If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land: Exile, Immigration, Survival and Identity

Judah has gone into exile with suffering
And hard servitude;
She lives now among the nations,
And finds no resting place;
Her pursuers have all overtaken her
In the midst of her distress.
----Lamentations 1:3

The experience of being foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and strangers in the land is a common theme in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Joan M. Muruskin, Washington representative for Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, has described the Bible as “the ultimate immigration handbook.” Israel’s story is a story of migrations. The collective formation of Israel’s own identity is tied to their experiences of being strangers in strange lands. Israel’s experience of being slaves and foreigners in Egypt was seared on their moral conscience. Their status as strangers within Egypt became God’s reference point for legislating their own treatment of foreigners once they came into the land of Canaan (Exod. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19).[1] God’s promise of their remaining in the land was contingent upon Israel’s treatment of the stranger in their midst (Jeremiah 7:6-7).

Hospitality to the stranger was a crucial cultural and religious practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. Abram’s welcome of three strangers by the oaks of Mamre became a tradition that reminded Jews and Christians that in welcoming the stranger one might be welcoming God or angels (Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:2). Among the transgressions the prophet Ezekiel recognizes as bringing Israel/Judah within God’s judgment and exile is mistreatment of the alien (Ezek. 22:29). In their exile in Babylon God’s people once again tasted the bitter brew of being strangers in a strange land. Within this exilic context elite Jews from Judah had to forge a new collective identity.

Survival and Identity in Exile

The experience of the exiles in Babylon was one of deep anguish (Psalm 137). Being uprooted from their homeland, culture, customs, and people tore at their collective identity. Those Judeans taken captive to Babylon were separated from land and temple, essential elements in their identity as a people. Loss of land and temple made a critical impact on the exiles’ collective identity, experience and understanding of God. How could they worship God in a foreign land? Even more so, who was God and where was God in this alien land? Had God been overpowered by the armies of Babylon? For a people whose spirituality was intertwined with their collective identity the dislocation of the exile caused a fracture in their self-understanding.

Migration of groups through a forced movement by a state or for economic survival to an undesired place has a significantly different impact on self-identity than the migration of individuals through personal decision to a chosen location. In forced migrations collective identities are tied longer to the homeland from which they were exiled. Their hope for return lingers. If there is an alienation from the new environment and strong identity ties to the homeland, integration into and identification with the new society is much slower. The exiles in Babylon experienced a forced migration, had string ties to their homeland, were alienated from the new culture, and longed to return home. These factors were ripe for reinforcing a separatist minority identity within the empire of Babylon. Maintaining a distinctive religious and cultural identity was a significant element in the survival of Judah in exile, but without becoming totally separated from the dominant culture of Babylon.

Preserving ethnic identity as a minority community within a dominant culture becomes a matter of a people’s survival. In their study on refugees and identity Ruth Krufeld and Linda Camino note:

Despite experiences of being violently or forcibly uprooted and plunged into discord and disorder, refugees demonstrate the strengths of innovation for survival, as well as the vitality to create and negotiate new roles and behavior to achieve both necessary and desired ends. By doing so, they reveal the multi-layered, richly contextualized meanings of their lives and traditions as they act to re-affirm self and community.”[2]

Self-preservation was a major concern of the exiled Jews in Babylon. It was not simply a question of physical survival, but how they were to survive as a peculiar people in a foreign land. A new identity, a counter-culture within the dominant culture, would have to be forged. Diasporic peoples must learn to reconfigure their collective identities in foreign lands in order to survive. How could the Jewish exiles preserve its own religio-ethnic identity, while at the same time engage the dominant culture?

Exilic Survival and Jeremiah’s Mandate

Standard schemas for understanding the relationship between immigrant, refugee, or minority communities and the dominant culture include: 1) assimilation- The melting-pot theory whereby immigrants blend into the dominant culture by shedding their own unique ethnic and cultural identity; 2) separation- The creation of distinct communities separate from the dominant society through discrimination and/or as a means of cultural self-preservation; 3) isolated integration- Selective elements of the culture of the dominant society are integrated into the lives of immigrants; 4) hybridization- The immigrant lives bi-culturally taking on two cultural identities. Preservation of one’s religious, ethnic, and cultural identity will take a different shape depending upon the relationship the immigrant has with their primary and secondary community and culture.

Preservation of self-identity among minority, immigrant groups within dominant cultures requires survival tactics. One major survival tactic is for immigrant groups to create collective enclaves as a form of self-chosen isolation. An alternative society is recreated like those in their homeland forming a type of subculture, in the manner of early Mennonite and Amish communities. Recreating social structures, leadership patterns, rituals, and storytelling serve to maintain clear religio-ethnic boundaries. The story of Daniel, a hero of the Babylonian exile, is a prime example of Hebrew resistance literature, exilic storytelling which functioned to reinforce self-identity within a dominant culture. Resisting the dominant ethos is easier within these self-contained, isolated “ghettos.” Self-identity is preserved within such diasporic communities, but often through isolation from the wider community.

