A Theology of Strangers & Migration


Theology of Strangers and Migrat

19 October 2018

Dr Mogashudi Lucas Ngoetjana

Deputy CEO : Theology (KZNCC)

Abstract: The image of God among people remain intact, only their relationship becomes distorted because of fallen-ness. Jesus crossed the divine to the human, the Jewish to the Gentile, the men to the women, and the healthy to the sick and was prepared to die for that. Giving in to the acts of xenophobia is an expression of cowardice and spinelessness.

Introduction: Examining theological reflection in an age of migration, ‘[Groody] focuses on four foundations of a theology of migration and refugees: (1) Imago Dei: Crossing the Problem–Person Divide; (2) Verbum Dei: Crossing the Divine–Human Divide; (3) Missio Dei: Crossing the Human–Human Divide; and (4) Visio Dei: Crossing the Country–Kingdom divide. As a call to cross borders and overcome barriers, migration is a way of thinking about God and human life and an expression of the Christian mission of reconciliation”. Among other contributors to the reflection of theology of strangers and migrant it is Groody (2009; 2004) and Botha (2013) who are much engaged in this presentation.

Imago Dei: Crossing the Problem–Person Divide: “The Judeo-Christian tradition,” as the U.S. Catholic bishops have noted, “is steeped in images of migration,” from the migration of Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden (Gen 3:23–24), to the vision of the New Jerusalem in the final pages of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–4). In the book of Genesis we are introduced to a central truth that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jas 3:9). This is not just another label but a way of speaking profoundly about human nature. Defining all human beings in terms of imago Dei provides a very different starting point for the discourse on migration and creates a very different trajectory for the discussion. Imago Dei names the personal and relational nature of human existence and the mystery that human life cannot be understood apart from the mystery of God” (Groody 2009: 643).

Mind that the migration of Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden was because they were expelled for disobedience (Gen. 3: 20 – 24). Though expelled, they were accorded the dignity which is betrothed to humanity – the Lord God Made tunics of skin and clothed them (:20). Though from then henceforth their life outside the garden was going to be different from that inside the garden, the image of God in them was not taken away (5: 1 – 3; 9: 6).

Both men and women of all nations are made in the image of God. According to the theology of equality and gender: “Women and men are co-substantial, co-equal and co-existent just as the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit are in the God-head in the Trinity. Women and men are created in the image of the same God, as one flesh and one spirit (Gen. 1: 26 – 29; 2: 7, 23). Women and men are made of the same material substance. The choice of gender and human sexuality or sexual orientation is not a human privilege – meaning humans have no privilege of choosing their gender from conception. This applies to everyone migrant or host nationals.


Being human precedes what gender people are given from conception. In other words humans are human first before their given gender and sexual orientation. Gender is not essential to being human. All actions and thoughts informed by gender to define what is human are theologically baseless. All of us migrants and pilgrims are such secondary to being human made in the image of God.

Views that gender is worthy of being male against the worthlessness of being female which are informed by traditional culture and theology must be challenged. Men must wrestle with the idea that gender does not define what is human, but the principle of life or the Image of God does” (Ngoetjana 2015: 1 Unpublished).

“The expulsion from Eden of Adam and Eve, the original imago Dei, and their border-crossing into the land beyond, names the human propensity to move toward a state of sin and disorder (Gen 3:1–13). Sin disfigures the imago Dei, resulting in a fallen world that creates discord in relationships. The territory into which the Prodigal Son migrates and squanders all his worldly wealth (Lk 15:11–32) symbolizes this barren terrain; it is a place that moves people away from the original creative design into a place of estrangement from God, others, and themselves” (Groody 2009: 648).

Though Groody says sin disfigures the imago Dei, it seems it is the relationships that are disorientated. Seemingly, outside the Garden, Adam and Eve no longer relate from the perspective of innocence now that they know the difference between good and evil and are “like one of Us”  to know good and evil” – says the Lord. The image of God seems to go on unabated even in the state of the fallen-ness humanity finds itself (5: 1 – 3; 9: 6). The image of God remains unscathed in every human being but the relationship between people change because of fallen-ness.

Verbum Dei: crossing the divine–human divide

“The sojourn of the Verbum Dei into this world is riddled with political and religious controversies, many of which are connected to narratives about migration. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus enters the world amid a drama involving documentation (Lk 2:1–5). In Matthew’s account, Jesus and his family must flee a threat that endangers their lives, making them political refugees (Mt 2:13–17, a parallel to a foundational migration in biblical history, Exodus 1). In John‘s Gospel, many have trouble believing in Jesus precisely because of the place from which he emigrates (Jn. 7:41–43, 52). In a fallen world, human beings find many compelling political, legal, social, and religious reasons to exclude—and reject—the migrant Son of God” (Groody 2009: 649).

The world over humanity is subjected to counting and documentation as it happened in the book of Number and during the times of Jesus. All the laws, protocol and charters that have to do with migration are political instruments Jesus had to subject to as well. But crossing the divine to the human must have been an ordeal of humiliation and shame (Phil. 2) – of being obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross – a Kenosis experience.

