Francis Anekwe Oborji: The Bible And The Danger Of Xenophobic Migration Walls
For some days now, the people of Nigeria and Africa as a whole have been watching with utter helplessness the news of brutalization and plight of some Nigerian and other African students in India. Yesterday, if it was not about the news of xenophobic attacks directed against Nigerians and other Africans by their fellow Africans in South Africa, it was that of their on-going humiliations at the airports of the United States of America, especially, since the coming on board of the present regime of President Donald Trump. The plights of Nigerians and other Africans living in the far away China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, etc., is no better either.
In each of these cases, no African state or nation, not even the Nigerian state or any institution of that nature from the continent seemed prepared to come to the aid of these helpless Africans in Diasporas. One is yet to see concrete steps taken by any African state or its institutions to intervene proactively on behalf of these African victims of modern racism and xenophobia. Where is the state or nation in all this? This is the crux of the matter. Are Africans in Diaspora stateless citizens? Are there no governments in the countries of origin of these African victims of racism and xenophobia?
What of African Embassies operating in those foreign countries where African citizens are being brutalized and humiliated on daily basis, for reasons bordering on racism and xenophobia? Why are African Missions in foreign lands incapable of standing up for their co-nationals experiencing racist and xenophobic humiliation and brutalization in their countries of mission? These are some of the questions on the lips of many concerned people as we watch daily the continued humiliation of our fellow citizens and other Africans in foreign lands.
Our citizens and fellow Africans in Diasporas are the most vulnerable victims of xenophobia and racism in the world today. It is for this reason that one is at pain to observe that African states and leaders are more or less doing nothing to address this rising phenomenon. Even when Nelson Mandela had called our attention to this situation and its African dimension some years ago in Libya, we are yet to make the question of modern African migrations and the plights of Africans in that regard, a priority in our national and continental deliberations and policies. This has made some people of good consciences to begin to ask questions: Africa, Quo Vadis in this 21st century! Should we fold our arms and watch the return to culture of ‘neo-fascism’ or ‘neo-Nazism’ in the 21st century, and the continued humiliation of our people and continent in the Diasporas?
The question is: why are Africans the most targeted of the anti-immigration walls and laws sweeping the Western Hemisphere and their allied countries in recent years? Related to the above is the question: Why is it that these modern migration walls and anti-immigration laws only target the southern continents and peoples from those regions, especially Africans? Why are migration walls not erected also in the northern boundaries of the Western Hemisphere as in the southern continents? Again, why is it that African immigrants are the most vulnerable and often most despised people in foreign lands wherever they found themselves today?
The answer to these questions could be located within the ambient of the burden of history of modern Africa. From the time Vasco Da Gama encircled Africa for the West in 1498 through the Atlantic Ocean voyage till today, the continent has never been the same again. This is in addition to the early Arab merchants’ military conquest of North Africa and subsequent incursion into sub-Saharan Africa. The African person, land, culture and world-view have been under serious attack since then. The African narrative and relationship with the world are shaped and continued to be shaped by these past events of our history as a people located in the geographical space called Africa, blessed by God with our own skin pigmentation, as it were. All the modern world narratives and relationship with Africa have continued to build on these past foundations and events surrounding the African encounter with the West and the Arab. This is what has formed and has continued to inform the world perception and dealings with Africa and its people. It is also the driving force behind the anti-immigration walls and laws in the West, which generally, target the people of African descent, as the case may be.
In this article, we shall compare the biblical significance as well as the meaning of migrations in other world religions with the modern attitudes and reactions to migrations as it touches the relationship between Africa and Northern Hemisphere. The sharp contrast between the biblical and other Holy Scripts’ conceptions and witnesses to migrations in relation to the modern day anti-immigration laws and building of walls of barriers against immigrants, is emphasized. The biblical meaning of migrations centers mainly on ‘risks and vulnerability’, as against the modern attitudes to immigrants in the Northern Hemisphere which prioritizes building of walls of separation and promulgation of anti-immigration laws against foreigners from the poor countries of the southern continents, especially Africans.
