Some Passports Are More Equal Than Others: A Brief Theological Reflection on Passports, Privilege, and Global Inequality

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by Brent Hamoud

2020 has been a most perplexing year, and even passports are feeling it. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 nations have implemented unprecedented measures restricting the entry of select passports. This has added intrigue to an already dynamic historic moment, and no doubt some were slightly amused to see the world largely closing its borders to America’s traditionally superpowered passport. All amusement aside, the pandemic has caused massive disruption to typical human function and its reliance on international travel. Rest assured, this layover is temporary. COVID-19 will subside and 2020 anomalies will eventually hand the microphone back to familiar normalities- yes, the American passport will reclaim its “golden ticket” status- but our world’s passport problem is set to continue. Though largely overlooked, the fact remains that, for most global residents, a passport is less of a pass to move across borders and more of a tool to perpetuate exclusion. Passports can be blessings, but many feel more like a curse. When we examine global realities critically we see that passports effectively lock humanity into systematic inequality, and this should unsettle people of faith.

To be clear, passports absolutely matter. They are documents that denote nationality by verifying an individual’s official status within the global community of nation-states. The significance of this can hardly be overstated; nationality is the legal identifier that determines where you are from, where you belong and who you are.

Though all people are created equal, the same cannot be said of passports. We see proof of this in visa requirements for international travel. Here the quality of a passport can be measured in technical and quantifiable ways. Some passports are elite by permitting visa-free entry into a host of countries around the globe. (Congratulations Japan for being the best!) Other passports are lesser. Their owners are denied automatic entry into most of the world. Instead of crossing borders with ease, lesser passports must go through comprehensive, and often humiliating, procedures to request permission to set foot on foreign soil. A passport’s level of prestige, or lack thereof, is the difference between the freedom to move around an open world and the oppression of being trapped within a territorial prison.

If such a perspective is new to you, then you probably have been privileged with an elite passport (or two, or more). If this hard truth is painfully real to you, then you likely have a lesser passport.

To consider the passport problem another way, imagine a family home within a neighborhood. Elite passports holders are like the set of neighbors who enjoy an open invitation to visit at any time. The door is always open to them. Lesser passports are like the other set of neighbors who must call ahead to inquire about the possibility of paying a visit. Rigid protocol is required, and their request is likely to be met with, “now is not a good time.” In such a scenario we can hardly claim that the family is acting equally neighborly. There are contradictory standards of hospitality on display here, and one would be warranted to suspect discrimination is in the mix. Yet this is how our world works; passports can make you a welcomed neighbor or a questionable outsider. The uncanny thing is that this varied treatment is always based on a piece of paper and never on the personhood of its holder.

Case in point: I hold a U.S. passport, which is considered one of the best in awarding visa-free access to 185 destinations. My wife has a Lebanese passport. It is one of the worst. She can only waltz into 40 countries. (Interesting fact: not only is Kiribati a country that Lebanese citizens have never heard of, it also provides a passport with more global mobility.) Based on our passports, the world clearly prefers me to my wife. The irony here is that everyone who knows us both agrees that she is the preferable one. To their own loss, most states do not care that my wife is exceedingly more pleasant than me and more worthy of an automatic welcome. They only care that my passport is American and hers Lebanese.

Passports can be more preposterous and dehumanizing than we care to admit. Just consider this: we live in a world where cats and dogs are issued passports granting them the freedom to travel the globe while masses of humans possess passports so disdained that they are effectively prevented from legally moving beyond their borders. In a world of passports, four-legged creatures can receive more humane treatment than humans! Perhaps the only thing more ridiculous than this is the fact that millions of individuals exist without a passport entirely. They are stateless, and it is terrible.

