12th Assembly 2009

On the theology of exile

Arto Avakian is the Secretary of the Presbytery of Canberra Region and a member of the 12th national Assembly. Born in Egypt, Mr Avakian was stateless for most of his life and was twice a refugee. He spoke with Meera Atkinson from the Assembly media team about his views on the theology of exile in light of the Cato Lecture, delivered on Saturday evening.

Titled “Overboard with Jonah, Over the Line with Ezra: Biblical Themes for the Church in Exile”, the Cato Lecture, given by Dr Daniel Smith Christopher, encouraged Christians to identify as exiles as a way of gaining new insight and practice into life as a Christian.

Q: What are your thoughts on the theology of exile as someone who has been stateless?

A: I’ve been stateless all along until I acquired Dutch citizenship. I’m an Australian citizen now. [The lecture had] a lot of resonance but also a sense of regret that there was probably a paradigm which cut deeper and had a longer tradition and yet we tend to tiptoe over it because it’s a bit difficult.

Q: How would you describe that paradigm?

A: Abraham is considered to be the father of the faithful, the first person who was sent into exile from a country to a land he didn’t know. He left everything behind and embarked on his journey of faith. In that act of response that was deemed to be faithful … we all stand in that tradition — not only Christians but Christians, Jews and Muslims — as the so-called children of Abraham, or cousins to some.

Here is the difficulty: you have exiles having to deal with other exiles and yet not being able to come to, in some parts of the world, a peaceful coexistence.

Q: If we’re all exiles why is it so difficult for people to live together?

A: Because, rather than looking at the act of exile, the issue — not for Christians so much but certainly for the Jews and Palestinians, and I’m not going to put it in religious terms — the question of land has become so paramount that matters of faith and vocation as children of Abraham seem to have been forgotten.

Q: So you’re saying people have forgotten that spiritual truth in their focus on possession?

A: Yes.

Q: And Dr Smith Christopher was saying that’s exactly what we have to reverse. So, do you agree with him?

A: In the question I put to him I said we seem to have made a mess of it and, if you look at Abraham, the first important figure to go into exile, all that we know of him is that he bought a plot of land to bury his wife in. Yet we have overlooked that and have entered into discussions about other material things forgetting about exile as the purpose of being a blessing to the nations as the Hebrew scriptures say.

That was my question because it may have taken us out of our comfort zone to try to deal with that question. I wondered if Daniel might want to reflect on that but he chose not to.

Q: What did you think of what he did say?

A: It’s the perennial tension. It strikes a chord with me so I wasn’t disagreeing with him but I was trying to find a paradigm that would have had greater importance than Jonah and Ezra, which he had chosen as the title of his lecture.

Q: What does someone like yourself, who has literally lived much of their life in exile, know about the spiritual truth of exile that someone me, born and bred in a stable country like Australia, may not?

A: The most important thing for the exile is not to lose their integrity — I’m not saying identity but integrity — because if you lose that integrity anything else you may contribute to society will be of lesser value than if you maintain your integrity.

You can add to your identity by living in a new place, learning a new language, making new friends and an inter-cultural marriage, as was dealt with Ezra shamefully. Or like Jonah there are exiles that yearn for the old country and the way it was. But the main thing for an exile or refugee is the issue of integrity, not only maintaining integrity but that the hosts accept you and respect your integrity.

Q: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to add?

A: I read The Transit Lounge!

Read more about the Cato lecture.