The Bible and Migrations
The “spirit of migration” permeates the biblical record and defines biblical religion. The image of the sojourner, indeed of life as a sojourn (splendidly depicted in Psalm 121) is a dominant theme, to such an extent, in fact, that the greatest peril to religious vitality and experience of the divine comes not from the trauma of violent displacement or the precariousness of exile and exodus. Rather it comes from the false sense of security derived from “having ‘arrived’ at the full and final expression of power and domination – man’s inhumanity to man, which is an antithesis of what migration is meant to serve. In other words, an immigrant is a seeker of solace, peace, truth, justice and liberty, and so not a threat to anybody or host community. Even those who question the historicity of the biblical story are forced to acknowledge that exile and exodus shape “the subtext of the narratives and rhetoric of the Hebrew Bible to the point of ‘narratological’ obsession.” Not only do we encounter every major form of migration in the biblical account, but also the biblical story and message would be meaningless without migration and mobility.
Therefore, the interface between human mobility and divine purposes in the biblical story is unmistakable and compelling. According to Jehu J. Hanciles, an African theologian from Sierra Leone, “The inextricable link between migrant movement and the missio Dei (the mission of God) arguably confirms the historicity of many events. It is also strongly paradigmatic of the biblical God’s intimate involvement in human affairs.” In other words, to claim that the God of the Bible is a God of mission is to accept that he makes himself known to human beings through ordinary, culturally conditioned experiences, such as migration. In fact, few experiences are more basic to the human condition than migration. Migration and exile form bookends (of sorts) to the biblical record. The earliest chapters record the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23), the call of Abraham by God to depart from his fatherland to an unknown place (Genesis 12), the election of the people of Israel by God and the Exodus event – the journey from Egypt through the deserts to the Promised Land (Exodus 15:22-27). Moreover, the last book of the Bible contains the magnificent vision of the apostle John, who is exiled on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
In fact, for some theologians, the book of Genesis might well have been named the book of “migrations.” The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – the first recorded migration – sets in motion further consequential migration events linked to human need and divine action. Cain is condemned to be “fugitive and a wanderer on the earth (Genesis 4:12); and a major ecological disaster imposes refugee status on Noah, along with his family and any number of living creatures. This ordeal ends with the divine proclamation “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1), a “global” mandate that forms a background of the “tower of Babel” episode (Genesis 11). The latter event, so evocative of divine intervention in history, highlights the actions of a specific group of migrants who settle in Babylon (Genesis 11:2). It also furnishes a compelling interpretative framework for global migration: “from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9). Here too we encounter, through a subtle rhetorical usage, not a fearful and insecure deity who regards humans as a threat but a God so elevated and exalted that he must descend to catch sight of efforts that, from a human standpoint, represent a pinnacle of accomplishment.
Furthermore, we should not forget that the whole of New Testament is full of migration narratives, beginning with the humble story of the birth of Jesus in a Manger at Bethlehem when Joseph and Mary were returning home for the Census. The most dramatic migration, however, was the flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, Joseph and Mary with the Infant Jesus, who sought refuge in Egypt (Africa) to escape the bloody threat of Herod, looking for the Child, described as a newly born King by the three Wise Man from the East, to kill. Persecutions of the Apostles and members of the early Christian community after the event of the Pentecost (Acts 2), and the Martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7), their dispersion to various parts of the then known world, signaled a new page in the life and mission of the nascent Christian community of the New Testament. That is the first meeting-point of migration and mission in Christian missionary movement. Without that persecution and consequent migrations of the Apostles and early Christians, Christianity’s global outreach could not have been so challenging and successful as to spread to all corners of the world.
