Strangers in This World

Multireligious Reflections on Immigration

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Hussam S. Timani, Allen G. Jorgenson, Alexander Y. Hwang
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , August
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholarship on religion and migration is exploding, with much of it from the disciplinary perspectives of ethics, history, and social science. Although the authors featured in Strangers in This World: Multireligious Reflections on Immigration employ these diverse methods, this book differs from others in that its center of gravity is constructive and comparative theology. A few of the seventeen chapters detail the religious experiences of migrants (one each on North American Buddhists, Italian Protestants in the US, and Goths in the Roman Empire), while two others offer moral responses to what one editor calls “The Immigration Question” (one drawing creatively on Lutheran thought, the other discussing faith-based organizing). But most of the chapters focus on how we might better understand migration and religion if we think of them in terms of each other: are our religions and theologies inherently migratory? What would a theology of migration look like? While the essays in Strangers in This World are not the first to answer these questions, this is the first book to compile such a diverse group of answers.

These chapters go beyond social scientific explanations of migration to explore the theological reasons people might give for migrating. Both of the chapters on Islam argue that Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina (the hijra) makes migration from oppressive countries “a religious duty for the believer” (104, 116). Similarly, Laura E. Alexander helps us to understand the theological rationale of migrants who, feeling torn between their commitments to their families and the laws of the land, often “choose to fulfill less-fundamental [moral obligations] over more-fundamental ones” (236). Citizens of faith do well to remember that faith convictions may have played an important role in a migrant’s decision to leave their homeland.

Several chapters complicate our notions of belonging in North America (and this book does indeed focus on North America). The chapters on Native American contributions make this point explicit by, for example, calling North America “Turtle Island” in accordance with certain indigenous conventions (195). I wondered more about the nature of belonging to political communities when I read Reid B. Locklin’s question about belonging to religious communities: “what kind of departure is effected when the ‘other’ text or tradition is nearer to hand than the geographic center(s) of one’s own ‘home’ tradition?” (14) My question became: what kind of belonging is imagined when the citizen supports immigration restrictions while brushing shoulders daily with non-citizens? Why do we assume that the non-citizens we see every day are more “other” to us than fellow citizens who live thousands of miles away? These multireligious essays press us to open our eyes to the complexities of belonging in contemporary society, which defy the legalism of bordered nation-states, thereby perhaps expanding our notions of whom we should allow to belong with us legally.

Strangers in This World is held together not only by the authors’ theological acuity, consistent insightfulness, and methodological starting points, but also by a few silences. First, there is very little discussion of white supremacy, although the 2016 presidential election suggests the continuing importance of white supremacy for immigration policy. Indeed, only Randy Woodley allows white supremacy to shape the argument of his chapter. Second, there is even less reflection on the gendered dimensions of religion and migration; only Karma Lekshe Tsomo mentions these. One may doubt whether a book’s silences could hold it together, but my point is that the casual reader could come away from this book thinking that neither white supremacy nor patriarchy is particularly important for a discussion of religion and migration. Such a reader would, of course, be wrong; and watching the news on any given day would prove it.

These chapters are also held together by their enthusiastic openness toward migrants, which Luis Rivera Pagán calls xenophilia (77). This volume bursts with humaneness toward vulnerable migrants, and for good reason, since vulnerability and migration play such important roles in each religion. However, although several authors suggest the need for a more porous view of state territorial limits (especially the chapters by Allen G. Jorgenson, Joseph A. Bracken, and Marc A. Pugliese), none of them suggests that borders should not exist. These authors are open to migrants, but they do not suggest that nations must completely open their borders.

This silence was particularly striking in John Thompson’s essay, which closes with a reflection on how Buddhist commitments to generosity, nonviolence, and the interconnectedness of the universe might shape a Buddhist immigration policy (49-50). When he restates his conviction that Buddhism is primarily about the migration of the soul, not the body, the reader is left wondering how generosity, nonviolence, and interconnection hit the ground. After all, with borders we use the threat of violence to enforce national separation and limit the extent of our generosity. How could a Buddhist abide such structures? As Buddhism is not my area of expertise, I do not know, but I was disappointed not to get an answer before the essay finished. One could ask this question of most chapters since generosity, nonviolence, and interconnection resonate with other religious traditions as well.

Thompson is not the only author in this volume who might have spelled things out more. This book would be difficult reading for people outside the religious studies guild because many chapters are quite technical and assume a level of knowledge that non-experts do not have. The lay reader may also be disappointed to discover the paucity of direct discussion of “The Immigration Question,” so compellingly announced in the introduction (1), and that even this little reflection comes mostly from a Christian perspective.

These criticisms do not take away from the gratitude we owe these authors for expanding our moral and theological vision. It does suggest, however, that there is more work to do if we are to think deeply about religion and migration in our globalizing and bordering world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Ashworth is Research Affiliate at the Princeton University Center for Migration and Development.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hussam S. Timani is associate professor of philosophy and religious studies and Codirector of the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

Allen G. Jorgenson is assistant dean, professor of systematic theology, and holds the Bishop William D. Huras Chair in Ecclesiology and Church History at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Ontario, Canada.

Alexander Y. Hwang is associate dean of international faculty at Universite Protestante au Coeur du Congo and adjunct faculty at Saint Leo University.


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