Immigrant Life

I was going to make another post about a chunk of reading from Bishop Willimon’s book Who Will Be Saved? that I have been reading concurrently with his book Why I am a United Methodist. However, a certain something has arisen that presses more urgently on my mind.

I am an immigrant. If any of you have read my “about me” section when my blog was under the old format, I mentioned that I am an ex-patriot living in Germany. Where I live now is my… “adopted” place of residence. The Germans have a lovely word for us, “Ausländer.” That is: a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. Or, to put it more bluntly, an “outsider.” If I live here thirty, forty, fifty years I will remain an outsider to some people. How easily and highly we build our walls of separation! Here is our group, there are the “others.”

Why is this on my mind? Why is it so immediate to me? Well, to put it equally bluntly, Europe has racism problems. For the second time in the past few months my daily walk with my dog through the park next door to our house has been interrupted by Nazi propaganda. That is no exaggeration. For the second time this year I have found stickers plastered over the garbage cans and lamp posts that urge people to join the “free opposition” accompanied with the logo of the black flag of the national socialists. (It should be noted that such organizations while legal in Germany, are barely so and that they prey upon the disadvantaged and those who have slipped through the cracks.)

How do these stickers make me feel? Well, how would anyone feel when images and words are shoved in their face that say quite blatantly “You don’t belong. You are different. You are not one of us. You are a threat.”? It damn well hurts and angers. But more than that, it makes me afraid. It shoves in my face the reality that I am occupying a narrow space of bare tolerance. I have moved from a center to the margins. These stickers and their rhetoric remind me that I have become marginalized. I may be able to outwardly “pass” as German, but for some people that will never be good enough. I am a sickness. A disease. A social ill that is somehow deeply subversive to what these people think is truly “German.”

Can you imagine how this feels? I’ve read the words of an African-American living in Germany: “It’s like a physical pain in my hands.” Do I experience physical pain at these images and words? I don’t think so. But not all pain is physical and some of the hardest wounds to heal are unseen.

Being Christian, having my life claimed by a God of compassion and ever-searching mercy, I can’t help but think of this in relation to my faith. Jesus lived on the margins of the Roman Empire. Judea was a political backwater. But Jesus also lived, moved, spoke, and acted at the margins of Jewish society too. What did his enemies accuse him of? He dines with tax collectors. He associates with prostitutes. He touches lepers! John Wesley believed that the Gospel and the poor, the marginalized, have a special relationship. Does this mean I have a special insight, am specially spiritual more so than others? No. There are probably 120 saintlier people than me in my local congregation of… 120 people (that’s 121 with the pastor!)

So I’m not claiming special insight. There are people even more marginalized than I am. But, I do perhaps have a different perspective that many people perhaps do not get. I am, at some level, marginal. As Mr. Monk would say, “it’s a gift… and a curse.” This experience, as painful as it can sometimes be, can challenge me to greater depths of compassion and empathy. Am I “better” than those who don’t experience such marginalization? No. My first response is usually one of anger rather than compassion. I could, and should, be better.

There are lots of discussions in many nations about “outsiders” and what it means to be “German,” or “British,” or “American,” or possibly even “Liechtensteinian.” Of course we come up with terms to make this group into a nameless, faceless other so that it is easier for us to deny their humanity. They may be “Ausländer” or they may be “illegals” or whatever word we attach to them. But the Church, by nature of being the Church, reminds us that these terms are… well, mere shadow. The Church is beyond and above all national, regional, or local viewpoint. From the perspective of the Church, mere nationality is an aberration. A relic of the old order that holds little to no substance. “Behold the old is passed away and I am making all things new.” “At the name of Jesus all principalities and powers shall bow.”

As a part of the Church I have more in common with an “Ausländer” Christian from Lesotho than I do with a non-Christian fellow citizen. This is why the Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians to such an extent. They refused to acknowledge the “reality” of Caesar’s rule, Caesar’s claimed godhead. They refused to bow, to sacrifice. They saw their citizenship as belonging to something else entirely. They were, as Bishop Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas say, “resident aliens” in this world. A Christian born into Roman nobility or citizenship had more in common with a Christian slave than with a pagan noble or citizen.

We have more in common with the people we make into the “other” than we do with many of our fellow national citizens. So why would we cling to insubstantial smoke? Why do we cling so desperately to something that is “passing away?” A single, resurrected soul is of far higher importance than a political structure that will ultimately pass away. And make no mistake, the political structure will pass away. All do. Every empire has its end.

Please note, I’m not saying we can’t love where we come from. That’s a natural feeling. It’s when that love becomes an idol that the problem begins. It’s when we buy into the totalizing and idolatrous claims of the State, the claims that State philosophies can define who is “us” and who is “other,” that we fall into a blinding sin. CS Lewis said that the highest angels, when fallen, make the worst devils. So, thank you Nazis for telling me I don’t belong. You’re right, but not in the way you think. It hurts, and it pushes me to the margins, but I suppose I may find myself in good company.

Who is “us?” The Church Militant. The Church beyond ephemeral borders. Who is the Church? All of those who Jesus calls to himself and, contrary to what “respectable” people think, Jesus likes to work from the margins. He is actually rather recklessly extravagant and that’s pretty good news for all of us.


~ by crossingthebosporus on September 5, 2012.

2 Responses to “Immigrant Life”

  1. A good reminder of the fact that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile – but that in this world that remains a minority view.

  2. The more I hear about Europe and its loss of belief the more real the spectre of another era of unspeakable horror seems more likely. Societies that have lost their cohesiveness and objective values and morals have a kind of disease that starts in its center and progresses to rot the whole. A resurgence of the Nazi menace is bone chilling symptom of a disease that seems to be sweeping all the nations lately. Stay safe my friend and we all need to pray for a return to some semblance of sanity in this world.

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