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The Big Picture
Moving toward a theology of immigration.

When I first stepped into my office at the former St. John's College for Officer Training in Newfoundland and Labrador, my secretary greeted me with the question, "So how does it feel to be a CFA?" I blinked, with my normal puzzled look, and she continued: "You are considered a 'Come From Away' You're not native to Newfoundland and Labrador. You're a CFA."

This was all said in the context of a light-hearted welcome, but for a brief moment, I wondered if I was really being viewed as an immigrant. Would my lack of a "bay" dialect betray me? Would my ignorance of toutons prove to be my undoing? It didn't take long before my wife, Cathie, and I made ourselves at home in this unique province, but not everyone experiences the same outcome.

We live in an age where the movements of people globally are on the increase and are being intentionally tracked through charts and statistics on many different levels. Passport policies are being renewed and multinational corporations are planning with this in mind. That said, it may be helpful to focus on one particular Bible story that will help us glean some new insights into this significant issue.

The story of Ruth

The Book of Ruth actually describes two different migrations. In the first instance, a family from Bethlehem leaves that community because of a famine (see Ruth 1:1-5). Elimelek and Naomi take their two sons and travel to Moab, east of the Dead Sea, to live among a people with whom, according to the broader context of Scripture, the Israelites actually lived in racial tension. Yet they were apparently welcomed, to the extent that the sons even married Moabite women after their father died. Unfortunately, the sons also died about ten years later.

Hearing there is food back in Bethlehem, Naomi decides to return and even allows Ruth to accompany her (see v 6-18). The Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, now becomes the immigrant, having to make a new home for herself among Naomi's people. Eventually, of course, Ruth is attracted to Naomi's kinsman, Boaz. In his own integrity and shrewdness, Boaz makes sure that all the other potential suitors give up their first rights of refusal, then takes Ruth to be his wife. The town rejoices, Ruth conceives and a son is born. Ruth, the immigrant from Moab, thus becomes a central figure in Israel's story, through whose line will come King David and eventually Jesus, the promised Messiah.

Now obviously this is not the experience of all immigrants. But in examining this story in light of immigration patterns today, we can begin to sketch some contours of what might be called a "theology of immigration."

How we think about immigration

The movement of peoples in our world takes place against the background of social forces. Tribal communities are in conflict; jobs are more readily available in some parts of the world than others; ethnic diversities are more tolerated in some parts of the world than others.

In Canada, there seems to be a growing realization that we need new immigrants to fill vacant positions. In 2006 The Globe and Mail published a series of articles on Canada's new economic reality—the need for workers, not jobs. Home-grown workers will not meet the need, yet we are experiencing tighter passport and border restrictions. Reasons for this are complex, but both of these realities lie in the background of any discussion about immigration.

The flow of people in our times is set against the backdrop of economic and political realities. How we name our social context is an important part of how we think about immigration. Here are some principles to keep in mind:

1. Immigrants arrive in their new land with an important personal story. When Naomi returned to Bethlehem, few of the townspeople would have known what had happened during her time away. They wouldn't know that Ruth had married one of Naomi's sons or that, despite Naomi's urgings and her sister's return to Moab, Ruth had made a promise of loyalty to Naomi expressed out of her newfound freedom.

Immigration does not take place in a vacuum. Stories of new immigrants don't begin when they arrive in their destination country. They continue something that already has created a sense of identity. Might one of the Church's contributions to immigrants be that we are a place where their story can be heard and valued? Immigrants come with a story and that story—even with its pain—may express something of God's grace at work.

2. Immigrants need to negotiate the tensions of creating a new sense of identity. When Ruth arrived in Bethlehem she had little guarantee of acceptance or welcome. She would have experienced a number of losses contributing to her sense of vulnerability. Gone was her language, her streets, her favourite foods, her own family and the ways of surviving in her own culture. Her sense of identity formed by her story to this point, was threatened on a number of fronts.

But Bethlehem also had a sense of identity. Known as a place of violence and idolatry, its people also took their faith seriously. They looked after the poor and foreigners in their midst by making provision for their food, and maintained traditions such as the kinsman-redeemer, through which Boaz is allowed to take Ruth for his wife. Whatever Ruth's connection with Naomi, however, she is a "different" person, and thereby socially vulnerable.

