On Being Migrants

July 04, 2018

On Being Migrants

Natalie Swann


What do you imagine when someone starts talking about ‘migrants and refugees’?

Maybe your first thought is that all non-Indigenous Australians are migrants—that the first boat people arrived in 1788. Maybe it cuts close to the bone because you or your parents arrived here from somewhere else.[1] But I would hazard a guess that the imaginations of most Anglo Australians are filled with people whose skin is a tone or two darker, and who speak a language other than English.

The dominant group are always at risk of a certain exoticism, of ‘othering’ people and of talking about them rather than listening to them speak. Or going too far the other way and claiming that we are all so much the same that we make light of the reality of difference. So, instead of telling you about migrants and refugees (I would encourage you instead to listen to migrants and refugees first hand), I want to explore how to think about otherness and pose some challenges to the Australian church. 

There is a mythology to being an anthropologist: the brave adventurer who walked alone into a tribe in the Congo, or the Amazon, or the South Pacific. In this imaginary, the adventurer was white, and the people being studied were not. In fact, they had a lot in common with missionaries of the colonial era. Both missionaries and anthropologists were implicated in uncomfortable ways with colonialism; some facilitated colonialism, while others subverted it. In Australia, some missionaries saw the value of translating the Bible into Indigenous languages and worked hard to understand the culture of the First Australians.[2] The work of Carl Strehlow on the Aranda from Central Australia contributed significantly to the work of Lévi-Strauss and his trailblazing anthropological theories.[3] Peter Carolane has written for Case Quarterly of John Bulmer, who laboured as both missionary and ethnographer among Indigenous people in Victoria and whose work informed Charles Darwin.[4] Since these early collaborations, however, there have followed a good many decades in which there was ‘a perception that the discipline of anthropology has an anti-faith bias’.[5] Fascinatingly, in the last twenty years, post-colonialism levelled the field with respect to truth claims, and anthropology has again entered into a fruitful and respectful dialogue with theology—especially Christian theology.

What anthropologists were interested in then, and what they continue to be interested in now, is what makes us human. Anthropologists explore the vast array of human difference, discovering ‘viable ways of conceiving and living life that are different from their own’.[6] Many anthropologists do this in the hope that this understanding will lead to something better. What that ‘better’ is, is not universally agreed upon, or even explicitly articulated. But I think it is fair to say that many anthropologists have a latent hope that in understanding other people better we might discover better ways to live our own lives and achieve peace with each other. But Joel Robbins argues this is precisely where anthropologists encounter difficulty—in producing a critical agenda to persuade people to let such differences transform their lives.[7]

Robbins, a leading anthropologist of Christianity, suggests anthropologists could learn something from Christian theologians in this respect. He suggests that Christians are also convinced there is another—better—way of living that we need to work hard to figure out, and that they have greater persuasive power for making their arguments. Robbins is not himself a Christian and he thinks it may be possible for anthropologists to achieve this if they ‘recommit ourselves to finding real otherness in the world’.[8]

My own Christian faith means I find his conclusion unsatisfactory. I do not think ‘finding real otherness’ necessarily provides any persuasive critical power. I have little confidence in humanity’s collective ability to soften its heart of its own accord simply by being confronted with the other. Rather, I am convinced the supernatural work of the Spirit is required to transform people. But I think Robbins’ work could help Christians re-orient their attitude to otherness in two ways.

First, it might help Christians to practise a radical openness to migrants who arrive in Australia already knowing the love of Jesus. It might surprise you to learn that 42% of migrants to Australia from the Middle East and North Africa, 49% of migrants from South East Asia, and 81% of migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe identified themselves as Christians on the 2016 Census.[9] There is no reason to believe that they are any more nominal than the 58% of Australian-born persons who ticked the same box. Yet, I suspect that sometimes the church is inclined to think of them (even the Christian ones!) as a ‘mission-field’ rather than as partners. They are considered in need of teaching and training in order that they become more like the Australian church, rather than as brothers and sisters whose witness and teaching may transform the Australian church into a more Christ-like body.

Second, it might help Australian Christians to practise seeing themselves as ‘the other’, especially when they travel to other countries. I think that if we fall into the trap of thinking that there is a white Australian ‘we’ who host migrants, we fail to prepare the approximately 30,000 Australians who leave Australia each year to spend more than twelve months overseas (ABS 2018).[10] People going into missionary service are (hopefully) trained in how to be guests in another country, but vast numbers of Australians, especially young Australians, will travel for substantial periods abroad. How could the church train them so that their Christian faith not only survives that journey, but is positively transformed? How could the church prepare them to be ‘good’ migrants?

While anthropology could learn something from Christian theology about how to critically search for and persuasively argue for a vision of the good life, perhaps the Australian church could learn from anthropologists about how to take difference seriously and how to seek out beauty in the lives and habits of people different from ourselves.


Natalie Swann is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Melbourne. She is researching the interaction between the faith journeys and migration stories of migrant Christians in suburban Melbourne.



[1] 49% of the Australian population was either born overseas or has at least one overseas born parent (ABS 2017).

[2] Meredith Lake, The Bible in Australia (NewSouth Publishing, 2018), pp58-73.

A fascinating documentary exploring the relationship between German Lutheran missions and Indigenous Australian communities is presented in the recent film The Song Keepers, showing in selected cinemas (https://www.brindlefilms.com.au/the-song-keepers).

[3]  Walter Veit, ‘Strehlow, Carl Friedrich Theodor (1871–1922)’. Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press, 1990). Accessed from: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strehlow-carl-friedrich-theodor-8698

[4] Peter Carolane, ‘John Bulmer: Missionary and advocate (1862-1913)’. Case Quarterly 40, 2014, pp14-16

[5] Timothy Larsen, The Slain God (Oxford University Press, 2014), p9.

[6] Joel Robbins, ‘Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?’. Anthropological Quarterly 79(2), 2006, p288.

[7] Robbins, Joel (2006) “Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?” Anthropological Quarterly 79(2): 285-294

[8] Ibid. p292.

[9] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016) 2016 Census Custom Table: Cultural Diversity BPLP - 2 Digit Level by RELP - 3 Digit Level Counting: Persons, Place of Usual Residence, TableBuilder. Findings based on use of ABS TableBuilder data.

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017) MEDIA RELEASE: Census reveals a fast changing, culturally diverse nation, 27 June 2017. Downloaded from:  on 17/05/17. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) 3401.0 Overseas Arrivals and Departures, Australia, downloaded from: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3401.0Main+Features1Mar%202018?OpenDocument on 17/05/2018

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.