Eight Million Exiles: How Do Christians Engage with Issues of Forced Displacement? 

Published 27 March 2024 / By Carlos Vargas-Silva

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Ahead of Easter weekend, Professor of Migration Studies Carlos Vargas-Silva interviews Christopher Hays to mark his latest book Eight Million Exiles exploring how Missional Action Research (MAR) has been used to make a real difference for displaced persons in Colombia.

I met Christopher, who is a theologian of New Testament studies, in Oxford several years ago, just before he moved to Medellin, Colombia. After learning about his plans to relocate, I worried about Christopher’s security. Colombia has experienced high levels of violence for decades and Christopher was on a mission to educate and help those in need, many of whom have been affected by trauma. Over the years, I got some news about Christopher from friends who interacted with him in academic seminars or other events. But I had no clear idea of what he was really up to.

Now, with the publication of Eight Million Exiles, I have learned of the impact he has had on those displaced in Colombia. The book which, in addition to the efforts of Christopher, reflects the work done by a 35-person team in his organization, describes how the Christian faith interacts with issues of displacement. In a recent conversation, I asked Christopher three questions about his new book. While Christopher often talks about his book as directed to those interested in questions of faith, I think that the book can also be insightful to those interested in displacement issues, offering a unique perspective on displacement regardless of the faith (or lack of) of the reader.

Carlos: Why did you selected Colombia as the place to establish your initiative?

Christopher: It’s not so much that we created the Faith and Displacement project Fe y Desplazamiento and then decided that it would fit well in Colombia. Rather, because Colombia was our home—a home in which 1 out of 6 of our neighbors had been driven from their land by violence—we felt that our theological vocation entailed a calling to address that reality of pain. We came to believe that good Christian theology - theology that is rooted in example of a suffering Messiah - has to draw near to the wounds of the world, because the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus reveal that qualitatively new life only emerges from death.

Faith and Displacement really could only have emerged from Latin America. The theory we developed to engage the reality of displacement called Missional Action Research (MAR), is the combination of two Latin American theories. The first was misión integral (integral mission), a theology pioneered by René Padilla and Samuel Escobar, which pushed back against dualistic North Atlantic theologies that prioritized attention to spiritual matters at the expense of social and material ones, insisting that God is the king of all creation. Integral mission thus argued that the mission of the Church must always address the concrete, local, and real, and further emphasized (pace the tendency to elevate the agency of Christian clergy over that of laity) the role of the lay-Christian in the Church’s work of justice and mercy.

The second theory that undergirds MAR is Participatory Action Research (PAR, or Investigación-Acción Participativa), a social-scientific method which has roots in the US but arguably reached its definitive formulation in Colombia with the work of sociologist Orlando Fals Borda. Pushing back against methods in which scholars analyze social realities from a detached objective perch, this approach drew marginalized populations into the investigative process as participant researchers. These participant researchers collaborated with social scientists to analyze their reality, to develop an intervention to address it, and to implement, evaluate, and refine that intervention.

Our resulting synthetic theory, MAR, fuses these two Latin American theories—integral mission and PAR—into a mechanism to foster collaborations between theologians, social scientists, local churches, and the displaced. MAR can be applied effectively in any number of contexts (we’re using elements of it in Ukraine right now). But because of the way the theory and practice of MAR fused two Latin American theories in response to the Colombian conflict, it is probably fair to say that Faith and Displacement could only have emerged in Colombia.

Carlos: What did you find out when looking at issues of displacement from a Christian perspective?

Christopher: Our work in Colombia showed us that faith, and perhaps especially Christian faith, can actually have some dramatic ramifications on people’s experience of displacement. Religious belief can impact not only how non-migrants view the displaced but also how the displaced conceive of themselves and their agency.

For those of us who aren’t displaced, Christian faith makes strong claims about how we should view the displaced: not as unwelcome invaders or burdens, but as beings of irreducible dignity, made in the image of a creator God and thus endowed with the potential to be co-creators of their own restoration (Genesis 1:26-28). That alone should shape our understanding of what it means to support the recuperation of a survivor of displacement: our role isn’t to rescue a victim, but to foster the flourishing of a being with a divinely endowed creative power.

Being a follower of Jesus shifts (or should shift) our understanding of what we owe to our neighbors: justice, mercy, honor, and love—the same sort of love you offer yourself and your own family (Mark 12:31). In Colombia, we saw reflection on this Christian ethical paradigm move the inhabitants of reception sites from attitudes of hostility and suspicion to welcome and sacrificial support. Additionally, Christian doctrine affirms that, however real the evil of our present experience, wickedness doesn’t get the last word in individual or collective human histories. This belief in the ultimate and efficacious goodness of God helps move people to enter into others’ grief and trauma, trusting that the reality of sorrow isn’t the final reality, even when it’s all one might be able to see from the vantage point of their displacement.

For displaced persons, we observed that faith can be a source of tremendous resiliency because people believe that their present state isn’t hopeless. We also observed that shared religious identity can be a source of tremendous cohesion in otherwise socially fragmented displaced communities, fostering cooperation between victims who otherwise have a tendency towards isolation. Belief in divine accompaniment even emboldens people to venture productive economic risks or to take up political activism, believing that God accompanies them and seeks to transform what humans have meant for evil into something good (cf. Genesis 50:20).

Carlos: What are the main lessons that you want others to take from your experience?

Christopher: First, and at the distinct risk of being overly bold, I do hope that Eight Million Exiles becomes an occasion for theologians to take pause and evaluate the nature of the theology to which they dedicate their days and talents, asking “Is this the most important theology I could be doing with my life?” I worry that the incentives of the academy and shape of contemporary theological discourse do not conduce to doing theology that really matters, or even to stopping to reflect on what sort of theology we should be doing, or want to do.

This point was driven home to me, when we held our first public conference on our displacement work. We wanted to share academic biblical and theological reflections on displacement. The event was surprisingly well attended, even by non-academics. But local community workers and pastors approached me during the breaks, asking for guidance on how to help displaced people to get back on their feet economically or to process their traumatic experiences or to navigate the corrupt government system that supposedly attends to victims. I found myself having to explain, “Well, that’s not really what academic theology does…. We explore what Scripture, doctrine, and the history of the Church can tell us about displacement as a phenomenon. But the guild doesn’t really specialize in saying what to do with the challenges of any discrete experience of displacement.” Even as I said this, I felt ashamed. I may not have been wrong; academic theology doesn’t typically address those sorts of issues. But I came to believe that failing to help the Church address such issues meant that I was doing theology wrong.

Second, I hope that Eight Million Exiles demonstrates the capacity of MAR to harness social-scientific insight, field research, and survivor knowledge to enable Christian theology to have an even greater impact. The underlying assumption behind this project was that the “whole would be greater than the sum of its parts,” i.e., that combining theology and the social sciences would enable outcomes superior to those possible when either discipline operates in isolation. I try to make that case in the book, and I suppose readers will evaluate whether they think I pulled it off! But even if someone doesn’t feel like MAR is the right methodological fit for them, I hope that Eight Million Exiles emboldens theologians to dig into empirical research methods and to engage with participant collaborators, so that their academic theology can be more effectively translated into concrete practice that fosters justice, wholeness, and healing.