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Speaker calls Christians to a more biblical view of land

March 28th, 2022

Karen Gonzalez speaking in the chapel

In Karen González’s view, Christians who claim the Bible as holy Scripture seem to be missing important points about land and the people who live there.

González was at Bethel College March 20-21 to give the Staley Lectures, with their focus “a conversation on immigration.”

Her topic was meant to supplement this year’s common texts in the senior capstone course, Basic Issues of Faith and Life (BIFL), which include her book The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible and the Journey to Belong.

González immigrated from Guatemala with her family at age 9. They lived in Rhode Island and California before settling in Florida.

Since 2015, she has worked for World Relief in Baltimore, where she currently lives. In 2019, she published The God Who Sees with Herald Press, an imprint of MennoMedia of Mennonite Church USA.

In her second talk, during convocation on March 21, González drew largely from her second book, forthcoming in October, Beyond Welcome: Centering Immigrants in Our Christian Response to Immigration.

She pointed out that the theology of land found in many indigenous cultures and origin stories is echoed in the biblical account, namely that the land belongs to the creator (Yahweh/God) who has given it to human beings to take care of – not to “own.”

Further, the land and the people are to “live in reciprocity” by each taking care of the other, and the land is meant to sustain all its people, not just a small minority. The people of Israel, she said, had a covenant with God to that effect, and when the people broke the covenant, they lost the land and were sent into exile.

“Much of Israel’s story is deeply rooted in land,” González said, “displacement from it, longing to return to it. In Paul’s epistles, we read that both people and the land cry out for liberation. There’s a divine connection between human beings and the creatures of the world.

“Most Christians wouldn’t dispute these connections. We affirm God gave human beings stewardship over creation, and that the gift of land comes with responsibilities and opportunities.

“But our Western understanding of the world puts humankind at the center, the epitome, of creation. [And we] live in a world where land is a commodity to be bought and sold. We don’t live as if the land belongs to God alone.”

As a result, González said, most American Christians don’t question the existence of borders (arbitrarily imposed centuries after the first people took up residence) or of there being “lawful” and “unlawful” ways to cross those borders.

“How we view, how we theologize about, the land matters in the immigration conversation. The question is ultimately one of belonging – who belongs on the land and who does not.

“Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa refers to the U.S.-Mexico border as una herida abierta, an open wound, where the [developing] world grates against the [developed] world and bleeds. This image of a gaping wound is very powerful, invoking the humanitarian crisis that exists [in the borderlands].”

González said several times that she places little to no hope in political change, noting that lawmakers from the president on down have consistently failed to enact laws that protect and support immigrants despite popular opinion in favor of both.

She cited as one source of hope what Miguel De La Torre, a professor at Iliff School of Theology, calls “a theology and ethic of [messing] with the system.”

That means subverting it, “creating new opportunities through disorder and chaos,” González said.

One way is through “following immigrants” – considering those who cross borders that are harming people to be breaking unjust human law by following God’s law.

Other ways call for so-called native-born citizens to make their churches into sanctuaries or be ready to surround ICE transport trying to take away their neighbors for deportation.

Speaking to a smaller group in the Ad Building chapel on March 20, González said she also found hope in “gatherings like this, when people come together and give up their time to have a conversation, because they care about immigrant neighbors and want to help and to inform others.”

Elsewhere, she noted, “Many meetings, conferences and church services now begin with land acknowledgments. We acknowledge that the first people in this land, the indigenous people, were displaced.

“It’s important to remember these stories, this reality, that people were removed from their historical lands, but we need to go further. All of us who follow Jesus, the God-man who walked the earth himself, need to acknowledge that the land is not a commodity to buy and sell, it’s a gift from the creator for us to steward.

“[Land] acknowledgments should include this – that God gave us the land for the good of all people everywhere, for life, freedom, sustenance and hope.”

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #15 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges” and #31 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest, both for 2021-22. Bethel was the only Kansas college or university selected for the American Association of College & Universities’ 2021 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, and has been named a TRHT Campus Center. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.