Over the last year, I’ve been part of a community movement that has welcomed a number of Syrian refugee families to our small city on the Canadian prairies. Canada’s refugee sponsorship model is unique in that groups of five or more individuals (often from churches or community groups) can privately sponsor refugees. This sponsorship entails looking after the refugees’ financial needs for the first year and providing social support for the first year and beyond. Over the last ten months, I’ve found it richly rewarding to journey with our new Syrian friends.
But as delightful as it has been to watch my new friends take their first steps in our country, there are questions, too. How will this new reality change them and how they understand themselves? How will it change those of us who have been here for a long time? Although hands of friendship have been extended in both directions, their ways are somewhat strange to us, and ours are certainly strange to them. Things have to change when difference is introduced to any equation; we must adapt when we begin to bump up against people who have been shaped in contexts wildly different from our own.
This fall is a fascinating time to think about how we understand these questions, which all seem to hinge on some basic questions: Who am I? And who are we? These questions are not merely abstract ones for me or for the Syrian newcomers. So much of the news is driven by a resurgence of familiar identity markers in the face of threat—we look at Europe and observe the fear and tension that seems to dominate public consciousness. Whether it’s the fallout of the migrant crisis that gripped our collective imaginations in the fall of 2015, with the photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, or the perceived effects of longer-term patterns of immigration from troubled regions of the world, many people, both in Canada and south of the border, are wondering just how much difference can be absorbed while maintaining our existing identities and preserving peace.
Each week seems to produce a fresh new set of grim and foreboding headlines that jump out at us when we open our computers. Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Baghdad, Nice—it’s not hard to imagine things getting worse. It’s also not hard to imagine that the simmering resentment toward “outsiders” in Europe might erupt into much nastier and more overt forms of racism, religious intolerance, violence, and political instability. With the Brexit vote in our not-too-distant memory, it’s not hard to imagine the European political landscape taking an abrupt turn toward the Right. Political parties representing the hard Right in France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands are already making considerable gains in a sociopolitical context that is increasingly defined by polarization, extreme racial tension, and fear.
Many also fear what a Donald Trump presidency might add to the mix. Over the last year or so, we have observed an American presidential race that is sharply divided along identity lines. We hear talk of walls being built to keep the wrong sorts of people out and to safeguard the privileges of the right sorts of people. We observe the scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims, and we see deep racial tensions brought to the foreground when the spate of police shootings over the past year are answered by the triumphant call to “make America great again!” In light of the threats, tensions, and uncertainties our world is currently experiencing, many reflexively respond to Trump’s call to return to familiar and self-protective lines and divisions between human beings.
These sociological, religious, and political realities are exerting pressure on how we form, maintain, and wrestle with questions of identity. They are creating new challenges and forming what may seem like impermeable boundaries between us and others. Given these challenges, I’ve been thinking more and more about whether there is a uniquely Christian contribution to the conversation. How ought our views of personal, ethnic, or even religious identity be shaped by the teachings of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth?
One possible response to these questions comes from an unexpected, if tangentially related source. Several months ago, I read an article on adoption by J. D. Flynn at First Things. The gist of the piece was that adoption, while admirable in many ways, was a “deviation” from the natural order and that we should be doing more to render adoption unnecessary. The article didn’t sit well with me, but at the time I didn’t bother to think deliberately about why this was. Then, more recently, I reread the article and zeroed in on the following paragraph:
But even in the most beautiful circumstances, adoption always represents a disruption to the natural order. Catholic social teaching emphasizes both the natural rights of children to their parents, and the supernatural privilege of parents to share in the procreative love of God the Father. . . . Adoption, by which natural parental rights are severed, is a deviation from that pattern.1
As an adoptive father, I am keenly aware that adoptive families face important challenges that “natural” families do not encounter, and I agree that there is an element of “tragic sadness” to all adoption stories. I am even prepared to admit that adoption can easily be romanticized and used for selfish ends. However, I also think Flynn has missed something crucial about God, adoption, and what that “natural order” looks like in God’s arrangement of things.
Contrary to Flynn’s interpretation, my sense is that the natural order, as established by the God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ, is better characterized as bringing impossibly different people together and calling them family. The story of Scripture—and the story of God—is about the creation of a profoundly “unnatural order” and a new identity, one where Gentiles eat with Jews, tax collectors and prostitutes mingle with religious know-it-alls, and gender biases are abolished. The new world order is one where the last become first and the first become last; sinners and saints embrace, realizing they are one and the same; and every tribe and tongue is brought together by the one God who made and loves them all.
This vision is what gives me hope when I read of the roiling tensions and the refugee crisis in Europe or when I anxiously wonder how the presidential election will unfold in the United States. This is how I think about myself and the world when I look to political hotspots like Israel and Palestine or when I think of the families I know and love that have kids with different colored skin and ethnic backgrounds. This Christian vision of identity grounds my conviction that our new Syrian friends do indeed belong with us and we with them. On a purely pragmatic level, it makes no sense to throw all this difference together in families and churches and cities and nations and to then expect it to end well. From that perspective, we should expect conflict and identity crises and scarcity and pain. We should bemoan disruptions in the natural order; we should cling to what is safe, predictable, and natural; we should tell people to stay where they belong.
But as followers of Jesus, we have been liberated from looking at things pragmatically. As followers of Jesus, we are free to imagine families, churches, cities, and nations that struggle and strain and stretch toward the glorious reality of God’s unnatural order. As followers of Jesus, we have been set free to ground our identities not in ethnicity or socioeconomic status or religion but in our shared humanity as dearly loved children of our stranger-welcoming and enemy-loving God.
Our present cultural moment asks a great deal of those of us who name Jesus as our Lord and teacher. It asks us to resist easy scapegoating and convenient boundary-maintenance. It asks us to not only decide to walk with open hands and generous hearts toward our neighbor but also to identify with them. This is a primary movement of faith. It is a way in which we imitate the way Christ moved toward us, calling us away from tribalistic allegiances to those with the right colored skin or the right flag or the right religion and toward the most unlikely of neighbors in love.
Faith ultimately asks us to remember and imagine differently as we think about who we are and how we belong in the world. In the Hebrew Bible, the divine command to care for the stranger is tied directly to the fact that the people of Israel were also once strangers in Egypt (e.g., Deut. 10:19). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sums up all of the Law and the Prophets—and all is a surprisingly comprehensive word there—in the simple exhortation to do to others as we would have done to us (Matt. 7:12). The former urges us to better memory, the latter to better imagination. As followers of Jesus, we need both, if we are ever to learn who we really are, who we really should be, in and for the world.
- Flynn, “Adoption, Abortion, and a Message of Hope,” First Things, August 27, 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/08/adoption-abortion-and-a-message-of-hope.