Desperate people are breeching the borders of Western Christianity from the South and the East, or so say the Prime Ministers of Hungary and Poland.
There might be no issue that the Bible is clearer on than how the foreigner and immigrant are to be treated, and if you're not sure, it is with compassion. I know. You would never know it from what we Christians ask of our governments. The Archibishop of Canterbury writes a Christian response to refugees here.
The idea of sanctuary to a refugee is ancient and religious for Christians. The Hebrew scripture is filled with the question of what faithfulness to God would look like. The prophets proclaim that it would produce justice in the land, marked by generosity to the foreigner, widow, orphan and immigrant, the most vulnerable. Jesus claims this tradition and his teaching on the matter of loving our neighbor as ourself, which is the law of God, concludes with this question "who was a neighbor to the man?" The man referenced is a traveller between jurisdictions beaten, robbed and left injured on the road.
Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has said that his country does not want immigrants. He says that it his responsibility to enforce the border of the EU that is in Hungary, even if in doing so by trying to refuse entrance or passage of refugees, he potentially makes a folly of policies of receiving refugees of those nations with no vulnerable borders, like Germany, because refugees simply can't get there if they make the mistake of coming through Hungary. Apparently, the fact that many refugees are Muslim reminds him of the Ottoman wars, which concluded as a significant threat around 1700 and was instigated by what would become the largest and most liberal and sophisticated empire of its time, not refugees.
The governments of Poland and Hungary have promised to turn away refugees because they are defending European Christianity. Are they saying it is a Christian act to turn away the migrant and refugee; to let the needy and foreigner die among us; to create the widow and orphan?
There is a distinction between the imperial or national identity of Christian nation, and the community based identity of Christians as followers of Jesus. We see this debate in the religious freedom movement in the U.S. The idea that practicing our faith as Christians requires the freedom to discriminate against people who are not Christian, or who have different Christian values than we do, seems to point to an end of a certain kind of Western Christianity. If we are not confident and faithful in a way that can be generous or even frankly, Christian, in our public life how can we claim Christian as our national identity? We seem to want to claim to be both a persecuted, vulnerable sect, while also claiming a powerful, national identity as a Christian people. This is playing out similarly in Europe and the U.S.
For Europe the refugees are from places close to them: Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, the Horn of Africa. People are fleeing in what look like plastic pool toys or hand made fishing boats overflowing with people. It looks a lot like the Cuban and Haitian boat lifts that we used to watch on the evening news in the 1980's. Our nation's practice was to turn back the Haitians and receive the Cubans. It wasn't very subtle who this nation wanted and who we didn't, and the Haitians were stopped at sea because whether we wanted them or not, once they landed on our shores they had rights as refugees.
Like our southern border with Mexico, border crossing into Europe is an underground industry in which middle-men prey on the most vulnerable. We call them coyotes in this country. Understandably, migrants spend every thing they have, take loans, and often are forced to leave the most vulnerable behind, in a desperate hope for survival. The middle men only exist because border nations like the U.S. generate politically motivated policy that sounds tough on immigrants but instead creates opportunity for smugglers, because those who migrate, must and will continue to do so. In some countries on the border with Europe those policies include pretending no one has arrived, granting them no recognition or write to work or travel, leaving them in limbo.
Now we have pictures of a toddler name Aylan dead on a beach in Turkey. He is dressed like we dress our children, and he looks like he could be asleep, but he drowned while fleeing on a flimsy vessel getting closer to the borders of Europe. We have seen the agony on the face of his father who in his own words had lost "everything precious." People sneak in with smugglers because they are not allowed to travel legally across borders. They are trapped.
In the U.S. we make money on our borders. They are our modern day public works projects. We are building a wall, which seems to involve paying contractors with ties to government lots of money to build a thing that is widely understood to be irrelevant. The work around for coyotes are the tunnels and boats and large swaths of land with no wall, because the wall is fundamentally an unworkable idea, and many people, legally and illegally, will profit from it.
Our borders like all national borders have always been porous. The Texas Mexico border is more than 1200 miles long. People are arriving at this border from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico as refugees. They are coming because civil society where they are from has utterly fallen apart, and their lives are threatened. Everybody is unsafe in certain areas and to avoid being drafted into local armed conflicts or simply murdered, the people are fleeing, through all of Mexico to the U.S. border, because they have the right to refuge in the United States. You could understand receiving refugees as the obligation of nations who meddle in the internal dynamics of nations around the world for their own interests, which our nation believes is our right and responsibility, or you could understand it as an ethical responsibility of nations that hold enormous resources.
There has been a surge at our border, similar to what is happening in Hungary, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Turkey because refugees have to get to the jurisdiction of a sheltering country to declare refugee status, and the current state of things in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador count as the kind of condition from which people should seek sanctuary in another nation.
The only way to change the current situation would be for American embassies in other countries to receive refugee claims, which some do, or to establish sites outside of the U.S. where refugees could register themselves before reaching a border. It's easy to imagine why that is complicated, but if we are serious that we offer a haven for those who must flee from everything familiar to survive, also known as a humanitarian crisis, we would establish such centers.
And for those who arrive here, there should be services. With a fraction of what is being spent on the border wall, refugees could be processed and resourced to live lives with dignity.
Becoming a refugee is not a criminal act in international law. It is the status of someone who has survived a disaster, like a tsunami, the international community anticipates that there will be some disasters, and there are policies and procedures in place to help, but we have to honor them.
Our faith commands a particular obligation to the migrant, the foreigner among us. We inherit the spiritual heritage of people who had no safe place, and Jesus teaches us that it is in those places of unsafety that God acts. We have a clear obligation and more importantly, a life-giving, faith-creating mission to welcome the migrant, if we wish to follow Jesus.
Sister Norma Pimentel works on the Texas Mexico border, where there is very little in the way of government agencies with border offices in place to help a refugee navigate the United States immigration bureaucracy she or he must negotiate to be declared a refugee. That means you could lose your window of legal opportunity to claim refugee status and become one of the many simply undocumented, vulnerable to be returned to the place where your life was at risk. Our border, like the borders of Europe are highly politicized in that claiming to defend the borders are political key words that politicians use to prove their law and order credentials. This usually includes funding border patrol officers, but rarely does in include the kind of intake, processing, shelter, and basic services it would take to make our borders safe and effective.
Sister Norma is a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus and the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She is celebrated in local Texas media and has testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Senate.
Since the crises in Central America of the 1980's Sister Norma and volunteers have insured that refugees have access to a shower, clean clothes, food and some help figuring out what to do next. She makes it possible for the law to work as it is intended.
The border patrol, like that Turkish soldier carrying Aylan from the beach, engage the day to day of hungry, sick, and desperate people arriving confused and believing that they are traveling towards hope. It is the border patrol that drops off those who claim to be refugees with Sister Norma and her church volunteers. You can read more about them and how to help them here. You can see the pope thank her personally here.
I hope we don't need a picture of a toddler baking in the desert sun to move us to compassion, justice, or faithfulness, as the picture of Aylan seems to be doing in Europe.
If this is who we are, it might be too late to worry about the decline of European Christianity or the Christian heritage of the United States of America, which these days doesn't seem stand for much more than an inflatable dingy to carry our prejudices.