A Preferential Option for the Migrant? Anglican Theology and Global Migration


In 2017, I was invited to deliver the keynote address to the Society for the Study of Anglicanism and reflect on Anglican theology and global migration. The Journal of Anglican Studies has recently published the result. You can read the whole article online. Here’s a snippet.

I have sometimes asked my students if, in looking at the Bible, it can be said that God has a preferential option for the migrant. There are many ways in which I think that is true: God has a particular concern for those without a place. But it is also true that displacement is not the end of the story. In the tension between place and displacement, guest and host, journey and destination, we may find, as Bernard Mizeki once did, a new Christian identity and a deeper faithfulness to God.

As the snippet makes clear, I draw on the story of Anglican missionary and martyr Bernard Mizeki to try to frame some places I think Anglican theology can usefully pursue in thinking about how we respond to the present era of global migration.

Happy for your thoughts!

The bishop in the refugee camp

Reuters and AfricaNews have a short profile of Emmanuel Murye, Anglican bishop of Kajo Kaji in South Sudan.


As a result of violence in South Sudan, most of Bishop Murye’s diocese has been displaced to refugee camps in northern Uganda. Rather than stay behind in Kajo Kaji, Bishop Murye has chosen to go live in the refugee camps and minister to his people there.

This is not a new story. The Anglican Communion News Service has reported on the Diocese of Kajo Kaji over the last year, including this lengthy report, and the diocese’s own website has much helpful information. But it is always helpful when secular media report on religious stories. What is particularly devastating about this story is that prior to the current outbreak of violence, the Diocese of Kajo Kaji was one of the most successful dioceses in South Sudan. The previous bishop, Anthony Poggo (now Anglican Communion adviser to Justin Welby), built a thriving diocese with a strong Bible college and many other important institutions. One can only wonder what has happened to those in the last year.

Stories like this are an important counterpoint to many of the stories of migration and displacement that are in the news today. We often tend to think of refugees as helpless and lacking in agency, biding their time until those of us with agency and resources decide to help. What this story reminds us of, though, is that refugees and migrants are often actively working to shape their own lives. They don’t lose their agency. Rather, they seek to exercise it in different ways. Our job is to ask, “How can we assist you?”

As I watched this video, I also thought of the historical parallels. It turns out that Bishop Murye is not the first refugee bishop from South Sudan.

  • During Sudan’s first civil war in the 1960s, Bishops Elinana Ngalamu (later archbishop) and Yeremia Dotiro were forced to flee their own dioceses and ended up in northern Uganda where they lived and ministered to their people, working closely with dioceses of the Church of Uganda. There, they built a strong church that, when the civil war ended, returned to southern Sudan and made a significant contribution to the country’s recovery.
  • During Sudan’s second civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, Bishop Daniel Zindo  of Yambio followed his people to refugee camps in the Central African Republic. Bishop Seme Solomona, in a quasi-Exodus moment that is much remembered in the South Sudanese church, led his people from Yei to safety in northern Uganda. Bishop Joseph Marona for a time lived among his people in what was then called Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sadly, then, Bishop Murye is not unique. In the same way that the current violence in South Sudan has uncomfortable historical parallels, so too does the response of the church. For the most part, these important stories of Anglican history have gone mostly undocumented and unremarked upon.

Finally, I find that a story like this is, among much else, a helpful reminder of the role that bishops are called to play in the church. Being a bishop is not about having the nice house or car or cathedral but about being a beacon in the midst of one’s people, pointing the way to the kingdom of God in our midst. As Bishop Murye says in the video: “I was called to be leader of people, not a custodian of the soil, of the tree or of the houses, but I have to take care of the people.” In South Sudan, that is what being a bishop is all about.

My 7-year-old niece has discovered the best way to resist Trump

Another day, another truly outrageous decision from the Trump administration: all citizens from seven countries and all refugees are to be banned from entering the United States. It’s easy to find reasons to be outraged: theological, practical, national.

  • The Bible repeatedly makes it clear that God takes the side of those who are on the move. It is by being migrants and from migrants that we learn new things about God. This shuts down that possibility.
  • Trump explicitly invoked 9/11 and the importance of keeping the country “safe”—but none of the 9/11 hijackers came from countries on the banned list.
  • The Statue of Liberty says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Yet somehow, none of this feels sufficient. It feeds my outrage but it does frustratingly little in the real world. I can’t turn up at JFK airport and protest. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t file a suit to reverse the decision. When confronted with such a great injustice, how are we to respond?