Crossing the divine to the human also means being embedded into a context. The root from which the word contextualisation comes is shedding light on what it means. The word context, from which ‘contextualisation’ is derived comes from the Latin root ‘contextus’, which means, weaving together. The light which is shed shines clearly when one realises that contextualisation has to do with the whole of a given context woven together. In a single context are many people, experiences, regulations, institutions, sub-cultures, ideas, and things. All the uncountable components of a context have roles they play in shaping people, society, trends, history, culture, and ideas. Contextualisation looks at all that and brings out reasons and meanings for problems and answers. This is applicable to faith life and any other discipline of life. Jesus was in many ways a migrant who did not shy away to be embedded into a context in which he was meant to be born for the purposes of God.

How can we then discriminate against each other for our biggest context is the Universe? Our own planet and its continents are a geographical Mohorovicic discontinuity coincidence. Our national boundaries are just a convenience of political expediency and opportuneness.  For example, they are creations of the corruption of the partition of Africa colonisation, Christianisation and so called civilisation of people of the third world?       Jesus crossed the divine to the human, the Jewish to the Gentile, the men to the women, and the healthy to the sick and was prepared to die for that. Giving in to the acts of xenophobia is an expression of cowardice and spinelessness.

Karl Barth (quoted by Groody) writes of “the way of the Son of God into the far country.” He does not explicitly use the term “migration,” but his reflections are a way of speaking of God’s crossing over into the dark territory of a sinful, broken humanity. What distinguishes the Christian God from other, false gods, Barth notes, is that they are not ready for this downward mobility, “this act of extravagance, this far journey.” Through the Verbum Dei, Jesus’ kenosis and death on the cross, God overcomes the barriers caused by sin, redraws the borders created by people who have withdrawn from God, and enters into the most remote and abandoned places of the human condition. No aspect of a theology of migration is more fundamental, nor more challenging in its implications, than the incarnation. Through Jesus, God enters into the broken and sinful territory of the human condition in order to help men and women, lost in their earthly sojourn, find their way back home to God” (Groody).

Visio Dei: crossing the country–kingdom divide

“The imago Dei, verbum Dei, and missio Dei are all based on the visio Dei. The notion of visio Dei is based in large part on the Matthean beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). This blessedness has been debated throughout history” (Groody). In addition to pledging allegiance to a particular country, the visio Dei brings out that one’s ultimate obedience is to God alone, which leads one beyond any national and political boundaries to ultimate fidelity to the kingdom of God” (Groody).

What is the point of seeing God in heaven? The poor and marginalised want to see God now transforming the world for the good of all. The beatitudes must not be used for pietistic imagination. The Lords prayer demands that The Lord give us our daily breads and forgive our debts – not our sins – but debts.

“A theology of migration seeks to articulate a renewed vision of God and human life as it is lived out between the eschatological horizon of faith and unbelief and a historical horizon of justice and injustice … throughout the tradition visio Dei holds in tension two apparently contradictory biblical claims: some texts affirm that God can be seen (Gen 32:30; Isa 6:5; Mt 5:8); others deny it (Gen 32:30; Exod 33:20; Mt 11:27; Jn 1:18; 6:46; 1 Tm 6:16; 1 Jn 4:12). Like imago Dei, visio Dei is also much debated throughout history, particularly about how the vision of God deals with the relationship between this life and the next”.

Innocent III spoke of three kinds of vision of God: corporeal, veiled, and comprehensive. “The corporeal vision belongs to the senses; the veiled to images; the comprehensive to the understanding” (Innocent III, Sermon 31, PL 217, coll. 598–96 in Groody).

The visio Dei comes into focus in the person of Jesus Christ and the kingdom he proclaimed. The kingdom of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love, and peace brings people into a different kind of social and ethical territory. It is based not on geography or politics but on divine initiative and openness of heart, leading to a different kind of vision of the current world order, where many of the first are last and the last first (Mt 19:30; 20:16; Mk 10:31; Lk 13:29–30).

Jesus clearly taught that many of the values and metrics people employ to measure others will be inverted and that the excluded will be given priority in the kingdom. The kingdom calls people into movement, making church members exiles on earth, strangers in this world, and sojourners en route to another place. The word most frequently used for sojourner in the New Testament is paroikos, from which is derived the English word “parish” (Eph 2:19; 1 Pt 2:11). In Philippians 3:20 Paul describes Christians as living in this world but carrying the passport of another world: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The author of Hebrews speaks of the journey in hope toward a different place: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (Heb 13:14).

Missio dei: crossing the human–human divide

“The missio Dei is to restore the imago Dei in every person through the redemptive work of the Verbum Dei. The universal message of the gospel is directed to all nations and all peoples, and it is concerned with all aspects of human beings and the full development of every person. The church, through the power of the Spirit, takes up the Great Commission of Jesus by migrating to all nations, proclaiming the Good News of salvation, and working against the forces of sin that disfigure the imago Dei (Mt 28:16–20). In addition to the foundational ministries of Peter and Paul, tradition holds that such missionary endeavours led James to migrate to Spain, Phillip to Asia, and Thomas to India” (Groody).

Bibliography/ References/ Sources

Botha, N A. 2013. A theological perspective on migrants and migration focussing on the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Missionalia (Online) vol.41 n.2 Pretoria Aug. 2013.

Groody,  Daniel, CSC, ’86, 2004. A Theology of Immigration

Groody, D G, C.S.C 2009. Crossing the divide: foundations of a theology of migration and refugees. Theological Studies.

Ngoetjana M L. 2015. The Economics of Jesus. Unpublished.