They’ll take away our place and our nation! Sounds like a line from Nigel Farage or Geert Wilders but it’s actually a line from the gospel of John.
Each morning at the Baptist House in Amsterdam we meet for a time of readings and prayers. We’re working our way through John’s gospel in the approach to Easter and recently read the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The impact of that event was clearly far reaching and caused some of the leaders in Jerusalem to fear a revolution would occur which would deeply upset the Romans who would move in and ‘…take our place and our nation’. They decided they had to get rid of Jesus.
The reading was a few days before the Dutch elections, when fear of immigration and Donald Trump’s latest Muslim ban featured in the news. While the context is clearly very different, the expression of fear of loss of place and nation was striking. In the reading, ‘place’ is probably a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of nationhood and the presence and blessing of God. What’s striking is hearing today so much concern about the Christian heritage of Europe and these European ‘Christian’ nations being overrun by immigrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslim – ‘…they will take away our place and our nation’.
The world is changing. The colonial Empire building of previous centuries and economic globalisation that together have brought great prosperity to the West are like chickens coming home to roost. Since we have plundered other people’s resources in the past, it’s hard to see what is so unjust when it happens to us. Economic migrants and refugees don’t do half as much damage as slave traders and irresponsible multinational corporations.
The leaders in Jerusalem were of course correct: Jesus was a threat. The kingdom he proclaimed didn’t need a temple and extended its citizenship to both Jews and gentiles. He publicly demonstrated the fact by commending a Roman centurion with having greater faith than he encountered among his own people and when he used the language of ‘tearing down the temple’.
The challenge for those of us claiming to be Christians – i.e. disciples of Jesus – is whether we share the fear and the threat of losing heritage, culture, nationhood (or whatever), or are willing to be perceived as part of the threat because of our primary commitment to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God transcends race, culture and borders, which is why we go into all the world to proclaim the good news. That’s not to say that there are not serious issues for governments to address with changing populations, security of citizens and distribution of resources. Nor is it to say that all fears and concerns about immigration are irrational or fascist, but it is to ask where we place ourselves in the conversation, which kingdom gets our primary allegiance and whether we love the world as much as God does. As John’s gospel also says: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ .