Toward a Political Theology of Refugee Resettlement

By Ralston, Joshua | Theological Studies, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Toward a Political Theology of Refugee Resettlement


Ralston, Joshua, Theological Studies


SINCE THE REFUGEE ACT OF 1980 was ratified, the US government has welcomed approximately 1.8 million refugees into the country. (1) Numerous actors, including the UN's' High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the US State Department, and nongovernmental agencies (NGOs), are integral to the process by which an individual or family is granted legal refugee status, selected for resettlement, provided a visa, relocated, and put on a path toward citizenship. Refugees exist at the intersection between international, national, and local politics, as well as between discourses about humanitarian, political, and human rights responsibilities. (2)

Often going unnoticed is the central role that churches and religious agencies play in the long resettlement journey. In practice, the US Office of Refugee Resettlement (USORR) contracts with a number of religiously based NGOs, most notably Church World Service (CWS), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), World Relief (WR), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), and Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). (3) These religious NGOs are involved in nearly every aspect of the resettlement process, including advocating for the resettlement of particular populations, administering interviews to determine refugee status, overseeing camps, and providing the logistical and legal support to refugees when they arrive in the United States. (4) "Faith-based resettlement agencies, once organized on a volunteer basis, are now comprehensive not-for-profit organizations that receive annual federal funding in the millions of dollars to help newly resettled refugees find housing and jobs, learn new skills, go to school and build social networks." (5) The US government directly funds religious NGOs, commissioning them to act on behalf of the state. "States and international governing bodies that assist and resettle refugees do so by funneling funds through NGOs." (6) Religious NGOs often mimic the State Department by "contracting" out their work to local congregations who will pick up refugees at their point of entry and assist with cultural orientation and housing. Funding for such activity comes from both religious communities, whether local congregations or national denominations, and the US government. Refugee work defies the conventional perception about the relationship between church and state in US politics and law. As Bruce Nicholas has argued, the relationship between the church and the state and the legal precedents set by rulings on the First amendment and the nonestablishment clause "are different overseas." (7)

In the twilight of so-called Christendom, the practice of refugee resettlement by the United States and the church's relationship therein demands theological consideration. My aim here is to evaluate the applicability for refugee resettlement work of the two prominent post-Christendom models for political theology: (1) an ecclesially oriented model exemplified by William Cavanaugh, and (2) a theology of the common good and civil society found in David Fergusson's work. (8) In conversation with refugee studies, I tease out some of the positive implications of Cavanaugh's and Fergusson's projects for a political theology of refugee resettlement. I contend that neither of these political theological models is complex enough to address the multidimensional and interrelated issues facing refugees, local communities, nation states, the international community, and the church. Instead, I employ aspects of Johann Baptist Metz's thought and the practice of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to suggest ways that a political theology of refugee resettlement might reform its current practice and inhabit the space between the political theologies of Cavanaugh and Fergusson.

My article is an exercise in what Nicholas Healy calls "practical-prophetic ecclesiology." He contends that ecclesiology--and I would add political theology--should not be understood as the construction of ideal blueprints focused on the heavenly church. …

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