I know we’re always looking for ways to annoy our fundamentalist friends and family, so here’s something: the exodus, the central narrative of the Jewish tradition and the paradigm for the Christian journey, didn’t really happen. It’s true. There’s a pretty substantial archaeological record from the period it would have happened, about 3000-3500 years ago, but not a bit of evidence of a massive migration of 600,000 people from Egypt to Canaan. There should be artifacts from Egypt, cultural influences from their time there, records of a disruption – something. But there’s not.
One plausible theory of the origins of Israel is that the stories of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt are the collected memories of a variety of peoples who lived in Canaan and Egypt around the 13th century BCE. There were people called habiru who did not claim loyalty to any state. They were sojourners, aliens. They had a bad reputation as transient outlaws, roadside brigands that disrupted the trade of the nation-states in which they wandered. Sometimes they were migrant laborers or captured to become slaves. Some of those slaves appear to have escaped at various times, which might form the kernel of the memory of the exodus combined with other Canaanite narratives to generate the cultural identity of the nation of Israel.
Now, it’s not that important whether one believes the exodus really happened or not. The important thing for our consideration today is the way that the people of Israel constructed their identity, the things they chose to focus on in writing their story. The three figures that loom the largest in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, are wanderers, aliens. Abraham lived as an alien in Egypt and Philistine. Jacob fled from his brother Esau’s wrath and lived as an alien with Laban. Moses was an alien in Midian after fleeing a murder rap in Egypt. Then he wandered in the desert for forty years with the Hebrew people. Even after that, when they finally settled down, built Jerusalem and the Davidic kingdom, they were destroyed and exiled, strangers in a strange land.
We commonly focus on the Promised Land, equating it with traditional Christian notions of the afterlife. “Oh when shall I see Jesus and reign with Him above/and from a flowing fountain drink everlasting love/I’m on my way to Canaan/I’m on my way to Canaan/I’m on my way to Canaan to the New Jerusalem.” If we can just make it to the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, things will finally, finally be okay. But I wonder if we shortchange the wandering and in the process ignore the wanderer, the transgressor of boundaries, the disruptor of the dominant culture.
First, it should be clear that God likes the alien. I honestly don’t see how anyone can read the Bible and have a negative attitude toward immigrants. In addition to the Patriarchs, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees in Egypt, fleeing the threats of Herod. When the Bible speaks of aliens, there are no qualifications, no criteria, no equivocation. In Matthew 25, Jesus does not say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me after providing proper documentation.” It’s very clear. No ifs, ands, or buts. The just welcome the stranger. So as a matter of basic compassion, we should support the alien, regardless of legal status. But there is a deeper issue here: the question of where and how we find God. To get there, let’s back up a bit and look at how Christians have related to the world around them in the past.
Growing up a Southern Baptist, missionaries were legendary figures. Any time a missionary came home, they got the pulpit for the day. We heard about providing medical supplies in Palestine. We heard about sneaking Bibles into communist countries in hidden compartments in a car, like James Bond for Jesus. And we heard a lot about conversions. The world was being saved one village at a time.
What we did not hear about was the cozy relationship between Christian missions and Western empire. Sometimes, the Christians got there first and countries or companies came in ostensibly to ensure their safety, but coincidentally opened up the native people and resources to exploitation. Sometimes, the countries and companies got there first and the Christians came to the newly secured and infrastructured place to accommodate the native people to Western culture, a.k.a., religion. Either way, Christian missions were frequently complicit in the spread of Western economic, military, and political power. This is not just the story of the spread of Protestant missions in the 20th century, but the story of Christianity at least as far back as the 4th century. Whether it’s the Roman Empire converting the “barbarians” of Europe, or the Spanish Empire converting the “savages” of the New World, or today’s evangelicals working hard to convert Africa and Asia, it’s the same story. Native cultures are destroyed and native people and resources are used up.
Once everything is used up, people have no choice but to move. For survival, people must migrate. Abraham left his land because of famine. The Hebrews left Egypt because they were enslaved, not unlike the Mexicans in the maquiladoras on the border, assembling products that they will never be able to buy. People migrate because they have to, because someone’s greed has taken away all the other options. That lack of options makes it difficult to imagine a way out of this, but as we have said, God is in the business of the impossible.
Like the ancient Hebrews transforming their homelessness and alienation into stories of legendary wanderers and heroic escapes from oppression, Leticia Guardiola-Saenz transforms the narrative of her life, as we all do. Guardiola-Saenz is a Bible professor in Seattle, but she grew up in the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley, ten blocks from the International Bridge of Reynosa. She describes it, looking back:
Now, the old bridge of my childhood, the site of struggle, rupture and hybridity, depicts not just the broader picture of the divided identity of the Mexican-American population of the borderlands, but it is also a place for dialogue and construction from which I can assemble my hybrid identity, denounce oppression, fight for justice, and call for liberation.
The border that runs through her life becomes a source of strength and the possibility of transformation. She quotes Homi Bhabha, a post-colonial theorist: “The transformational value of change lies in the rearticulation, or translation, of elements that are neither the One nor the Other but something else besides, which contests the terms and territories of both.” I can’t think of a better way to describe God.
God does not eliminate difference, but God contests the ease with which we codify difference. We want a bright line between America and its neighbors. We want a bright line between black and white. We want a bright line between male and female, gay and straight. But no one sits solidly on either side of those lines, so much so that those lines are constantly deconstructed. That is God’s promise in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” God crosses boundaries. God disrupts. God wanders. God is the stranger at our door, waiting to be welcomed.
How do we understand our relationship with the world outside of our borders, however we define those? What are we to do?
What borders to we live on? What boundaries to we transgress? In what way are hybrids?
Russ Castronovo: “pay attention to the borders, for it is in these uncertain regions where the landscape of politics is most susceptible to sudden change and reversal.”
Christian identity as diaspora
God is found on the Other side
Marcella: “Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognize God sitting amongst us, at any time.”
“The Other side is in reality a pervasive space.”