In our own time, however, there is a growing recognition of the role of migrations in Christian expansion and missionary activity. We are yet to engage in serious reflection about the way in which recent transformations within global Christianity itself (and even Islam as world religion) were aided by global migration. As said before, between 1500s and 1900s, the global migration was from the North to the South. That made the southern continents major centers of missionary engagement. But in recent times, the trend has shifted. The present migration from the South to the North points to the West as a major frontier of religious interaction and missionary engagement. The dynamic of international migrations in missionary enterprise is not new to the history of Christian mission. As we have shown already, the Bible bears witness to the inextricable connection between migration and mission and sees such linkage as a prominent factor in the history of Christian expansion. The fact that this connection is largely, overlooked in modern scholarship has something to do with the unwarranted distinctions created by the North-South geopolitics divide and their modern mechanisms of impoverishment of the countries of the southern continents, especially, in their dealings with Africa.
In all, however, the Bible teaches us that migrations follow the roots of salvation history and its fulfilment at the appointed time. Without human mobility, there will be no mission. People move with their faith and culture. We should bear in mind that the dispersion and multiplication of the races described in Genesis chapter 10 (mentioned earlier in this article), is behind the “tower of Babel” narrative. The “tower of Babel” signifies anti-migration. A central aim in the building project is to forestall further movement: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11.4). The Babel project stands in opposition to the diasporic scattering of the nations and peoples in a way that allows them to experience the God of Heaven through a multiplicity of contexts and a diversity of cultural experiences. As the Apostle Paul declared centuries later, “from one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live (i.e., cultural environment), so that they would search for God” (Acts 17:26-27). ‘Cultural diversity is a strongly biblical idea; the notion of a single global culture is not.’
In other words, it is within the particularity of culture that human ideas, human genius, and human creativity find their fullest expression. It is also within the particularity of cultural existence that God of Heaven is revealed and encountered. All human cultures are, of course, deformed by human sinfulness and are in need of redemption; but no culture or cultural system has a greater capacity than any other for facilitating responses to, or experience of, the divine. From a Christian perspective, it is not necessary to abandon one’s culture (or switch cultural traditions) in order to experience salvation through Jesus Christ. God has no favorite culture! As the prophet Amos reminded the people of Israel, “they were no dearer to God than the Africans” (Amos 9:7). So integral is cultural specificity to God’s plan of universal salvation that it endures until the end of the ages when “a great multitude …, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [stand] before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Babel, in essence (like building walls against immigrants from Africa or elsewhere), is a metaphor for cultural absolutism. It stands for monolithic human social projects that perpetuate a singular experience and attempt to impose the name and language (or culture) of one group on all others. It exemplifies the secular ideal: idolatry of human achievement (“let us build”), the quest for power, for immortality (“a name”), and hegemonic advancement of one cultural group (“one language”) at the expense of messy, cacophonic, cultural diversity.
Furthermore, the “tower of Babel” declaration, “let us build … a tower (“a wall”) with its top to the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:14), also represents the antithesis of mission and redemption. The biblical concept of “mission” – which basically, denotes actions and events (not always self-evident) related to God’s plan of salvation – implies movement, sending, boundary crossing, and translation. It originates in divine initiative: the acts of self-disclosure, self-revelation, and ultimately the self-emptying of the incarnation whereby God is made manifest and encountered within specific cultural contexts. Insofar as it involves human agency, mission inevitably requires cross-cultural movement, or the crossing of boundaries, in which the primary experience is of vulnerability and risk, a readiness to live on another’s terms – features typified by migration and resettlement. Structures of domination and violent subjugation may facilitate mission up to a point; but they ultimately epitomize the spirit of Babel. They are emblematic of the finality, reliance on human structures, triumphalism, and false sense of security that imperil the continuing experience of God’s power and salvation available to all humanity.
Other major world religions also witness to the veracity of migration as part of human history. For example, Buddha, the founder of Buddhism had to leave his native land, India because of persecutions he and his followers suffered there at the beginning of his movement. He settled in the Far East of Japan and China where his new movement and religion was later to take strong root.
