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Jesus was a Migrant
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2014
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Reviewed by D.L. Mayfield
The front cover is of a man drawn in a Byzantine style, curly haired and bearded, trapped behind a wall of barbed wire. As he grabs a sharp strand of the fence in his hand he stares out at me, the reader. I notice the wound, dark and red, gaping from his palm. As anyone who ever went to Sunday School will know, this man is obviously Jesus. The title of the book competes with the wounds and eyes of Christ for my attention: Jesus Was a Migrant, it proclaims with boldness. I do not quite know what this means. I want to ask questions of it, wrestle with this claim, right from the beginning. I feel so very far away from him, and far away from the experiences of the stateless wanderers our world produces.
Perhaps it is this distance that causes so many to never fully engage in the political issues of our time. We are cowed by our questions, our clouds of unknowing. We are trained to not seek out the complex stories, we prefer to leave the waters smooth as glass. The problem is, the Christ of both migrants and the well-to-do was very fond of troubling the waters. Jesus knew how to tell a story that both pierced hearts and empowered people to change. In the murky political dialogues surrounding immigration reform, there is a pressing need for both. There is a need to move beyond rhetoric or moralistic judgements, beyond asinine questions and failures of imagination. There is a need for relationship, for empathy, for a theological underpinning of a God who became human, who experienced displacement and exile and emigration, who suffered, and who blessed us all in return.
The author of Jesus Was a Migrant, Deirdre Cornell, writes from a background of Catholicism and social activism (her father was prominent in the Catholic Worker movement). She is gifted both with pastoral and theological insight, writing with nuance and language that is neither academic nor patronizingly dull. Beyond the first section of the book (where she makes her case for why Christians should care about the plight of migrants) Cornell deals mainly in stories: the people she has met and lived and worked with, all of them migrants. She undergirds nearly every chapter with reflections on Scripture, taking the reader from the comforting (the annunciation, the birth of Christ) to those stories which we might not have any personal connections with (the Exile).
One of the more profound stories Cornell shares was involves a young man named Jose who was unjustly imprisoned and awaiting deportation. When Cornell visits him in prison, he tells her of a recurring dream he has, of a large wall stopping him from progressing up a hill. He watches as his sister makes it over the wall while he is left behind, trapped “as if in a pit”. Cornell notes that Jose had worked tirelessly to enable his sister to get a high school education. She then frames the sad story by paralleling it with Psalm 88, the only psalm which starts and ends in feelings of despair. It is the psalm of the imprisoned, who can see no way out of their predicament. As Cornell writes, the only saving grace in Psalm 88 is that “the psalmist still talks to God”.
I have never prayed Psalm 88 before, and this marks me as different from Jose and his many brothers and sisters who find themselves seemingly trapped by violence, poverty, starvation, and a lack of options in their countries of origin. I prefer the happier psalms, the ones that are quick to bless and reassure. If, as Walter Brueggemann says, the psalms are “songs for the journey”, then it is time for me to be forthright and say that thus far, my way has been easy. But it is increasingly clear that I am in the minority, and that it is a detriment to all of our spiritual lives if we don’t live in community with the people who identify with the suffering servant. As Cornell writes, instead of looking at migrants as a problem to be solved, we should view them as Christ sees them: a blessing to us, for all of the spiritual riches they bring.
Each chapter is a story told with gentleness born out of years of relationship, and they were quick to cut me, in different ways. There are moments of intense sadness, of course (the lyrics to a song that community sings for 10 days after the death of a child, for instance) but more than anything Cornell is compelled to tell us stories of great faithfulness. Of suffering people who mirror the lives of the saints, who live and walk in the confidence of a very good God. I was blessed to read of them, to take a few steps closer towards understanding. And this, I believe, is what Cornell is desiring.