Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Ched Myers and M. Colwell – Our God is Undocumented [Feature Review]

Page 2 – Ched Myers and M. Colwell – Our God is Undocumented

Questions Outright

The authors ask two questions outright. What does it mean to be faithful to an “undocumented God and refugee Christ,” and what is the biblical basis for such a church? The authors have organized their book in keeping with foundational assertions of liberation theology: “the conviction that Bible study and practical discipleship help interpret each other.” In a sympathetic dialogue of “ancient word and contemporary deed,” we get a chapter of biblical exegesis by Myers, followed by a chapter relaying the story of a particular witness who “faithfully exegetes and embodies” this vision of a church without borders.

What is the biblical basis for such a church?

Myers approaches this first task in earnest and with zest. While certainly not overlooking texts like Matthew 25:35-46, in which Jesus judges the responses of those who meet him as a stranger seeking hospitality, Myers is clearly more interested in the deep cuts, applying his exegetical muscle to less-obvious selections from both testaments.

Myers reads the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 as an indictment of imperial homogeneity. A key characteristic of human diversity, linguistic diversity, is absent, and this atmosphere of centralized power and cultural conformity is linked to oppression of people and rejection of God. He contrasts it with the “insurrectionary heterogeneity” of Pentecost in Acts 2, in which God’s proclamation is heard by everyone in his or her own language. As a rich range of other biblical, historical and anthropological information is brought to bear, Myers makes an argument in favor of cultural diversity and warns against linguistic hegemony.

In his next chapter, he argues that biblical principles of “sanctuary and prophetic hospitality” are central to the contemporary immigration debate. Eager to unpack them, Myers takes us on a thorough scriptural tour. Like an enthusiastic guide, he is careful to point out every relevant landmark along the way; and he doesn’t mind stopping the tram to do a little language study. If it is somewhat exhausting, it is worth it because it is so exhaustive. It also elicited in this reader a renewed appreciation for the richness and depth of the bible.

This is also where they explain the notion of an “undocumented God.” Suffice it to say here that Myers writes: “…from beginning to end, God too is portrayed as entering our world in the guise of a stranger in need of hospitality.”

Subsequent chapters by Myers reflect on, to name a few, “prophetic inclusion” in Isaiah and Luke; “embracing otherness”, as Jesus does even if it takes walking on water; and a poignant meditation on the nativity story in a chapter called “Gospel Nativities vs. Anti-immigrant Nativism.” It is in this chapter that we meet the “refugee Christ” mentioned above.

What does it mean to be faithful to this undocumented God and refugee Christ?

Colwell’s chapters tell the stories of five individuals who tried to answer this question with their lives. It is hoped that their experience might suggest a trajectory for others. After a chapter of theology, it is refreshing to read a brisk story, and these are certainly brisk, compressing as they do entire adult lives into ten or so pages. But it is not always pretty. Even if led by the Spirit these lives, these experiments, are clearly, sometimes painfully clearly, improvised.  It points distressingly to those nagging promises of Jesus that following him will bring trouble.  It helps explain the gravitational pull exerted by places and perspectives outside of “proximity to the poor,” on those of us with enough privilege to experience it.

I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. The stories are inspiring. Certainly they were chosen to be so. Some readers will be hearing about the Sanctuary Movement for the first time. Their imaginations will awake as they consider possibilities for their own churches.  But Myers and Colwell are clearly recruiting, and they don’t mean to sugarcoat the pill which recruits are asked to swallow.

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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One Comment

  1. Thanks JOnathan for the thoughtful review.  Much appreciated.  Ched Myers