Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve lately heard of the housing crisis that much of Europe is facing as refugees spill onto its shores, the majority of them fleeing Middle Eastern and North African countries battered by violent extremism, war, and oppression. And it doesn’t matter how big the rock is that you live under, you’ve certainly heard of the immigration crisis in the United States, where thousands of undocumented immigrants—many of whom are unaccompanied minors from Central America— have been increasingly pressing through the U.S.-Mexico border. If you wanted to forget about it, all of that talk about the question of “securing our borders” from presidential hopefuls won’t seem to let you.
Amidst the buzz about the surge of immigration and the predicaments it presents, it’s easy to become alarmed. But that alarm can itself turn into something even more alarming, particularly from a Christian perspective: When our alarm becomes the driving source of our reaction to the situation, the way that we talk about undocumented immigrants can very quickly come to imply that they’re fundamentally our competitors for material resources. Only afterwards are they humans facing complex and often dire situations.
Now, I should say that I’m not advocating for a certain political position on this issue. I realize that it’s a complicated one, one that merits nuanced conversation about macroeconomic issues that effect prosperity on a global level.
But in the midst of those conversations, I think we’d be extremely naïve if we each didn’t recognize our own fear of foreigners and consider how those xenophobic tendencies might affect our values. And I wonder what could happen if Christians in all places revived the old art of hospitality to the stranger, not only with the people we do encounter but also with the people whom we could encounter. What would happen if we foremostly put a human face on the immigrant? Better yet, what if we put the face of Christ on that person?
Towards that end, I will advocate every Christian (especially those who want to weigh in on the topic of immigration) reading Flannery O’Connor’s fictional short story, “The Displaced Person.”
O’Connor, a devoted Catholic and native of Milledgeville, Georgia, was inspired to write this story by real events in 1949 and 1951, which involved refugee families from Europe coming to work on dairy farms in her neighborhood. In O’Connor’s fictional narrative, a character named Mrs. McIntyre owns a farm on which Polish refugees, the Guizacs, come to work in order to escape the atrocities of Nazi-occupied Europe.
One thing I find so brilliant about O’Connor as a theologian is how, through her characters, she reminds all of us of our fallen tendencies. When it comes to the topic of immigration, if we’re honest, many of us could see ourselves in Mrs. McIntyre’s farm worker, Mrs. Shortley, as she flippantly discusses the arrival of the Guizacs with another farm worker named Astor:
“‘They come from over the water,’ Mrs. Shortley said with a wave of her arm. ‘They’re what is called Displaced Persons.’
“‘Displaced Persons,’ he said. ‘Well now. I declare. What do that mean?’
“‘It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.…But yawl better look out now,’ she said and nodded her head. ‘There’s about ten million billion more just like them’” (289–290)
We can also see ourselves in the terribly practical Mrs. McIntyre, who views Mr. Guizac, who “has to work” and “wants to work!” because of his situation, only in terms of how he will make her more materially secure: “That man is my salvation!” she proclaims with this gain in mind (294). When she hears that Mr. Guizac plans to retrieve his cousin from a concentration camp by arranging for her to marry one of the other farm workers, all Mrs. McIntyre can think of is how his doing so will disrupt the productive balance of her farm. She retreats in self-pity, feeling that there is “nobody poorer in the world” than she (312). Mrs. McIntyre guesses the truth, only she doesn’t realize that she is not impoverished by the material burden of all of the so-called “extra” people who work for her (316). Her poverty rests in the way with which she views those people.
It is not surprising that, when a priest speaks to her of Jesus’s act of redemption, Mrs. McIntyre cannot appreciate such impracticality. She interrupts him irritably:
“‘Father Flynn!’ she said in a voice that made him jump. ‘I want to talk to you about something serious!’…‘As far as I’m concerned,’ she said and glared at him fiercely, ‘Christ was just another D.P.’” (320).
When I honestly read “The Displaced Person,” I am disturbed by how much I relate to Mrs. Shortley or Mrs. McIntyre—at how quickly I too can see foreigners impersonally, statistically, only in terms of the material threat or benefit they might bring me. And so it comes as a gut punch when I read the above passage where, once again, Mrs. McIntyre ironically suspects correctly. Christ was a displaced person, one who knew exactly what it felt like to be “run out of” where he came from to a place where “wouldn’t nobody have” him. And by the cold logic of the Mrs. McIntyres of the world, Christ is “just another” bothersome extra like so many others.
Without giving away the ending of this profound story, I’ll tell you this: in O’Connor’s fiction, the cost of redemption is always that of a vision transformed by the claims of Golgotha. Christ’s crucifixion does not remain fixed in time. Rather, it continually reoccurs in human suffering and as our constructed securities are exposed for their inability to bear up under the mystery of existence. In this fashion, O’Connor’s work reminds us that Jesus embodied the high price of our salvation at Golgotha, and its high price must still be embodied by his followers.
Again, I do not write this piece as a plug for any political agenda. I just believe it’s vital that when the topic of illegal immigration comes up, we recall that Christ himself was “just another displaced person” and that his cross reminds us that we are called to become the same by entering into solidarity with the suffering of the world.
Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.