Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/29 2012

Borders, Passports, and Christ


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Last week the Seminary organized a symposium on the issue of Christian faith and immigration. Mark Adams, coordinator of Frontera de Cristo, a cross-cultural PC(USA) border ministry in Arizona (see http://www.fronteradecristo.org/ ) told us about his work, and PTS faculty helped students to think through the theological and ethical issues.

“Immigration” is a touchy topic in this country, and pastors may shy away from it being afraid that it will divide their congregations. But the Christian community should not without reflection accept the way politicians and commentators have set the terms of debate. We have our own story to tell, and that story is shaped by very different considerations than the ones that normally determine the conversation.

At the symposium we talked about an interesting passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:17-21). He there tells the Philippian Christians that their citizenship is not in Philippi, but in heaven, where Christ is. To understand what a powerful statement that is you need to know that at the time of Paul’s writing Philippi was a Roman colony in Greece, used by the Roman army to house veterans who, as the Army contracts stipulated, at their retirement received both citizenship of Rome and a place to live – for example, in Philippi. It is very well possible that a good number of the small Christian congregation in Philippi were such army veterans. To them Paul writes now: I know that you are proud of your newly acquired citizenship; I know that it is something that for you feels as if it shapes and expresses who you are. Have you not throughout your life put your life on the line for the Roman Empire? Nonetheless, in having met Christ, you received something that is more important than this, something that more than your Roman citizenship ought to shape your identity. As a baptized Christian, you are now a citizen of heaven, of the place where Christ is. And that trumps your alliance to Rome! As an example he tells about his own life: how once he was a Jew, proud of his heritage and ancestry, but on meeting Christ he regarded all of that as “rubbish” (3:7). You ought to do likewise, Paul writes to the Philippians: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me” (3:17).

When we come to issues of immigration, we often feel torn between neighborly love and our sense of national identity and what might be in the interest of our nation. But we need to realize that in the New Testament nations and national identities are ranked under the powers of the old age, an age that does not have a future and that is fading away; while in our baptism we receive to participate in the new age, in the times of the world to come. Therefore, when it comes to negotiating issues of politics, including immigration, Christians have a distinct and different approach, because for them their baptismal certificate trumps the nationality listed in their passports.

That’s a radical approach. But the New Testament tells a radical story. Seminary education is about helping to live into that radical story, so that later on grads can do the same with their congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel, Assistant Professor of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary