Citizenship matters. Not in some ethereal or patriotic sense of pride at being a citizen of a certain nation, but in tangible ways that confer rights and protections not afforded to non-citizens.

The Apostle Paul knew this when faced with being flogged and possibly executed after angering a crowd to whom he was speaking in Jerusalem. When he declared that God had sent him “far away to the Gentiles,” the writer of Acts says that the crowd became angry: “They raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’”

This disruption of the peace garnered the attention of a Roman commander who “directed that [Paul] be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this” (see Acts 22:22-29). “I’m a citizen of Rome” was all he needed to declare to stop the proceeding and, ultimately, to be released from custody.

Being a Roman citizen meant Paul was not subject to the same punishments as the non-citizens living within the realm of the famed pax romana that, ironically, was achieved and maintained through force and violence – flogging first and asking questions later when someone was accused of disrupting the peace.

So, what happens when you aren’t a citizen of any nation? When you have no passport, birth certificate or other official documentation declaring who you are and where you are from?

This query is not about Paul’s Philippians 3:20 assertion that Christians are citizens of heaven; rather, it is about the dire circumstances of statelessness faced by millions around the world.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

This was bolstered by two U.N. conventions, one in 1954 that defined statelessness and provided “a framework for the international protection of stateless persons,” while another in 1961 sought to prevent statelessness and reduce the number of stateless persons.

Despite these international declarations and conventions, there are at least 10 million people in the world who are stateless. Causes of statelessness range from overt discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities to being born to a stateless person in a country that confers citizenship based on parentage.

“Root causes of statelessness often result from State succession, disputes between States concerning the legal identity of individuals, protracted marginalization of specific groups within society, or stripping individuals or groups of their nationality. The perpetuation of these situations leads to a deepening sense of disenfranchisement of these populations which can eventually lead to displacement,” according to a report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

Gender discrimination is another leading cause, according to a 2019 UNHCR report. At least 25 countries do not allow women to pass along citizenship to their children, while others restrict women from “independently accessing birth certificates and identity documentation for their children,” which is necessary to acquire or prove citizenship.

Whatever the specific cause, the U.S. State Department lists the negative impacts of statelessness: lack of legal protections, no right to vote or to own property, inability to access certain services such as education, employment, health care and social safety net programs. In addition, stateless persons are often isolated or shunned, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

“Nationality’s importance can be seen in the following imagined scenario,” explains Brent Hamoud, program lead for the Master of Religion in MENA Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. “While traveling in a foreign country, you lose your passport and all forms of identification. You no longer have any documentation to verify who you are, and a myriad of complications prevent you from acquiring a new passport or replacing lost identity papers. For the time being, you must face the world without anything determining that you are someone from somewhere.”

Citizenship matters. So, people of good faith not only need to become informed about the reality of statelessness but also work to ensure everyone has a nationality, a citizenship that isn’t simply a future hope in the “sweet by and by.”

Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Lectionary to Life Series at the Center for Congregational Ethics. This article is part of a series this week, calling attention to December 10 as Human Rights Day. The previous articles in the series are:

The Capability Approach and Human Rights: A New Perspective | Jack Boles

Why the World Needs People Willing to Change Their Religion | George E. Oliver

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