Everyone migrates, whether a few short blocks every day or across continents over many weeks, and the land we cross doesn’t actually belong to anyone but God.
That claim scrambles how most people organize the world we currently inhabit. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to live its implications – a borderless world with no political boundaries, let alone gated communities, designated wetlands, national parks, secured parking garages, and countless other spaces marked with painted or fenced lines.
But I am sure of this: modern Western society perfected a system of belonging that has very little if anything to do with actual land and terrain and nearly everything to do with political allegiance and religious affiliation. And this, too: navigating that system – migrating – carries enormous economic and cultural consequences, often life-and-death choices. And one more thing: belonging is never clear and absolute, despite both legal and political rhetoric to the contrary; it’s always ambiguous, intentionally.
I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. I was fascinated by the behavioral patterns of different species of animals, including the mind-numbing treks whales take across oceans and the ones managed by butterflies over vast fields and mountain ranges. Canada geese caught my attention every fall and each spring, their honking migration punctuating my walk to school.
I grew up in a settled suburb in one house for my entire childhood. Migration is what other species do, I thought, not humans. But of course, our species migrates constantly and always has. We began somewhere on the continent of Africa and then walked, for a long time, and filled the planet.
We migrate for many reasons – wanderlust, better resources, fleeing violence, escaping tyranny, following a lover who got a great job offer. But these movements are rarely unfettered.
Those people are taking our jobs.
We don’t have enough resources for them.
Our cultural heritage is being destroyed.
They bring chaos and violence.
These are not new concerns. The ancient Israelites worried about “exotic” cultural practices staining their religious life (we find this in texts supposedly condemning gay men like me). Early Christians worried about “pagans” and gentiles corrupting their newly gestating faith (which would include, well, gentile men like me).
And yet, sacred texts likewise declare the primacy of caring for the stranger and sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:34 – the same book, ironically, that worries about exotic influences); insist on pilgrimage as a vital characteristic of faith (Hebrews 13:14); and portray Jesus himself fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his parents, presumably without a passport (Matthew 2:13).
I keep wondering why migration so quickly provokes anxiety and panic, and I keep returning to money and power.
William T. Cavanaugh offers some helpful framing for this. I’m thinking especially of his analysis in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. He notes, for example, that national borders are actually not meant to keep all “others” out but only to regulate their crossings.
Even in an age of multi-national corporations, Cavanaugh insists that corporate entities require national boundaries to regulate the flow of human capital – think Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California picking the fruit I buy at Trader Joe’s. Think as well on the fear they live with every day, which keeps them willing to work for wages I wouldn’t take and under conditions I would not accept.
That’s the money part. The power part is drenched in white supremacy. “Whiteness” is no less an invention of Euro-Americans than the borders defining nation-states; both will be defended to the death. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the regime of Jim Crow made this perfectly clear: “Whiteness” depends on the proximity of a subservient “other,” a vast underclass of colored people against which “Whiteness” itself is defined. Equality is the presenting heresy in this worldview, not the mere presence of people of color.
“White nationalist” rhetoric would seem at odds with this view, but only at first blush. White nationalists do want to be separated from people of color, but not so far away as to lose reasons for their superiority. I recoil at the crudeness of this, its vulgarity.
Perhaps I recoil too much, sitting on my heap of white, male, economic privileges. I’m not talking about guilt – though it does linger unhelpfully around the edges. I mean: how many borders and boundaries am I willing to let dissolve and fade away in the light of the Gospel? How much do I rely on all those demarcations for my own sense of self and safety?
I struggle with these questions and can’t imagine trying to respond by myself. That’s why I keep going to church, to the Eucharistic Table, to that borderless access to divine life. There I can be reminded, or try to be, that we’re all in this together; that there is no safety in isolation; that our shared distress is rooted in powerful forces that would keep us separated. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t risk what I must, without others.
Protesting at rallies, lobbying Congress, advocating for policy changes, resisting the totalizing effects of global capitalism – all of that matters. These matter, too: dinner parties with our neighbors whose names we don’t know and who speak with an “accent”; noticing the people we work with whose skin color is different and whether everyone makes the same wage; stopping the car and talking with the fruit sellers on the corner, the day-laborers at Home Depot, the imam down the street.
We get to know people, care for them, find ourselves happily in solidarity with them, and we might suddenly decide to chain ourselves to a DACA deportee; if they go, we go. Because we, all of us, are a migratory species.
I like to imagine St. Paul nodding his head vigorously as he sits in prison, in chains, writing from his detention cell. That saint who insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female (Galatians 3:28) – no green-carder, no passport-holder, no citizen, no refugee, no ESL graduate. There are only creatures of God, all of us longing for home, to belong.
I see this – not always, but often enough – as I migrate to the Table.
One thought on “Our Migratory Species at the Table of Belonging”
The very term Western at the beginning of your blog is a racist one. It is a euphemism for white and Christian and indicates power and intent of limitations.
The fact that you grew up in a single house for your entire childhood is itself a sign of privilege – monetary, yes, but also racial. Migration is a normal and constant part of the life of people of color in this country, as well as of poor, white people.
The primary reasons for migration of people of color from faraway places are economic reasons (I have nothing to eat and no way to get anything to eat) and violence. Tyranny doesn’t get considered until one has fled, because living through the experience has to happen first. Other reasons are primarily reserved for people with privilege.
Migration provokes anxiety and panic because it forces an established people to look outside of their box and acknowledge that their way is not the only way. Difference always provokes anxiety and panic – some individuals deal with it better than others. Allowing difference to co-mingle does threaten power.
The dominant race in this country decided that it was a good thing to own other humans, but those other humans had to be different so that white people could somehow distance themselves from the horrors connected to that idea. That broken (sick, twisted, wrong) idea has never been corrected, fixed, healed, extricated. It was enculturated and passed on and kept alive and embraced and until we put that truth out in front of us and acknowledge it, we will not dismantle it.
You do need to wrestle with how your sense of safety is encased in the demarcations gifted to you in privilege, because it is only you, sitting on your heap of white, male, economic privileges that can change it. Only you. No one else. And it is exhausting to choose to confront that every moment of every day, but I would say it is much less exhausting than it is for a person of color – born here or somewhere else – who is forced to confront it every moment of every day because of how they look or sound.