Following is the first of a Bible study series by different authors on the key Scripture texts for Mennonite Church USA’s next biennial convention, to be held July 1-6, 2013, in Phoenix. The convention theme is “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope,” and the Scripture texts are Psalm 24:1, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2: 14-22. See www.mennoniteusa.org/convention.
By Cristina Rodriguez Blough
“In elementary school, our teachers told us to “reach for the stars!”
We got on our tippy toes and stretched to the sky with all our might
‘Cuz what we heard was, “Reach for your dreams, You will always have that Right.”
—excerpt from “Reaching for the stars: a journey,” a poem by Sofia Campos
Sofia is a spirited graduate of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and a young advocate for immigration reform and the passing of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act in the United States. Her poem evokes vivid images of courage, struggle and solidarity as it illustrates her journey as an “undocumented immigrant.” The whispers of hope she heard from her teachers as a little girl impel her to speak up for equality for herself and for thousands of undocumented people in the U.S.
Similarly, Daisy L. Machado—a dean and professor at Union Seminary in New York and the first U.S. Latina ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (1981)—and her sister received words of hope from their father, who arrived in the United States in 1956 with $7 in his pocket. “After telling us his wonderful bedtime stories, he would whisper in our ears that we could do anything, we could be anything, we could climb as high as the stars,” she writes in A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins (Orbis Books, 2001).
These two remarkable women’s journeys inspire me and resonate with my own experience as a Latina who has attended college and seminary in the U.S. The process, from obtaining a student visa to recently receiving a residency card, has been complex, expensive and at times nerve-wracking. Before each of my visa appointments and interviews, my dad would recite with conviction the words of the psalmist in chapter 24:1:
“De Jehová es la tierra y su plenitud; El mundo y los que en él habitan.”
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
These words—my personal words of hope from my dad and my heavenly father—have had an immense impact in my life. They remind me that God does not show partiality and that God reigns and takes care of his people, no matter where they are. Psalm 24:1 delivers an unambiguous statement: Creation and all its fullness and all who dwell in it belong to the Lord. This proclamation celebrates unapologetically God’s sovereignty over other deities and chaotic forces. Moreover, if the Earth and all people are the Lord’s, this text carries profound theological insight into issues of immigration, human dignity and what it means to be a citizen of God’s Kingdom.
Scholar Michael Goulder writes in “David and Yahweh in Psalms 23 and 24” that Psalm 24 has been traditionally described as a “liturgical dialogue for a procession escorting the ark to the temple” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30  [June 1, 2006]). Therefore, Psalm 24 is better understood in the context of a procession or communal gathering celebrating God’s symbolic entrance to his holy mountain after defeating the “forces of chaos.”
Psalm 24:2 explains that God founded the earth on the seas and established it on the rivers. Dianne Bergant writes in “‘The Earth Is the Lord’s’: A Biblical Reflection on Psalm 24:1” (Mission Studies 15:2, 1998) that people of the Near Eastern world described the turbulent waters as destructive forces, explaining that “unruly water was an apt symbol for chaos.” Thus God’s establishment of the earth over the water showed his power over chaos.
Many undocumented families and individuals have faced the turbulent waters of our time, forced to make the painful decision to leave their homes and livelihoods to escape violence, poverty, hunger, political and religious persecution, displacing forces of globalization, ecological degradation, and so on. Like the primeval aquatic forces, these chaotic conditions are beyond people’s ingenuity and control.
Several Hebrew words are used in Scripture to refer to people whose basic material needs are not being met. Bruce Malchow adds in Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible: What Is New and What Is Old? (Liturgical Press, 1996) that these words “also apply to people without the means to protect themselves from oppression. They have become poor through injustice.”
Many immigrants have been pushed to leave their lands, their power lessened through external forces. Additionally, once immigrants relocate, they continue to face systems of racial and economic exclusion in the “host” land. Living in the shadows can create great anxiety and involve painful choices for these families. Many choose to keep their citizen children from taking advantage of opportunities that would improve their well-being, fearing that applying for such programs could increase their risk of deportation and rip the family apart. Immigrant children are bullied at school by other kids who tell them “to go back to where you came from.” In some states, parents without documents are afraid even to let their children play outside. Hateful attitudes against fellow human beings present a moral, humanitarian and theological crisis.
Let us remember that Abraham himself was an “illegal alien,” forced by famine to take up alien status in Egypt, where he feared for his life and lied, presenting his wife as his sister (Genesis 12:13). God tells Abraham, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for 400 years,” alluding to the exodus (Genesis 15:12).
But God also speaks words of hope: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” This passage is talking about the people of God. The people who are to be a blessing to others are, according to Scripture, slaves and aliens.
Psalm 24:1-2 is a song of hope and trust for the sojourner, proclaiming God’s kingship and final victory over chaos. God even reigns over the chaotic forces of our day that take the shape of dehumanizing systems of exclusion, predatory economic policies and misguided hateful ideologies. In The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Fortress Press, 1984), Walter Brueggemann identifies Psalm 24 as a “psalm of orientation,” one that offers a “confident view that life is not troubled or threatened, but is fundamentally settled because God is known to be trustworthy and reliable.” Brueggemann writes that these types of psalms are in many ways “expressions of creation faith.”
This message of hope and trust is expanded wonderfully in Psalm 146:6-10.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. 7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, 8 the Lord gives sight to the blind, The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. 9 The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, 10 your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.
God is the one who delivers the oppressed, feeds the hungry, watches over the most vulnerable and heals his people. Jesus’s healings restored people to their communities socially and religiously. Therefore “our communities of faith should be about discipleship, not disfranchisement; communion, not exclusion,” write Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell in Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (Orbis Books, 2012).
Let us also consider Psalm 147:4, which declares that God the Creator determines the number of stars, giving each one a name. In God’s eyes, the undocumented do not remain unnamed, marginalized, dehumanized and invisible. God reigns, and he knows each one of them—and their dreams to touch the stars—and calls them by name. Failing to recognize the immigrant’s human dignity and his/her plight is an affront to God’s absolute sovereignty over borders, peoples and all creation.
Toward the end of her poem, Sofia Campos writes, As we celebrate the days, let us not forget we have great purpose and great power; so a challenge for us: What kind of world do we choose to imagine? This is an invitation to work for God’s dream of inclusion and to keep dreaming the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rigoberta Menchú, Desmund Tutu and Sofia Campos. It is also a call to expect enthusiastically the realization of the kingdom of God, which is already here and yet to come. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we can remember our theological identity as immigrants, be a blessing to others, and acknowledge the lordship of God over chaotic forces that claim power.
The message of hope of Psalm 24:1 will deliver a powerful prophetic message at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Arizona this July. Declaring, “The Lord reigns!” is both an invitation to in repentance abandon ideologies that fail to affirm “the other” as God’s beloved one, and a herald of hope that impels us to keep dreaming and acting together toward the fulfillment of God’s just kingdom.
Cristina Rodriguez Blough was born and grew up in Quito, Ecuador. She is a student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., in the Master of Arts: Peace Studies program. She graduated from Goshen (Ind.) College in 2007 with a degree in molecular biology/biochemistry. She has a particular interest in health, immigration and the relationship between science and positive peace. Cristina loves animals, international cuisine and enjoys engaging in creative projects such as drawing and painting.
Cristina Rodriguez Blough (Photo provided)