You’ve probably moved at some point. Maybe you moved as a child, or perhaps you first moved when you left your parent’s house. Maybe you left somewhere to be closer to family. Perhaps circumstances out of your control forced you to reluctantly pull up your roots. Almost all of us have moved.
Moving seems morally neutral. The act of moving to a new place is commonplace, and the circumstances behind each move are so varied that it feels unfair to talk about the morality of moving. I think, though, that you can make the case that moving is immoral. I don’t make this argument lightly. I lived six places before I was in 8th grade and I just moved to my 10th “home” in Sydney, Australia a month ago.
Moving as a Good Thing
Growing up, our family moved more than most. I look back on those moves with gratitude. Mainly we lived on unremarkable streets in small towns in South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. I have fond memories of these places and the circumstances around the moves were fairly unremarkable, except that each move was more than an administrative family decision. My Minister dad and pastor mom prayerfully considered each move and looked for signs that God was indeed calling us away. In second grade, I drew a picture of a church and called it “Grace Reformed Church.” My mom’s eyes grew as she looked at the picture. She hadn’t told me that my parents were considering a move so my dad could pastor a church with that very name. Providence. Every move was a response to a “call” away from our home to make another place home. Like Abraham.
“Every move was a response to a ”call” away from our home to make another place home.”
Youth groups and Christian camps reinforced the value of traveling and experiencing the world from other perspectives. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes was an invaluable and seminal Christian event. We took summer trips with church every year to new places, and then dutifully reported back to the congregation what we had learned. All of this seemed to implicitly bless the moves I had experienced as a kid (especially our stint in Haiti as missionaries). Moving was morally good. Staying in one place was complacency.
Pumping the Brakes on Moving
This began to shift during college in the 2000’s.
Partly, there were generational shifts. Millenials were tagged as the boomerang generation for leaving home for new challenges only to end up reluctantly back home. Young people abandoned their hometowns for cities that struggled to employ and house them. The world was shrinking as technologies made it easier and easier to travel. My generation was chasing something that led them away from small towns who were struggling to stay viable. Millennials weren’t getting married, having babies or buying houses at the same rate as previous generations. They were flighty and untethered. Some of the rhetoric around millennials turned out to be hollow (for example, millennials are actually less likely to move than prior generations of young adults).
As a student of theology, the theological critique of moving was more compelling than any demographic trends.
In my courses, we raised critical questions of people who had done theology outside of their home contexts. We read Lamin Sanneh and Kwame Bediako who were doing theology for Africa. Much of their work was undoing the theology they inherited from White Americans. We looked back at the history of traveling preachers and poisonwood Bible missionaries and found their work hollow at best, utterly destructive at worst.
Annie Dillard explored Tinker Creek, not Brooklyn. Wendell Berry farmed his own acres. Our culture was diseased with a selfish reluctance to be rooted in a place. The emphasis was not on the Word going forth to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the world. The Word become flesh and dwelt, tabernacled, made its home among us. Return home and sow your acres. Live a long life of obedience in the same direction and in the same place.
“The spaces and places we live in are not ours to consume. They have histories to study. People to honor. Land to steward.”
I found all of that compelling and I still do. Place, space, and home have become major themes in theology. Miroslav Volf just published a book that reimagines the entire story of scripture as God making the world Home. In recent years, the work of Willie James Jennings reoriented my thinking around space. His seminal work The Christian Imagination asks churches and Christians to think theologically about space. He links our insufficient theology of creation and space to the history and even origins of racism. After reading Jennings, the stakes were raised. The spaces and places we live in are not ours to consume. They have histories to study. People to honor. Land to steward.
Holding Both Things
My wife and I moved to Sydney a month ago, and I moved with all of the above within me. I am a kid from the Midwest United States with Dutch heritage. I am drinking coffee from Ethiopia on Australian land that was at one point the home to the Kuring-Gai people. How then shall I live?
I was—and am—convinced that God’s Spirit was at work in bringing us to this new place. God brings people to new places, and I’m so grateful for that. I am also convinced that God’s tabernacling among us is a pattern I should imitate and that moving isn’t a trivial thing to do. The morality and immorality of moving has been competitive in my mind. Either it is moral or immoral. Recently, though, I’ve accepted that the benefits and dangers of moving don’t have to be competitive. They can both be.
“God brings people to new places, and I’m so grateful for that.”
The words of Berry and Jennings and Dillard can orient me on this unfamiliar shore and guide how I live in this new place.
The critiques of moving are informing how I exist here. They’ve led me to do these three things:
- 1. Learn the story of your place—I got myself a library card the first week of our move so that I could pick up the local history books to learn about the people who have called this place home for the last several thousand years. In our little corner of Sydney, aboriginal people gathered to eat and make their home here as long ago as 4000 years ago. That is 4000 years’ worth of history worth knowing. Learning it is an important part of honoring and participating meaningfully in this city.
- 2. Practice a guest’s humility—I am an outsider and guest, no matter how many books I read. For someone who has never known where to call home, this is a difficult reality to accept. A kindly woman stopped to coo at my 18-month-old recently. We got to chatting a bit and when she heard I moved from Chicago, she said, “You’re a bloody Yank!” And I will always be a yank here. A guest has a responsibility to its host.
- 3. Invest in the people and place—There is a danger that we will only be tourists here: taking in all the sites, consuming what we want, only to leave it once we’ve had our fill. To live another way takes effort. Composting, finding ways to volunteer, becoming a part of a faith community, developing relationships with depth. We don’t want to be vacationers and so we’ll do what we can to offer ourselves to a community.
There are deep moral considerations to make when moving. But there are threats to staying somewhere, too. Perhaps the error we make is forgetting that both moving and staying are not simply choices, they are callings. Both require an intentionality that slips through our fingers like water.