year 2050 adherents of Islam will equal the number of Christians around the world (together accounting for 64% of the world’s total population). Despite a growing number of “nones” or self-described atheists in Europe and North America, the number of those not affiliated with any religion is actually expected to decline in the coming decades while 40% of Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims will constitute 10% of the population of Europe, and Islam will surpass Judaism as the largest non-Christian religion in the United States.

A chief reason for the global spread of Christianity and Islam is that both traditions are proselytizing religions, insofar as in both religions inviting people to join the religion is considered a central tenet and a pious act for individual believers. Throughout history, however, this religious impulse to share one’s beliefs and welcome others into the community of faith has become dangerously entwined with nationalist and imperialist impulses. Globalized religions like Christianity and Islam speak of their communions as universal and welcoming of all people, yet are often caught up in the nationalist and protectionist discourses of individual nations. What does it mean to be a member of a global religion while also a citizen of a state advocating for closed borders?

This relationship has been complicated by the persistent neoconservative narrative about the “clash of civilizations” perpetuated by Samuel Huntington, which casts Islam as a premodern religion that has never undergone a period of reform and modernization unlike Christianity. This wildly inaccurate and prejudiced view of the “enlightened” West over against a “barbaric” Middle East became the dominant political orthodoxy in US foreign policy after 9/11 by imagining a civilizational conflict demarcated by the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures. As William T. Cavanaugh has argued, “the myth of religious violence serves to cast nonsecular social orders, especially Muslim societies, in the role of villain” (The Myth of Religious Violence, p. 4). However, post-9/11 Samuel Huntington also identifies the influx of Latin American refugees and undocumented workers into the US as the single largest threat to American identity, suggesting there are threats other than Political Islam that ought to guide US foreign policy. For example, he critiques Latin American immigrants for not assimilating into the dominant (white) culture, and attributes it in great part to their Catholic cultural identity (Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, p. 241).

This series of essays from a diverse group of contributors explores the tensions between the proselytizing impulse in religions like Christianity and Islam–an impulse that encourages sharing of one’s faith because it believes salvation is available to all humankind–and the competing nationalist and protectionist political narratives that seek to assert the state’s unchecked authority to police and control its geographic, political, and cultural borders. The first essay by Ramón Luzárraga, entitled “The Social Mortgage on National Sovereignty in the Immigration Debate,” sets the stage by reflecting on the church’s role in protecting the rights of refugees and immigrants in light of the recent reassertion of national sovereignty in Europe and the United States as evidenced by the UK vote to leave the EU and recent Presidential executive orders tightening border enforcement. The second essay in this series, by Eliezer Rolón Jeong, “Particular Identities in the Christian Multiverse,” argues that in order to make sense of the tension between religious and political narratives, it is necessary to avoid universalist assumptions and focus instead on the concrete particularities of religious communities.

Jennifer Owens-Jofré, of the Seminary of the Southwest, offers an appeal to US Christians to embody compassion for the strangers in our midst by appealing to the biblical tradition while also offering practical resources for concrete engagement in her essay, “Bearing Witness to the Lived Realities of Our Migrant Kin.” W. Anne Joh, in “Walls/Borders: Visible Signs of Militarized Colonial Desires Past and Present,” presents a decolonial critique of US and European imperialism in which she calls for a transformative theological vision that seeks a God beyond borders–a theology freed from the machinations of empire-building. The final essay, by Najeeba Syeed, “Teaching in Times of State Violence,” focuses on the increased trauma experienced by students (and their families) directly impacted by the weaponizing of US borders and other anti-immigrant policies, and the new challenges this creates for educators.

Symposium Essays

The Social Mortgage on National Sovereignty in the Immigration Debate

The prophetic role of the Church here is to crack open and break up this renewed parochial nationalism, and remind all of the words of Paul in Galatians 3:28, that regardless of background, we are all one in Jesus Christ.

Particular Identities in the Christian Multiverse

The import of particular identities for the national identity is not to be dismissed precisely because it is what the nationalist agenda attempts. This means that our religious discourse has to account for particular identity experiences as integral parts or building blocks of a multifaceted universal and not as something to be merely included or absorbed by a pre-existing universal condition.

Bearing Witness to the Lived Realities of Our Migrant Kin

We Christians who are citizens must be physically present on the border with México, that we might bear witness to the realities of what we experience alongside those who are most acutely affected by the policies of the current Administration.

Walls/Borders: Visible Signs of Militarized Colonial Desires Past and Present

Borders signify the advancing presence of imperial desires and colonial fantasies of gradual yet total dispossession and disappearance of peoples of other nations that continue the founding settler colonial violence in the US.

Teaching in Times of State Violence

In thinking through what my instruction looks like, I have begun to take into account what the act of deportation does to a family, how it can be addressed and thinking through trauma informed pedagogies to recognize its impact.