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Why Your Passport Makes Promise It Can’t Claim

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I collected recently my daughter’s U.S. passport that needed renewal, noting that it was accompanied by a leaflet that read, “With your U.S. passport, the world is yours!”

Nothing shocking on first glance; just a sense of pride and patriotism that citizens of most countries feel toward their flag, passport and other symbols of nationhood.

Though the slogan is, of course, no more than a symbolic affirmation, something troubles me with the statement.

It seems to claim too much. And such a claim is not unique to the U.S. passport. Other passports make this claim, too.

And no doubt you will find the same slogan, word for word, on some travel agency website, an airline company and your local bank’s credit card.

But it leaves me pondering because, in many ways, “The World Is Yours!” reflects much of today’s global culture: our attitude to the environment and waste of resources; our stance toward immigration and displacement; our sense of entitlement in our understanding of personal, societal and global economics; global powers’ foreign policies and behavior toward other nations.

Who has the authority to give the world away? And who dares to take possession of it as their own?

In Genesis 1:28-29, right after we are told that God created male and female in his own image, we read, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.'”

These are words spoken with authority. Yet even the Creator did not tell male and female that the world was theirs.

He gave them authority and responsibility over it and all that is in it. He gave them certain kinds of foods and plants for their sustenance.

This is called stewardship, the responsible management of resources that are not fundamentally ours.

When it comes to the ownership of the earth, Psalm 24:1 affirms, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

So have we given ourselves too much authority? Do we constantly steal God’s possessions? Has our self-centeredness and arrogance turned us into thieves, abusers of authority, rebellious insurgents, claimants to thrones that are not ours?

It is all-the-more humbling that Psalm 24 opens with the pre-script, “Of David.”

“The earth is the Lord’s,” in the biblical worldview, is not the lament of the dispossessed poor, nor is it the war cry of a self-styled revolutionary seeking to overthrow a dictator. They are the words of a king.

King David symbolizes the peak of authority, justice and rightful claim to the throne throughout biblical literature.

He is second only to Jesus the Christ, the inaugurator of God’s reign and rule over a new, hidden kingdom of the re-birthed “in Christ.”

So what does this framework and starting point mean for us?

Government is, no doubt, an important part of stewardship. Leaders must govern responsibly.

Yet we cannot leave unquestioned the concepts of borders, passports and citizenship; of all these tools of exclusion, we must remain critical.

The ideal promoted in the Bible is the roaming nomad, the itinerant preacher; God calls his people out of Egypt, out of the city; it is out in the desert that he meets them and rarely within the safe walls of the city.

So we must ask whether by excluding those who seek refuge among us, the exiled, the refugees and the immigrants, we are not actually also excluding God from our midst.

My daughter inherited a U.S. passport – among others – from one of her parents. But she should not allow herself arrogantly to take possession of the words, “The World Is Yours!”

She must receive it humbly, as an unavoidable evil, remembering that there are so many in our world today who are excluded from this so-called privilege of citizenship – many Palestinians, some aboriginal peoples, those whose parents were too poor to have afforded registering them at birth, those who are considered by the world as “stateless.”

Are they perhaps, in the biblical worldview, far closer than the average person today to being true citizens of heaven?

The numbers both of refugees and internally displaced persons, those fleeing political, military and economic oppression, those seeking refuge and citizenship away from the lands where they were born, are perhaps at one of the highest levels in history.

Let us, therefore, not be too quick in taking up the position of the oppressor, nor adopt too enthusiastically the “royal consciousness” that self-righteously calls to submission to the laws of the land, to the powers that be.

Let us remember that, in the Bible’s perspective, it is the stateless first, the noncitizens, the refugees and immigrants – before those of us who are complacently “stateful” – who may hear the invitation of God through the words of the apostle Peter:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

This is not an invitation to take pity on the stateless, but rather to ponder their parabolic power to question us and the rulers and powers of the present earthly structures.

I hope we can hear judgment spoken out against us every time we construct or accept rational arguments about why we must protect our nations, cultures, societies, flags, passports or borders.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.