Contemporary life in the West seems to be increasingly marked by a suspicion or fear of ‘the other’. While not wanting to overstate the case, there does seem to be a concerning trend in the West towards a self-absorption that leaves an inevitable vacuum of kindness, generosity and hospitality towards those unlike ourselves, or who are outside of our immediate sphere of experience. Consider these words of Walter Brueggemann:
‘Fear makes us selfish. Fear makes us do crazy things. Fear turns neighbors into threats. Fear drives us into a desperate self-sufficiency and a yearning for privatism. Fear drives to greed and idolatry. Fear refuses the other. And now we live in a culture of fear… perfect fear drives out love.’1
The issue of unaccompanied asylum seeking children is a case in point. If the media is anything to go by, attitudes in the UK to these children and young people have varied from deep pity and heartbreak, to resentment, suspicion and anger. In general terms, the UK is one step removed from the immediate and direct crisis on the Continent, which can lead to the debate being around whether we intervene or not. Perhaps our island mentality has given the UK (and maybe the UK Church?) the luxury of deciding the extent of its attention and involvement in the issue.
However, withdrawal or refusal of hospitality does not leave a neutral space: could it not be framed as an act of implicit or indirect hostility? When defending his righteousness Job declares, ‘I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.’ (Job 29:16, ESV) If a generous disposition towards the other is lacking in society then the Church is beautifully and soberly placed to show what it could look like.
If we are to consider the Kingdom of God as a kind of ‘homecoming’ to God, what resonances should this have for our Kingdom ethics? In what ways might our acts in society declare something of the reconciliation and homecoming achieved ultimately in the gospel? Might our ethics both celebrate and bring about the good news of the gospel?
In this article, I want to reflect on some ways in which the Bible might grow a disposition towards rather than away from the other; a disposition that is marked by a depth of compassion and generosity. I want to do this by looking at two short stories marked by what we might call displacement and vulnerability. The first point is that the Bible has plenty to say about being displaced and vulnerable. Indeed, these are themes throughout the Scriptures and, as such, both reflect a typical aspect of the human experience but also describe something of the nature of the story of God’s people: displacement and vulnerability are woven into the DNA of the Church’s story. Think of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, and the lives of Abraham, Moses and David. Think of the Exile and the dispersal of the Early Church, or John’s revelation on the exile island of Patmos. As such, we cannot consign it to something that happens to someone else; it is part of our family history. It is part of who we are.2
The Bible offers us different ways of reflecting on and responding to the brokenness so evident in the world. It is a means through which we as Church can be shaped for our participation in God’s mission.3 In what follows I want to explore briefly the stories of two displaced and vulnerable children in the Bible, who for me have become emblematic of the plight of countless displaced and vulnerable children.4
One is an Old Testament story of a nameless young girl who is the victim of forced abduction in a time of war. The other is an episode from the early life of Jesus when his family is forced to flee from the threat of death.
First, I will give a brief overview of the content and context of each story. In the next section I will highlight some of the common and contrasting themes between them. Finally I will conclude with a brief consider how these reflections might point Church mission practice forward.
Two children, two stories: An anonymous captive of war (2 Kings 5:1-4)
Naaman is a Syrian general who (unbeknownst to him) owes his success to Yahweh. He is a great and accomplished man, yet has a seemingly incurable skin disease.
From this ‘great’ (literally, ‘big’) man the narrator turns his attention to a ‘young’ (literally, ‘small’) girl. She has been taken captive from her home in Israel by Syrian raiding parties and set to work for Naaman’s wife. One day she expresses a wish to her mistress that Naaman were ‘with’ Israel’s prophet (Elisha), who would surely heal him of his disease. As the story then unfolds, her word is taken seriously and this leads to Naaman encountering Elisha, being healed and having some kind of ‘conversion’ experience to faith in Yahweh. This happy outcome arises via much hubris and complication on the part of the adults; at one point it seems to provoke a diplomatic incident, which could have escalated disastrously. Yet, wisdom prevails in the end.
All because of the word of a powerless little girl who is forgotten as the narrative progresses. A girl who is a nameless spoil of war, plundered from home and family, enslaved in an alien, enemy land. Commentators tend not to have much to say about this girl. She is, after all, anonymous and rather fleeting in the story, and there is a lot going on in the broader narrative. Nevertheless, our attention will be focused on her.
A refugee child fleeing persecution (Mt. 2:13-15)
It would be easy to miss this briefly told story in Jesus’ early life. It is exclusive to Matthew’s Gospel and is set within the context of the air of threat that hangs over Jesus’ early life. Much is left unsaid: how old, for example, was Jesus when this happened? How long did the journey take? How were they treated on the way? Where in Egypt did they stay? With whom did they stay and what were their living conditions? Did Jesus remember his time in Egypt? How did this early experience shape Jesus’ childhood and beyond?
Egypt would have been a logical place for Joseph to take his family: it was outside of Herod’s jurisdiction and was a common destination for those seeking refuge from difficulties in Israel.5
The quotation in v. 15 along with other allusions, also point to this episode evoking ‘Egypt’ experiences in Israel’s history and, therefore, to the significance, identity and purpose of Jesus.6
So, two stories and two children. One in the Old Testament and one in the New. One girl and one boy. Having very briefly set out the two stories I want now to explore some connecting and contrasting themes.
Identity and family circumstances
Neither are named in the immediate episodes, although we know, of course, that the boy is named Jesus (1:21). The girl is never named, which seems to add to her smallness.
We assume that the girl’s family was either killed or left in Israel while she was snatched away to Syria. The boy has his parents with him though this puny family is at the mercy of a hostile world.
