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Peter C. PhanMay 16, 2024
An image of people walking in a straight line with a sunset in the background and a flock of birds in the airPhoto from iStock.

Philip Bump, a columnist for The Washington Post, reported on Jan. 15, 2024, that nearly half of American adults (about 25 percent of Democrats and over 75 percent of Republicans) agree with Donald Trump that immigrants entering the United States illegally are “poisoning the blood” of the country.

Another poll, the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 Census of American Religion, showed that 70 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christian. This suggests that a sizable percentage of American Christians agree with Mr. Trump’s racist pronouncement. As a Catholic migrant several times over myself, I wonder how early Christians would have reacted to this and what they would have considered the best remedy for the poisoning of the blood of Christ.

It might surprise (white) American Christians that the early Christians were mostly migrants. The author of the first book of Peter addresses his letter to Christians who lived as “strangers/exiles” (parepidēmoi) in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1:1). Later, he calls them “resident aliens” (paroikoi) and, again, “strangers” (2:11).

These terms were later interpreted in the spiritual sense to mean that Christians are earthly pilgrims toward heaven, but the New Testament scholar John H. Elliott persuasively argues that “strangers” and “aliens” refer to Christians in their actual political, legal and social status, both before and after their conversion. There are two other Greek terms to refer to Christians: allos, allotrios (other, stranger) and xenos(foreigner; from this term, we have “xenophobia,” fear or hatred of the stranger). This vocabulary clearly demonstrates that the early Christians were migrants.

This was true of the community of Christians in Rome, which was likely founded by migrant Jewish-Christian converts and, by the third century, boasted the largest Christian group in the empire. Christian migrants, especially from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, were attracted to Rome because the city was populated by migrants and enjoyed a vibrant religious diversity into which the new religion could insert itself and attract converts. Until the middle of the third century, the common language for Christian migrants there was Greek, not Latin (just as Spanish, not English, is the common language of many immigrants in the United States today).

A Fundamental Part of Christian Life

It is important to note that this condition of being a migrant was not limited to a group of Christians or a particular time but belongs to the very nature of Christianity. Indeed, I would argue for two axioms. First, Christian mission induces migration, and, conversely, migration fulfills Christian mission. Second, there is a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship between Christian mission and migration. The more Christian mission expands, the more migration of Christians occurs, and the more migration of Christians occurs, the more Christian mission expands.

It is customary to think that Christian missions began first in Palestine and spread from there to the West, at the center of which stood Rome; in this understanding, these missions were undertaken, or at least initiated, by popes, “successors of Peter,” and by bishops, “successors of the apostles,” to bring the faith to the rest of the globe. Such top-down historiography of Christian missions may be said to be hagiographic, focusing on saints and heroes (in today’s parlance, stars and celebrities). Such a narrative makes for fascinating and edifying reading, especially if it is adorned with miracles and heroic feats. Unfortunately, it ignores the indispensable on-the-ground contributions of rank-and-file Christian migrants, male and female, whose work has not been recorded in the official annals of missions. Without these mostly anonymous migrants, Christian missions would not have borne permanent fruit.

A relief from a fourth-century sarcophagus depicts Jesus in a boat with John, Luke and Mark (Prisma Archivo/Alamy)
A relief from a fourth-century sarcophagus depicts Jesus in a boat with John, Luke and Mark (Prisma Archivo/Alamy)

After Emperor Constantine’s conversion (in 312) and the Edict of Milan that tolerated Christianity a year later, conversion to Christianity no longer led to personal and social persecution, and the Christian community grew exponentially. By the beginning of the third century, Christians were estimated at 0.35 percent of the population of the empire; by the year 250, about 2 percent; by 300, 10.5 percent; and by 350, 56.5 percent.

Such phenomenal growth has been attributed to extraordinary hierarchical leadership, but it cannot be accounted for by that alone, however able those leaders might have been. The hierarchy simply could not accomplish this phenomenal growth, given the scant number of bishops, their general lack of physical mobility, the relative absence of personal contact and the means of social communication between them and the non-Christians to be converted, the severe impediments caused by persecutions, and the vast and far-flung geography of the Roman Empire.

Migrants and Christian Mission

To account fully for the astounding expansion of early Christianity and the enormous rate of conversion throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, another group of Christian agents must be given credit: the migrants. Ubiquitous and, indeed, constituting the majority of the Christian population, they constantly crisscrossed Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and the main Mediterranean cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi and Rome.

In the second century, these migrant Christians penetrated the distant provinces of Egypt, Syria, Gaul and North Africa. By the year 300, Christianity entered Spain and Brittany. At the same time, remarkably, it spread toward the East, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, into the Persian Empire; Edessa, the capital of the kingdom of Osrhoene; Armenia and Georgia in the Caucasus region; and eventually as far as India and China, along the Silk Road and by the sea route.

The sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that conversion in the first three centuries was most often the result of person-to-person contacts. David W. Kling affirms in A History of Christian Conversion that “the faith spread primarily through personal contact among family members and friends, between slaves, at social events, in the army, in the workplace, through travel and trade, and even during war.” If so, the conclusion that “migration promotes conversion” is inescapable. Migrants, represented by the categories of people and in the circumstances described above, and not official church officials, played a preponderant role in spreading the Christian faith. How? By “gossiping the Gospel” to fellow migrants and the natives of the lands they passed through or in which they settled as they went about their daily business.

Most often, they were not commissioned by church officials to go on missions to the “pagans,” and they far outnumbered those who were. They were simply migrants, traveling hither and thither for the same mundane businesses as their non-Christian counterparts, and they lived the Christian faith without ostentation among the people they met or shared life with. Inevitably, their neighbors, friends and colleagues would be curious about their faith and way of life and no doubt would inquire about it. Most likely, these Christians were not equipped to give a full explanation and intellectual defense of their faith unless they were highly educated; nevertheless, they would bear faithful witness to God and Jesus with their behavior and distinctive way of life.

Were their numbers large enough, they would, on their own initiative, form a community for common worship and prayer, and whenever possible, would send for a priest or monk from their home countries to teach the faith, administer the sacraments and cater to spiritual needs. Religious specialists rarely preceded the migrants; at best, they accompanied them, and more often, it was the latter who facilitated their missions. At times, finances permitting, they would build churches, remnants of which still dot the Silk Road and other locales far from Rome. In this way, they laid the foundations for the establishment of Christianity wherever they went.

To be a migrant was to be a missionary, and migration promoted conversion. Given this intimate theological and historical connection between Christian mission and migration, not least in the United States, Christians must firmly condemn any demonization of migrants, not simply for political reasons but in the name of the Christian faith. Such demonization poisons not only the blood of the country but the blood of Christ. We Christians eat Christ’s body and drink his blood sacrilegiously, to our damnation, if we allow the bacteria of anti-immigrant rhetoric to introduce poison into that body and blood. Left untreated, that racist poison will be fatal to Christ’s body, the church.

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