The prophet Jeremiah called upon the exilic Jews to practice a particular form of exilic survival and religio-ethnic self-preservation. Jeremiah proposes an exilic model of engagement with the dominant culture. While the prophet Hananiah promised the exiles that they would return to their homeland, Jeremiah called upon the Judaeans to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). “Build, plant, and marry” are a traditional formula of blessing within the land. They exiles are to participate in what blessings their new land has to offer. In Deuteronomy images of “building, planting, and marrying” are formulaic elements that construct reasons for military exemption from holy war (Deuteronomy 20). They symbolize nonviolent forms of engagement with the community. Jeremiah promotes a program of seeking the peace (shalom/welfare) of the city where they dwell in exile. Rather than a disengaged, isolated waiting for a return to the homeland, the prophet advocates a nonviolent engagement of the exilic community with the dominant culture.[3] The exiles turn their captivity into an opportunity for self-preservation and corporate mission. They learn the language and interact with the dominant Babylonian culture, while living without sovereignty and maintaining their own religious heritage. The creation of the model of the synagogue, collection of the Hebrew canon, and the maintenance of a diasporic identity during the exilic period speaks of a thriving community amidst a foreign environment. It is through a balance of preserving peculiarity along with peaceful, constructive engagement with the dominant culture that the exiles recreate their identity as resident aliens within a foreign land.[4]

Immigrant Survival and Identity in the United States

Economic survival is an overriding agenda of alienated and uprooted peoples who find themselves strangers and exiles in the land in which they live. Survival operates on both a cultural and physical level. The need of immigrant peoples to survive makes them vulnerable to economic exploitation by the dominant culture. Economic exploitation was at the heart of the experience of Judah in Babylonian exile. The empire of Babylon focused upon “the domination and exploitation of non-Babylonian populations for the benefit of the ruling elite.”[5] Exploitation of the Judaean exiles for their labor made them virtual slaves of the empire. [6]

There is a real sense in which many immigrants are in the U.S. as “economic exiles” or “migrant slaves.” I grew up on a lemon ranch in Oxnard, California that depended upon migrant workers to pick the lemons. My father moved our family from Oklahoma in 1955 (later than the “Grapes of Wrath Okies” that came during the dustbowl years in the 30’s) to become a tenant farmer among the lemon orchards. I remember the “braceros” (literally “strong arm,” refers to a “hired hand”) who regularly came to the ranch where I lived to pick the lemons. The Bracero program (1942-1964) brought Mexicans from across the border to work on farms, such as the one where I lived in my youth. It was developed due to the shortage of farm labor after WWII. Braceros accounted for 93 percent of the temporary work force. In 1954, the Department of Immigration reported 1,108,900 undocumented workers in farms in the U.S.

Mexican migrant workers in the Bracero program were exploited for their labor. Pay was extremely low, often based on the number of boxes of crops picked, and housing conditions were appalling. But, they endured these conditions in order to survive. Rigoberto Garcia remembers the bracero experience with a mixture of anger and resignation. “When you work for someone else, the profit from your work stays with them…Because here you work just to survive, and you don’t own anything. You just survive and survive, but someone else owns your labor.” [7] He recalls a rather humiliating experience:

Thousands of men came every day (from buses on the border to work places). Once we got there, they’d send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room, about sixty feet square. Then men would come in in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they’d fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-ridden, germ-ridden. No matter, they just did it.[8]

In 1958, when I was 9 years old, César Chávez was sent by the Community Service Organization to Oxnard, California to organize “la colonia,” the Mexican American community. Chavez worked to document abuses by the Farm Placement Service, and organized a boycott of local merchants, along with sit-ins and marches to protest the lack of jobs for local residents. The exploitive Braceros program was eventually ended in 1964. The nonviolent resistance tactics Chavez used became standard techniques he would use with the United Farm Workers Union.

Exploitation of migrant farm workers for their cheap labor is common in the United States. The need among migrants for economic survival opens the door for exploitation and a virtual slave system. Many immigrants hired as nannies and maids in private residences in the U.S. are being forced into virtual bondage.[9] Recently a four-year boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in southern Florida was ended after immigrant tomato pickers won an increase in wages and a code of conduct for Florida tomato suppliers. Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W All American Food Restaurants, and Long John Silver’s, said, “Human rights are universal. Indentured servitude by suppliers is strictly forbidden.” A major corporation had to make an edict that forbad virtual slavery of immigrant workers.[10]