Background to displacement
The girl is a casualty of warfare. Ripped from home and family, she is alone; collateral damage in a cruel and conflicted world. We can only imagine the trauma and abuse she has been through since the Syrian soldiers arrived in her village or town. Much of her story is left untold. How old was she when she was taken? How long has she been in Syria? How has she been treated? Is she one of the ‘lucky’ ones to have ended up in the household of an important figure?
The boy is also a victim of hostility, but of a very specific kind. A tyrant king who breathes out threats against anyone who threatened his power, even a young child. The boy’s father and mother, receiving a warning, scoop up their helpless infant and flee from all that is familiar to seek refuge in another land.
The children’s stories are both unique and historically particular, but also representative (paradigmatic, even) of the suffering experienced by children through the ages and in our world today.7
Agency – human and divine
The girl seems at the mercy of international events. She had no choice about going to Syria; her parents were not able to protect her or hold on to her.
Similarly, the boy has no ‘agency’; the Word, through whom the world was made, could play no part in decisions made by the tyrant king or the terrified parents. Joseph and Mary occupy a curious position: their ability to protect the boy turned on a divinely given dream that gave them enough warning to get up and flee. Once on the road to Egypt they were vulnerable to the kindness and cruelty of strangers.
The girl is set to work as a slave. She is a spoil of war, a commodity to be used and exploited. Another victim caught up in the hostile machinations of adult exertions of power and exhibitions of force.
We don’t know who hosts the boy and his parents. Did they know anyone amongst the Jewish diaspora in Egypt? Was Joseph able to use his skills to provide for his family or were they constantly at the mercy of others? Did they have to beg? Were Jesus’ earliest memories of hunger and privation? Were they embraced by others in their newfound land of refuge? As a friend reflected to me recently, did they have to sell the gifts brought by the wise men to survive?
Beyond these unanswered questions, we do know that they survived. On the receiving end of numerous acts of kindness by strangers in Egypt, were Jesus’ earliest memories of displacement and vulnerability tempered with images of hospitality?
Paranoia of the powerful
By speaking out and by simply being born the girl and the boy unwittingly set off a chain of events in each of their worlds. In 2 Kings 5:7 Israel’s king fears that the request from his Syrian counterpart on Naaman’s behalf is a ruse for stirring up trouble between the two nations: ‘see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.’ (v. 7b) Even more paranoid is King Herod, who goes on a murderous rampage to destroy the new king.
Resonance with contemporary images of displacement and vulnerability
As I read these two brief stories I cannot help but think of images of the contemporary displacement, vulnerability and suffering of refugee children caught up in a world of hostility and brokenness.
In the faces of the biblical girl and boy we see the faces of children who are fleeing warzones, crossing borders and boundaries, at the mercy of unscrupulous adults, with no agency, ripped from family and from childhood, one family left behind, one family clinging on.
Conclusion: hostility, hospitality and hope
In the midst of all the hostility and suffering experienced by the girl and the boy, without wanting to diminish the suffering of their circumstances, we do see in their stories some glimpses of hope.
Despite her anonymity, ‘smallness’ and lack of agency, the girl’s simple wish started a chain of events of international proportions. Despite her suffering and trauma, she still had faith in Yahweh’s capacity and willingness to heal. He hadn’t prevented her from being taken captive to a foreign land but she still believed (and wanted!) that the man responsible for her enslavement and all that had happened to her and her family would find restoration through an encounter with Yahweh’s prophet.
As for the boy, someone – numerous people – must have offered hospitality to him and his family; not because he was Jesus but because his family needed help.
Challenge to the Church
Brueggemann is right when he says, ‘perfect fear casts out love’. The task of the Church, as he later points out, is to demonstrate the gospel that has reversed the equation (1 Jn 4:18).
Reflecting on Matthew 2, Joe Kapolyo challenges the Church is stark terms:
God was not ashamed to let his son become a refugee. By sharing the plight of stateless refugees, Jesus honoured all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster.8
Will we, too, follow Jesus’ example of honouring the displaced and vulnerable? Will we see in the faces and stories of contemporary displaced and vulnerable children the faces of the two biblical children? Will we own this shared memory of hostility and hospitality in the DNA of our story?
The challenge is for the Church to model an insistent attentiveness to the suffering and plight of ‘the other’. Love and hospitality is the antidote to fear and hostility.
Will we respond with compassion and capacity, advocating on their behalf and finding ways together of offering large-scale practical support to the displaced and vulnerable, and to those who work with them? If we do not, who will?
- Walter Brueggemann, ‘All Seminary Chapel: Dr. Walter Brueggemann “1 John 4:7-21” Podcast, Fuller Theological Seminary, 29 April 2015 c. 8:00mins
“Diving in and Casting Out” – Dr. Walter Brueggemann on 1 John 4:7-21
- For a fuller, recent treatment of displacement and vulnerability see Krish Kandiah’s new book, God is Stranger: What Happens When God Turns Up (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). I have found this book extremely helpful in thinking through this article.
- For more on the formative function of Scripture, see D. Guder, ‘Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Authority of Scripture – Interpreting Scripture as Missional Formation’, Mission Focus: Annual Review, 15 (2007), pp. 106-121.
- UNHCR estimates, ‘An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.’ http://www.unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html [accessed 12 May 2017]
- Wilkins, Matthew, p. 110; Davies and Allison, Matthew I-VII, p. 259; Kapolyo, ‘Matthew’, p. 1138.
- See, for example, Hagner, Matthew 1-13, pp. 33-37; Davies and Allison, Matthew I-VII, pp. 258-264.
- See Esther Menn, ‘Child Characters in Biblical Narratives’, in Marcia J. Bunge, ed., The Child in the Bible (Eerdmans, 2008), 351.
- Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo (Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers, 2006) Matthew, written by Joe Kapolyo, pp. 1131-1196, p. 1138