British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, gives good thought to this notion of "difference" in our times. He believes we are entering an age of the politics of identity. "That is why religion has emerged, after a long eclipse, to become so powerful a presence on the world stage," he writes, "because religion is one of the great answers to the question of identity. But that, too, is why we face danger. Identity divides. The very process of creating an `us' involves creating a `them'—the people not like us."

A critical issue facing us is how we can be clear about our own sense of identity as Christians in Canada, yet big enough to appreciate clear differences that immigrants bring to this land. I would suggest, along with Rabbi Sacks, that a renewed reading of the Bible and its emphasis on all humans being made "in the image of God" is an important place to begin.

3. Immigrants encounter the traditions of their new home. When Ruth sought permission from Naomi to "go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain" (see 2:2), she was perhaps only following something she had seen others doing in her new community. She probably didn't know she was tapping into an important tradition in Israel's communal faith, commanded by God in Leviticus 19:9-10. Despite the ethical chaos in the time of the judges, Boaz and others had sustained this tradition in order to provide for those in need. This tradition served the purpose of social justice, of providing for a widow and her alien daughter-in-law. If Ruth came face-to-face with some of the violence of her times, she also encountered "socially embodied arguments" in the practices of gleanings.

When Cathie and I moved back to Winnipeg last year, one of the first things we did was to arrange for our new provincial health card. We sat in the government offices downtown, recognizing that others there were likely new immigrants.

My hunch is that they did not know the story that led to our health-care plan—the work of Tommy Douglas or Roy Romanow. Even with its present tensions, our healthcare system is made available to documented immigrants, including those who aren't yet Canadian citizens.

Immigrants to Canada experience a "socially embodied argument" in the form of our health-care tradition.

When immigrants encounter Christians, what "socially embodied arguments"—what traditions—do we introduce them to? In the violence of our times, how are we being faithful to those traditions that are life-giving? How do the traditions of Canada contribute to the welfare of immigrants? Our social traditions can be viewed as part of the fabric of grace.

4. The greater purposes of God are being worked out through the stories of immigrants. One of the fascinating observations of the story of Ruth is that God is very much standing in the wings or on the sidelines. He does not speak in this story, although the narrator attributes the return of the harvest and even the eventual birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz as coming from God's hand. When Boaz first meets Ruth he prays that she may find reward from "the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge" (2:12).

But perhaps the most fascinating way God is depicted in this story is through its almost "chance" encounters. When Ruth first goes to glean crops for Naomi, the narrator says, "As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz ... " (2:3). And when the narrator winds up the story, he notes simply that the local women said, "Naomi has a son!" and describes how "he was the father of Jesse, the father of David" (4:17). From the perspective of time, the storyteller senses the greater purposes of God being worked out through this marriage. God's providential hand is seen to be at work through famine, the expressions of loyalty, the traditions of Israel, the plotting of Naomi and the desires of individuals.

Moving forward

Modern Canada has been built on immigration. One of my great-grandfathers came to this country through The Salvation Army's immigration scheme. Three of my grandparents immigrated to Canada and southern Manitoba is characterized by the last century's immigration of Mennonites. Some of this history has gone well, but we are also conscious of Canada's treatment of the Chinese in building a railroad, and our refusal to welcome Jews in the 1930s. Canada's history of welcoming immigrants is far from unmixed.

But we seem to be moving toward a time when our approach to immigration will be much more intentional. Universities will be seeking students. Businesses will be seeking workers of different skills. At one level, there are very real human considerations behind this shift.

I wonder, though, if God is up to something not readily apparent to us from this vantage point. In this day of the "politics of identity," it may be that Christians are being called to understand who we are at the deepest levels of our identity so that we can welcome those with different stories, different cultures, and perhaps even different expressions of faith. What we do may not be readily apparent to the world's stage, but like the Book of Ruth, it will narrate a story of personal faithfulness to the grace of God in our times.

This article is an abbreviated version of a presentation made to the Salvation Army’s Ethics Centre's social issues committee in September 2006.

Originally published in the Salvationist, October 2007.




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