Neither Here nor There: Black Migrant Workers and “Strangers and Foreigners” in Hebrews

Hebrews calls its audience to embrace an identity of liminality. Employing stories of the past in order to construct the present and the future, Hebrews 11 describes the faithful ancestors as “strangers and foreigners” (11:13) for whom God has prepared a “better country” (11:16), and promised a heavenly city (11:16). The proper place of the community is with Jesus “outside the camp” (13:13) because they have “no lasting city,” and they “look for a city that is to come” (13:14). This motif resonates deeply in African American hermeneutics: “African American slaves knew what it meant to feel like ‘strangers and foreigners’ and to ‘desire a better country,’ one in which God would be rightly honored and in which they could live in freedom” (Massey, True to Our Native Land, 457). Appealing to the time of slavery claims this motif as an empowering heritage of faith and hope. However, it does not explore the way the text constructs this liminal identity in an urbanized imperial/colonial context where the ambivalent spaces created by legalized forms of belonging (like citizenship) have complex material implications. In this paper I argue that by juxtaposing the situations of contemporary black migrant workers with the text of Hebrews, we can better see how alien identities are always very political in-between spaces, “like gifts from the enemy, precarious – filled with tension and expectation” (Burman, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, 188). Drawing on postcolonial, race, and empire studies and scholarship on early Christian identity formation, I will examine how thinking with the diverse and changing contexts of people of African descent can further elucidate both the alien motif in early Christianity and the comforting but also dangerous survival game of claiming an identity that is “neither here nor there.”