CNEWA Connections: Remembering God’s Command to Love the Stranger

How we are to welcome the stranger

The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is observed this year on Sunday 29 September. Pope Francis has presented an important message to set this year’s observance within a context.

The world is facing the largest mass movement of people in history. There have been mass movements of people before. Most of these were connected with violence. The movements of the “barbarians” in Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries and the Mongol invasions of the 13th century are merely two examples. Each of these was accompanied by great destruction and changed the world forever. The present mass movement of peoples is different in several ways: it is not connected with military violence and it is not limited to one people like the Vandals, the Huns or the Mongols.

With refugees coming from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and elsewhere the contemporary mass movement of people is unique in world history. The world of CNEWA is doubly impacted by this kind of movement. Some of the countries where we work, such as Iraq, are experiencing massive emigrations, especially of the young. Other countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are “target countries” that are being flooded with refugees they can hardly sustain.

Which brings us back to Pope Francis.

The theme of his message is “it is not just about migrants.” Speaking of a “growing trend to extreme individualism” and “a utilitarian (value = usefulness) mentality,” the pope speaks of a “globalization of indifference.” This is a truly frightening concept. Resistance and even opposition may be difficult but they can usually be dealt with. Indifference, on the other hand, is almost invincible. Why? Because it says “I just don’t care.”

In his message, the pope recognizes the challenges which “target countries” face in receiving and absorbing often large numbers of displaced people. Consider, for example, Lebanon. For a period, almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon consisted of refugees. The social, political and economic impact of this reality was almost impossible for Lebanon, a tiny country about one-third the size of Maryland. Francis recognizes that this generates fear and “to some extent, the fear is legitimate…because the preparation for this encounter is lacking.”

Nevertheless, in this tremendous challenge, the pope sees an opportunity to retrieve the compassion which is central to the message of Jesus.

There is no doubt that the mass movement of peoples in our world has an impact on just about every aspect of a target county’s life. It would be naïve and foolhardy—and Francis is most definitely neither—to overlook the overwhelming political challenges which are inextricably interwoven with the moral and religious dimensions.

The moral and religious dimensions of treatment of migrants are something also deeply woven into the much touted Judeo-Christian moral code. While Francis is aware of this, far too many Catholics are not. But it is deeply engrained in our religious tradition. The word ger in Hebrew means “alien, foreigner, stranger.” It appears 88 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the legal texts. The Law of Moses consistently sees three specially protected groups in Israelite society: the widow, the orphan and the stranger (ger). Abuse and mistreatment of these people are what traditionally are referred to as “crimes that cry out to God for vengeance.” That is to say: in the Law of Moses, if the widow, the orphan and stranger are not protected by the dominant society, God will punish that society.

It is rare but not unheard of that a law in the Old Testament is accompanied by a rationale. However, there is an extraordinary verse in Leviticus 19:33 (with similar verses in Exodus 22; 21, 23:9): “If a stranger lives in your land, you must not molest him. The stranger (ger) is to be to you like a native. You must love the stranger (ger) as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God.” There are several things important here. By ending the law with “I am YHWH your God,” it is clear this is not merely a suggestion or ideal. It is a demand of the God of Israel.

Another interesting point, with contemporary implications, is that the Israelites are commanded to treat the stranger like a “native.” The Hebrew word used here is ?ezra?. It has the connotation of something which has sprung up from the native soil (see Psalm 37:35). It is interesting that the racism of the Nazis was expressed by Blut und Boden (“Blood and Soil”). Recently the expression has been used by people and politicians on the extreme right to attack migrants as “foreigners” (very often of a different skin color).

But such treatment contradicts the Judeo-Christian tradition. With an almost uncanny precision, God commands the Israelites to love the stranger as if he or she were as native as the local soil.

That is not an easy thing to do. There are huge challenges and people are—at times justifiably—afraid. However, Pope Francis in a pastoral way is calling us to overcome our often very real fears and respond to the challenge—indeed the command—of God to love the stranger as ourselves.

For Jesus, this is the Great Commandment: to love our God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.

For the follower of Jesus, regardless how difficult it may be, this is not merely an option.

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