Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees

By Groody, Daniel G. | Theological Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Crossing the Divide: Foundations of a Theology of Migration and Refugees


Groody, Daniel G., Theological Studies


MIGRATION HAS BEEN PART of human history since its origins. But today, due to widespread changes precipitated by globalization, more people are migrating than ever before--twice as many now as 25 years ago. (1) Nearly 200 million people, or one out of every 35 people around the world, are living away from their homelands. This is roughly the equivalent of the population of Brazil, the fifth largest on the planet. (2) Many of these migrants are forcibly uprooted: approximately 30-40 million are undocumented, 24 million are internally displaced, and almost 10 million are refugees. (3)

These flows of people precipitate conflict and controversy; they affect not only migrants but receiving communities as well, making migration an increasingly volatile and contentious political issue. (4) The clash of cultures, identities, and religions, along with debates over economics, resources, and rights, has polarized public discourse, making the migration debate convoluted and confused. Not only does rhetoric about immigration conflate, if not manipulate, multiple issues like national security and human insecurity, sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law, but the disciplines governing the debate have not given us the concepts necessary to move beyond unfruitful, polemical discourse and reach the core issues.

Categories such as legality and illegality, the documented and the undocumented, and citizen and alien, not only fail to come to terms with a new global reality, but they also leave gaping areas of injustice in their wake. Some argue that tougher enforcement will resolve the problem of migration and refugees (as evidenced by the United States, Israel, "fortress Europe," and other parts of the world), but this massive movement of peoples, regardless of the policies of nation-states, will continue, transforming the contours of communities around the globe. Affecting all areas of human life, migration is arguably one of the most complex issues in the world, and it will become more significant in the future. (5) Because migration is one of its defining issues, the 21st century has been referred to by some scholars as "the age of migration." (6)

CROSSING OVER: BRIDGING THE MIGRATION-THEOLOGY DIVIDE

Migration issues are so complex and far-reaching that understanding them demands a broad range of interdisciplinary research. (7) Economics, politics, geography, demography, sociology, psychology, law, history, anthropology, and environmental studies are foremost among the disciplines that shape the emerging field of migration studies and migration theory. Theology, however, is almost never mentioned in major works or at centers of migration studies. Some research has been done on migration and religion from a sociological perspective, but there is virtually nothing on the topic from a theological perspective. (8) Theology seems to enter the academic territory from the outside, as if it were a "disciplinary refugee" with no official recognition in the overall discourse about migration. (9)

Even among theologians the topic of migration is largely undocumented. (10) The Vatican and various episcopal conferences have notable writings about the pastoral care of immigrants, (11) but to date little has been written about migration as a theological reality. The current climate points to the need to move the migration debate to an even broader intellectual terrain, one in which theology not only has something to learn but something to offer. My aim in this article is to reflect critically on the mystery of God in an age of migration, which is a way of thinking about the gospel message in light of the sign of the times. (12)

Since Vatican II, theology has been recast in various ways in response to the challenges of the modern world, such as those presented by liberation movements, feminism, religious pluralism, postmodernity, cultural diversity, and esthetics. The longstanding but now accelerating reality of global migration presents another opportunity to ground theological analysis in a specific social location that emerges from "the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties" of many marginal people today. …

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