Death in the Shadows of Displacement: forced migration, deathliness, and the hope for life

IMES Regional Brief – December 2018
December 6, 2018
A Christmas Message from the Institute of Middle East Studies
December 20, 2018

By Brent Hamoud

How do we share a world with over 68 million victims of displacement?  This is a defining question of the 21st century as unprecedented numbers of individuals have been uprooted from their homes and thrust into precarious existences on the fringes of our global systems.  The phenomenon of forced migration is extremely complex and loaded with implications.  Its impact is intense both for those forced to move and those burdened with the task of hosting.  The MENA region is proving an exceptional stage for the drama of displacement, and yet the issue is truly global as everyone everywhere must grapple with the conundrums arising from massive rates of human flow.  Faith communities are contributing their voices to the discussion with some calling for an ethic of welcome and embrace while others appeal to a sense of caution and restriction. Passions run high on the topic, which makes it all the more important to reflect on the heart of the matter. I believe sincere reflection will yield this profound conclusion: displacement is death.

Death is why people flee their homes.  Threats of war, genocide, extreme persecution and a host of other perils have left millions utterly depleted of hope and compelled to seek refuge in unfamiliar territories.  Horrific images and accounts make us very aware of the deathly conditions causing displacement in places like Syria and Myanmar, but we often fail to realize that death is not simply the danger from which forced migrants run away, it is what they run towards as well.  This is evident in the Bible where displacement and death are presented as sinister co-conspirators against the human experience.

Scripture’s pairing of displacement and death is seen in the beginning.  Genesis commences with a narrative of God fashioning a physical reality where all things are made to belong in a dynamic known as implacementAdam and Eve are formed in God’s own image and placed, given a home, within the bounties of a garden.  All things are given to them with one simple condition, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Gen. 2:17)  The fruit is indeed eaten but they do not in fact die, they are displaced. God administers righteous judgment and drives humanity out of the garden and into a precarious existence marked by the grueling fallout of sin.  This is THE great human displacement from which all subsequent human displacements derive, and the Bible henceforth shows death constantly lurking in the shadows of displacement. Consider the following:

  • Cain is condemned to be driven “from the face of the ground” and pleads for God’s mercy declaring, “I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen. 4:14)
  • Hagar, cast into the wilderness and drained of all resources, painfully accepts the pending death of her son Ishmael until God hears his crying and saves them. (Genesis 21:15-19)
  • The Israelites are delivered from Egyptian bondage only to wander barren Sinai. A sense of death permeates their murmurings, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness.” (Numbers 14:2)
  • David offers wrenching meditations of a life hanging from a thread during his personal trials of forced displacement. (See Psalms 57, 63 and 142)
  • Elijah, following the triumph on Mount Carmel, flees Jezebel’s wrath into the wilderness and there, under the trauma of his ordeal, prays that he might die. (1 Kings 19:4)
  • Israel’s exile to Babylon is an extensive period of displacement that provides the context from which a great deal of the Old Testament emerges. Ezekiel captures the deathliness of this experience of exile in a vision of a valley of dry, lifeless bones. (Ezekiel 37)

For the Bible, being forced to live “out of place” is deathly tragic, and the sentiment is echoed far and wide.  Palestinian-American author Edward Said describes exile and displacement as “a condition of terminal loss” marked by “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.”[i]  The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish channeled the dread of his own non-belonging when he wrote:

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere.  As if traveling is the way of the clouds.

We have buried our loved ones in the Darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.[ii]

American novelist John Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath follows one family’s terrible journey into displacement and dispossession during the Dust Bowl and asks amid the loss and dislocation, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”[iii]  Human history is filled with the laments of displacement’s deathliness, and I fear there will be more to lament as history marches forward.

Let us be careful not to think that displacement is simply a matter of psychological or spiritual attack; it is utterly wrought with physical death as well. There is no way to quantify the amount of human loss unfolding as forced migrants embark on perilous journeys and struggle to secure basic human needs and protections when, or if, they find refuge. Sadly, children are particularly at risk of physical harm and exploitation. Displacement is deathly, and this is precisely why it demands the concern of Christ-followers.

Christ is after all the antithesis of death.  His entire ministry was a radical pro-life movement motivated to restore every aspect of the person.  “In him was life” and he came that we “may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 1:4, 10:10)  All that stinks of death is grievous, and yet we can grieve in hope knowing that Christ’s own death and ultimate resurrection has ushered a new reality in which “death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54).  Our broken world will be transformed into a new creation where human displacement will be swallowed up by a final, glorious reign of implacement. Just as death can lead us to true life, homelessness can lead us to our true home.  This is a hope that must energize our engagements in displacement. God is doing something!

The Bible unmasks displacement’s threat of death and counsels us in how to respond to the challenge. I offer these humble thoughts for those who are experiencing displacement or ministering to the displaced:

  • Mourn- the tragic loss of a place absolutely warrants mourning. Let it happen and happen well. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)
  • Seek to live life fully; be a blessing– The prophet Jeremiah edifies us when he charges the brethren in exile to maintain a pursuit of life:

 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:4-7)

Life cannot wait for displacement to end; it must go on.  Faith communities have the opportunity to be part of transforming displacement from a condition of lifelessness to a condition that nurtures life.  This is the work of the gospel, and today it is radically altering realities for many who have been displaced and are now discovering a homeland in God’s kingdom and fellowship in Christ’s body.

  • Speak and listen– Displacement essentially undermines one`s humanity and robs victims of their dignity and power to speak. This is tragic. The displaced have a powerful voice; it speaks throughout scripture and must be heard today.  There are words to be spoken and truths to be declared, and all who seek to engage the displaced must always assume a posture of listening.

The story of displacement must move from a story about some of us to a story about all of us. In a broken world where everyone struggles in the spaces between implacement and displacement, life and death, we will do well to heed the charge of Deuteronomy 30:19:“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

[i] Edward Said, “The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile,” Harpers (September 1983) 50.

[ii] Mahmoud Darwish, “We Travel Like Other People,” included in Larry Towell, Then Palestine (New York: Aperture, 1998) 32.

[iii] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939. Chapter 9.

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