The founder of Islamic religion, Muhammed, at the beginning of his movement was exiled from his homeland, Mecca. Moreover, when his first followers were persecuted in Mecca, they took shelter in Ethiopia, where they received an unprecedented African hospitality. For this, Muhammed forbade Muslims from attacking or invading Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopians were the only Christians who originally enjoyed a friendly relationship with Islam. Therefore, the Quran forbade jihad against the Ethiopians, calling them “a humble people of priests and monks.”
Modern African Migrations and the Burden of History
It is a known fact that Libya has assumed a new status as a major route being used by the migrating young Africans seeking the almighty imaginary green pasture in Europe. This phenomenon has been on for some years now, even during the era of the late Libyan maximum leader, Gaddafi. Nelson Mandela visited Libya in 1991 when he was released from the Robin Island Prison where he had spent 27 excruciating years under the defunct Apartheid Regime in South Africa. In Libya, Mandela visited detention camps and centers of African immigrants en route to Europe. He saw in first person, what these migrating young Africans were undergoing already in Libya, what awaits them in traversing the Mediterranean Sea and on arrival at the Coasts of Western Hemisphere. Speaking to Newsmen later in Tripoli, capital of Libya, Mandela cried out to the consciences of the world in the following timeless words:
“These young Africans are coming to you not for alms or your so-called charity, but for support in their struggle for freedom and fight against injustice.”
By this, Mandela wanted to remind the world that the causes of modern migration from Southern continents to the countries of the North Atlantic world or the West are not different from those of fifteenth and nineteenth centuries’ European migration to the Global South. Because the European migration to the southern continents in the 15th and 19th centuries, were in large part, as a result of the need of a people struggling for survival and freedom in Europe.
During those early centuries migration from the North to the South, the people were running away from oppressive regimes of the then European feudal powers and palaces, the never-ending wars among the Princes and the Kings of the Medieval Era and civilization in Europe. There was also the ecological factors, the harsh arctic and extreme cold weather that had made the people to leave fatherland in Europe and seek greener pastures in the southern continents. These were among the major factors responsible for the continued aggressive plunder of African Crude Oil and other natural and mineral resources by Europe since the time Vasco da Gama surrounded Africa for them in 1498. Since then they have come to discover that they cannot survive as a people even in their own land, without the crude Oil, and other natural and mineral resources from Africa. Since they would not succumb to negotiating with Africa, as that would mean, the so-called superior race, bowing before a people they had classified as their inferior. They felt the need, therefore, to hold firm control of these African products regardless of the feelings of Africans who owned the land in the first place. Because, for the invaders, those African products were their birthright meant to warm Europe, especially during the winter season and provide raw materials needed for the industrial and technological revolution already under way.
In other words, the European incursion into African continent since 15th century, till date, have more to do with the plight of a people struggling for survival and freedom in their homeland. Unfortunately, the movement of African products to Europe on its own part, has since then, been “one-way traffic.” African boundaries, markets and resources must remain open to Europe. On the contrary, Europe is not bound to open-up its boundaries and resources to African people. Moreover, any manufactured good from Africa is forever, forbidden in Europe. ‘It is like, I own you and your house, but you have no access to mine.’ Period!
All these confirm our earlier proposition that human migration has remained a fact of history and the causes of it have almost remained the same. Migration has been described as, “an irrepressible human urge.” Most of recent studies and legal criteria on modern migrations are often loaded with ideological interpretations and factors. Often they provide a tragic distortion of the essence and causes of migration in human history, including ours today. Most of the studies are yet to engage in serious reflection about the way in which modern history of the encounters between the Global South and the North, beginning from the fifteenth century onwards, impact on the massive displacement of peoples from the southern continents, majority of whom today are living in situations of despair and hopelessness.
Between 1500s and 1900s, the global migration was from the North to the South. That made the southern continents major centers of cultural as well as missionary engagements, with their consequences of exploitation and domination of the South by the North. In recent times, however, the trend has changed, at least on the surface and as regards to human mobility only. Because while the centers of power and domination have remained in the North with its structures of exploitation and control, the people of the southern continents have continued to experience on daily basis, entrenched structures of impoverishment, political instability, conflicts, wars and other industries of misery. That means that the present-day south-north human mobility rules out structures of dominance or control on the part of the migrating Africans. This is unlike the European immigrants of the 15th and 19th centuries who wielded power over their hosts. Modern African migration and the African immigrants in the Northern Hemisphere, epitomize the biblical sense of migration – risks and vulnerability.
Moreover, the presence of African immigrants in the West today – the relative economic poverty and political powerlessness of the migrating Africans, gives us the picture of the nature of the emerging global world, the complex interaction and interdependence between the global and the local, a dynamic process that renders the constructs of “margin” and “center” fluid and interchangeable. African migration typifies this central paradox. In its historical relationship with the North Atlantic world, African migration shows how our global world is today, marked by complex interplay of domination and weakness, paternalism and marginalization. The global world – its center or centers are also on the margins. Example of this tension between the “center” and the “margin” of the global world today can be seen in the recent controversy within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Another example is the debate that ensued between the African Roman Catholic Bishops and their Western counterparts at the recently held two Synods of Bishops on the Family convoked by Pope Francis in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The African Catholic Bishops present at the two Synods in Rome stood on their grounds and upheld African, Christian family and marriage values as against the relativistic Western liberalism that pushed to change the long held traditional moral and religious values of the two institutions – family and marriage. At least, the Anglican Communion experience and that of the Roman Catholic Church, is recognition that, quite often, the tail is wagging the dog.
Again, on its own, human mobility is a fact of human history and it is not a sin. Human mobility is part of God’s plan for humanity. Migration as part of human social ecology is never intended by the Creator to be treated by human beings as if it is antithetical to His original plan of salvation for all humanity and the created universe. For thousands of years, the unpredictability and precariousness of normal life made migration and relocation the norm in human existence. Myriad factors, from little-understood ecological changes (including occurrences of famine and natural disasters) to overly aggressive neighbors and the perennial round of military violence, oppressive regimes, state-sponsored or feudal regimes’ oppressive attitudes, exploitation of the poor and their land by the powerful ruling-minority and elites, wars, etc., necessitated recurrent movement. Mobility was essential for survival. Long before the development of large-scale agricultural cultivation of land (c. 5500 B.C.E.) allowed the formation of high-density populations, permanent settlement with requisite social hierarchies and formal political structure remained an exception in human experience. For as long as human beings have inhabited the planet, relocation, displacement, and population transfers have marked the human condition.
All this implies that there is need for a new kind of relationship based on mutual equality and respect between Africa and the world. A new kind of relationship capable of addressing seriously the present problem of poverty and political instability in African countries that form the root causes of massive displacement of peoples through modern migrations.
The reshaping of the global world through the complex interaction and interdependence between the “global” and the “local” has rendered the growing anti-immigration laws and building of walls of separation against African immigrants and others in the North Atlantic world a defunct and meaningless effort. The old heartlands exemplified domination and territorial control, national religion, cultural superiority, a fixed universal vision. In acute contrast, the emerging global south, with Africa as its poster child, embody vulnerability and risk, religious plurality, immense diversity of people of faith experience and expression, as well as structures of dependency. These disparities necessarily translates into new forms and models of relationships among diverse peoples and different religious and cultural geographical regions of the globe. What is not in doubt is that the future of the global world will be decided not by the growing anti-immigration laws or building of walls of separation by governments in the North Atlantic world. Rather, mainly by the outcome of new initiatives in the interaction and interdependence between the “old centers” and the new “margins” of the global world. This will lead the two centers into a meeting-point in uncharted waters.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.