There is something tragically humbling about a plane that can simply disappear. Modern civil aviation produces gliding cities in the sky, vast pieces of metal and technology that to look at in an airport lounge are so large in scale that it is reasonable to ask how anything that chunky could ever get off the ground and back down again safely. Yet, this is exactly what we do as a global village on the move, day by day, year by year. There are around 9 million commercial flights a year in the U. S. alone, and for the vast majority of those there is no sense that we are putting ourselves in harms way by getting on board. Not so, it would seem, for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, now declared lost to the sea.
The truth is that human journeying has always been fraught with risk. From the first migrations from the cradle of human civilization in today’s sub-Saharan Africa some 60,000 years ago to those who cross treacherous borders by foot today, risking death by exposure, arrest, or human trafficking, we move from homeland to homeland knowing that our longing for a better country is a desire that is often fulfilled at a cost. Yet, despite these risks, this desire to be on the move is one that as a species we pursue at an ever-increasing rate. The Global Commission for International Migration (GCIM) estimates that there are over 200 million migrants in the world, defined as anyone who is currently one year or more outside of the country of their birth. The GCIM also lays out the complexity of the issues surrounding global patterns of migration, suggesting that wage disparities, unemployment rates, differentials in life expectancy, education gaps, and demographic gradients account for the rate of migration today.
Readers of the biblical narrative are no strangers to stories of migration. From Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, Abraham and Moses leading the people of God to new (albeit already occupied) lands of promise, to Paul’s missionary journeys and Jesus’ ministry continuously crossing literal and figurative borders, the foundational stories of the Jewish and Christian faiths are of people on the move. Furthermore, the theologies of these travel tales are of a God who is similarly not fixed to one point. The fantastical image from Ezekiel, of the glory of God leaving the Temple on wheels within wheels, is a cautionary note for all those who might seek to definitively locate the holiness of God to their particular time and place. For the ancient Israelites, the Temple was not the singular place where God’s name might dwell; even in the strange land of exile, God might be found.
Given all of this desire to find a better country that is so clearly and deeply engrained in our human psyche, how might those who profess a faith in this nomadic God relate to current day migration stories? One response to this 200 million people strong phenomenon might be to see border-crossing as a paradigmatic marker of what it means to be of faith in the world. The Christian claims about Jesus pivot on the fundamental movement of God to humanity in what might be seen as the ultimate border-crossing from the divine to the human. Such a movement is characterized in Philippians as a self-emptying, a kenosis such that the fullness of God in Jesus does not overwhelm the fullness of his humanity. Day by day, people are overwhelmed by circumstances and unfulfilled hopes at the borderlands of our world. What might it be like for Christian identity to be expressed as one that is similarly of a borderland, a liminal location of the self that straddles the edge between human longing and fulfillment? As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, God is not ashamed to be called the God of the migrant, ‘for he has prepared a city for them’. The city of God is at the borderland now, there we shall find our God, there we shall find ourselves.