Living as economic exiles, resident aliens, and virtual slaves has been a significant part of the experience of many immigrants. Since September 11, 2001 there has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. The dominant culture has created a xenophobic and racist environment in which undocumented immigrants, and other minority communities, find themselves acutely alienated and feeling in el exilio, strangers in a strange land. The profiling of immigrants and people of color for potential terrorist scrutiny has resulted not only in unnecessary detainment and false imprisonment, but the alienation of their communities. The call for “English-only” legislation and vigilante patrolling of the Mexican borders (and not the Canadian borders) are fueled by fears of the U.S. becoming an “Alien Nation.” Our post-9/11 environment has become a hostile environment for publicly advocating or advertising a collective self-identity that is distinct from the dominant culture.[11]

Survival and preservation of ethnic and cultural identity were key elements in the experience of the Judean exiles in Babylon. They are also key elements in the experience of contemporary immigrant populations. The prophet Jeremiah offers an exilic model of how strangers in a strange land can nonviolently negotiate engagement with the wider culture, while surviving and preserving their own distinct religious and cultural identity.

Living in el exilio

The exile can serve as a metaphorical lens to help us look at issues surrounding immigrants, refugees and the church’s place in the world. John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian, saw Jeremiah’s exilic model of “seeking the peace of the city” as a way of nonviolently engaging the empire. At the end of his essay he wondered if the Jewish exilic experience might speak to other migrant and refugees peoples.[12] Alain Epp Weaver brings Yoder’s exilic theology into conversation with Edward Said’s appropriation of the exile motif to speak to the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. In his essay Weaver makes an important statement about the misappropriation of the exilic metaphor:

European-American Christians, particularly those in urban and suburban settings whose livelihoods are not dependent on the cultivation of the land, could be tempted to confuse Jeremiah’s vision for life in exile with the rootless, virtual reality of much postmodern thought.[13]

There is a new trend to identify the experience of the postmodern, white, Euro-American church with exilic images as a counter-culture of “resident aliens”[14] and “Christian exiles.”[15] Although the exilic metaphor may be helpful for the dominant, white, European church in constructing an identity counter to the empire, there must be care taken to understand that there are other peoples and communities whose lived experience more readily fits the realities of exile. Those who share the power and privileges of the dominant culture should take care to avoid a too easy appropriation of the exile as a metaphor for a church that is a primary beneficiary of the empire.

If the white, Euro-American church wants to identify with the realities of exilic experience, it should begin in solidarity with those whose daily existence more closely reflects the diasporic experience---immigrants, refugees, displaced peoples, and people of color communities. The spiritual, ethical, and political stance of the Euro-American church should be shaped by the biblical vision of hospitality to the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19), justice for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), and resistance to systems that alienate people (Mark 11:15-17). The prophet Jeremiah provides an exilic model for immigrants, refugees, and other “minority communities” for survival, preservation of ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, and a way of nonviolent resistance and engagement with the dominant culture.

[1] A postcolonial reading of the Exodus story, which is tied to the conquest of Canaan, would question it as a liberative model from the perspective of peoples who have been displaced from their homelands. See, Robert Allen Warrior, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed., Voices From the Margins: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 287-295.
[2] As cited in Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 78-79.
[3] I am indebted to the insights of Daniel L. Smith, The Religion of the Landless: The Social Context of the Babylonian Exile (Bloomington: Meyer Stone Books), 1989.
[4] For an application of Jeremiah 29 to Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, see Archie Lee’s essay “Exile and Return in the Perspective of 1997” in Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds., Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1995), 97-108.
[5] David Stephen Vanderhooft, The Neo-Babylonian Empire and Babylon in the Latter Prophets, HSM 59 (Atlanta: Scholars, 2000), 6.
[6] Daniel L. Smith argues that the Jews were “slaves” in Babylon. Daniel L. Smith, The Religion of the Landless, 38-41.
[7] “Immigrants: The Story of a Bracero,” Riboberto Garcia Perez, interviewed by David Bacon, April 18, 2001, http://dbacon.igc.org/Imgrants/24Bracerostory.htm.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Stephanie Armour, “Some Foreign Household Workers Face Enslavement,” Common Dreams News Center, www.commondreams.org, November 20, 2001.
[10] Eric Schlosser, “A Side Order of Human Rights,” Common Dreams News Center, www. commondreams.org, April 6, 2005,.
[11] In an environment of xenophobia, racism, and cultural homogenization Latino scholars have proposed an agenda of “cultural citizenship.” It is the utilization of cultural particularity to claim political rights within the wider dominant culture, while maintaining a distinctive local identity. See, William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor, eds., Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights (Boston: Beacon), 1997.
[12] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 78.
[13] Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking (Telford:Cascadia, 2004), 173.
[14] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abindon), 1989.
[15] Erskine Clarke, ed., Exilic Preaching: Testimony for Christian Exiles in an Increasingly Hostile Culture (Harrisburg: Trinity), 1998.

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