Children walking in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. Opened in July, 2012, the camp holds upwards of 20,000 refugees from the civil war inside Syria. International Orthodox Christian Charities and other members of the ACT Alliance are active in the camp providing essential items and services.

I’ve been thinking this week about my 7-year-old niece. Sometime last fall, the news about Syrian refugees combined with the rhetoric of the presidential campaign became so uncomfortable and upsetting to her that she decided she wanted to do something. So she told her parents, “Can we have a clothes drive to help refugees?” Her parents did a little research on this and decided that the refugees who had been resettled into their (red) state were well clothed. Shipping clothes to a place like Greece or Turkey was an inefficient use of resources.

So my niece had another idea: “Can we make friends with some refugees?” It turned out that not far away from their house lives a refugee family from Congo. It took a little doing and some awkwardness, but pretty soon my niece and her parents started getting to know this family. They learned about some of the challenges they’re facing: the father’s working hours place a burden on the mother and children; they struggle to stay in touch with family members back home; the children need help in school.

I’m not sure how much of this my niece has processed. From what she tell us, it sounds like she mostly just enjoys having some new friends. Once a week, on the way home from school, she spends time playing with them at their house. It’s a young relationship: who knows how it will develop?

I think my niece is on to something. To live in our political moment is to be bathed in outrage. Fine. There are lots of things to be outraged about. But the best way to challenge the the Trump administration is challenge it in our actions. As my niece shows, those actions don’t have to be heroic or extraordinary. They can be as simply as modestly altering our weekly schedule to incorporate a new activity.

Think about what it means to say, “Can we make friends with refugees?” It means that refugees have value, that they enrich our lives, and that they are welcome in her community. It takes a step further than a clothes drive: it involves her life in theirs and theirs in hers. Simply by existing, the relationship she has with this family challenges Trump’s impoverished moral calculus. There’s no executive order he can sign to ban it.

I think she’s on to something.

Aylan, an icon of our times

Many Christian traditions, including my own, have a practice of praying with icons. By contemplating an image, we are led into deeper truths and prayer.

But icons aren’t just things we find in churches. They’re in the world around us. The image of Aylan, the young migrant child who drowned off the coast of Greece, is an icon of our times.1548

I have spent a larger portion of my morning than I had intended staring at this icon. Here are some things I’ve seen:

  • officialdom and bureaucracy: I see the uniform—hat, vest, boots—though it doesn’t seem to be a terribly high-ranking official, merely a functionary making a note of this particular death and then (in other photos of this moment that are circulating) carting the child away. I’m not putting blame on the official. But it’s a representation of the collective (non-) response to mass migration we’re seeing: low-level officials on the front-lines are unable to adequately respond, while senior leaders are absent.
  • notebook: I see that the official appears to be making a note in a notebook. It is this glimpse of the notebook that I have kept returning to as a symbol of our response: make notes, file paperwork, make the right bureaucratic moves—and fail to prevent deaths.
  • detritus: the child is not the only thing washed up on shore. If you look in the background, you’ll see the usual bits of trash and plastic and driftwood you find on the beaches. And the child is just like that.
  • and, of course, the child: it’s a position that reminds me of the curious and amusing way that many children seem to fall asleep in the most uncomfortable position possible. Of course, he’s not sleeping—and it’s that truth that the photo draws us back to again and again.
  • last, but not least, the Bible: I thought of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass [scroll] by?” (1.12)

We live in an image-saturated world. We have apps that let us scroll through photo after photo of our friends and others going about their lives. We are never encouraged to slow down, pause, and stare for a long time.

There are no shortage of responses to this icon. It’s already a meme, a source of new (and understandable) outrage, a call to action, and a talking point in political conversation. We can have opinions about all of those things. We should also have an opinion about the sharing and viewing of this image. After all, Aylan is neither the first nor last child to die in this way. Just because someone was there to take his photo, does that change things?

But right now, I just want to contemplate this icon—not scroll past it, not add text to it—but simply be in its presence. By doing so, I am drawn more fully into the truth it reveals, a truth which indicts us all.