The passport problem touches on more than simply the convenience of travel; nationality has tremendous bearing on one’s quality of life. It can be the difference between someone experiencing a long lifetime of dignity or a short lifetime of misery, and we must recognize that this profound determiner of human wellbeing is randomly allocated. Babies have no say in whether they will live as Norwegian or Somalian or Jamaican, yet this will utterly dominate their existences. Gross disparity between the quality of nationalities is why the world continues be an engine of human flow. There’s a reason over 40% of Arab youth, and 77% of young Lebanese, want to emigrate. It goes without saying, they desire a place with a good passport. But what is the likelihood of one settling somewhere if they are less welcomed even for a visit?

The passport inequality problem is certainly a conundrum for our modern world, but for people of biblical faith it is downright intolerable. Passports fly directly in the face of the Kingdom of God, the ultimate of entities to which true believers owe their highest loyalty. The kingdom declares that all people are made in God’s image and endowed with immeasurable worth. Its Christ-energized manifestation is a tenacious protest against exclusionary barriers (and documents) that divide humanity by assigning perpetuating statuses of greater and lesser value. Is scripture’s proclamation of the kingdom not a modern-day scandal as it critiques the entire global system of nation-states and its totalitarian rule over individual human lives? Kingdoms of the world may rule by carving up the earth and bounding people within systems of varying quality, but the Kingdom of Heaven does not. When viewed biblically, should passports not beckon Christians to ask, “to which kingdom do I pledge my allegiance?”

I realize this passport expose has major implications, and some (or many) will dismiss it as a toxic brand of globalism that seeks to advance the notion of a borderless world. Such a concept does not actually disturb me, but neither does it entice me; I am more interested in the shaping of human hearts than the arrangement of global geographies. Besides, an elementary reading of history shows that the borders so many dwell upon have not always existed, and it’s reasonable to say that they will not remain indefinitely. The same can be said of passports. Scripture is clear about this: all passports have an expiration date. Heaven will be filled with people of every tribe, tongue, and nation, but nobody will pack a passport (or to invoke U2, I believe in the kingdom come, then all the passports will bleed into one). I am extremely curious to know what a post-passport world will look like (in this earth and in the new creation), but until then we are left to hold this perplexing document in hand. Even so, I do hope followers of Christ will join me in thinking more critically about these heavy pieces of paper as we grip them less tightly.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Brent
    Many thanks for thoughtfully raising a subject that is not talked about enough.
    I’ve long been aware that having a British passport gets me into many countries very easily. The downside is more subtle: in many countries today’s nationals are wary of me because of the colonialist past. In fairness, many Middle Easterners overcome this quickly. A friend who is Irish noted that he could see people’s attitudes toward him change when they heard that he was Irish not British. Another story is of someone from an Arab-majority country who also held a British passport. He wanted to visit an Arab country and was told that for a visa he would need multiple forms and to expect a long delay. A few days later he inquired about visiting using a British passport. “Come, here will be a visa for you on arrival.” I think God weeps over such blatant discrimination on national grounds. We could ask why some governments choose to be this discriminatory: what are they afraid of? Who are they trying to protect and from what?
    Much to consider.
    Perhaps a final question: is the global pandemic a big enough disturbance to bring enduring change to the use and abuse of passports?
    Blessings
    Jonathan

    • Brent Hamoud says:

      Thanks Jonathan for your reflection. I do find that passports are a fascinating window into larger realities at play in our world. As you demonstrate, anyone who possesses a passport can lend a unique perspective to the discourse (and, in my opinion, those who cannot possess a passport lend an even more intriguing perspective).

      Your example is quite telling: one person possesses two passports that provide two different ways of existing in the world. This is evidence of the unfortunate fact that passports largely override personhood. (A bad person with a good passport is better off than a good person with a bad passport.) It’s unsettling how such an immense element of the human experience is based on such random “luck”- or as some have called it, the birthright lottery.

      Yes, I do believe the disturbances of the pandemic is revealing much about passports. It is demonstrating how globalized our world has become and how increasingly out-of-step passport-realities are with interconnected, interdependent international dynamics that have been normalized. Citizenship has been in flux for a long time, and I think this moment of history is only stirring to pot more. For me, this is not a bad development.

      Thanks for engaging in these ideas Jonathan!

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