A broken-down dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees floats in the Aegean Sea in the summer of 2015.
Pope Francis greets a woman and child during an 8 July 2019 Mass in St. Peter's Basilica commemorating the sixth anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa.
A migrant hugs Pope Francis after a 15 February 2019 Mass for migrants and many Catholic organizations and individuals who help them.
Editors’ note: To uplift and give dignity to all God’s children, and to offer aid to people in need,are important components of CNEWA’s mission. In our own day, increasingly those people in need are men, women and children in flight: migrants, refugees, displaced persons of all kinds. Whether the dateline is Syria, Ethiopia, India or Egypt, the news every day brings more stories of people fleeing persecution, war, terrorism and natural disasters — and CNEWA has consistently answered the local church’s call for help, extending a hand or an embrace, offering a warm meal or a safe haven. As we have declared often: We strive to follow the lesson of the Good Samaritan to “go and do likewise” and to bind the wounds of a broken world.
That mission can often be obscured by the divisions and discord that mark so much of our world today. But our call to “welcome the stranger” is part of our call as Christian disciples. It is intrinsic to the Gospel. With that in mind, Atonement Father Elias D. Mallon offers here a vitally important perspective we believe can offer light and hope to a world that today seems too often overshadowed by doubt and fear.
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 the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth 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 nor is it limited to one people, such as the Vandals, the Huns or the Mongols; it is global.
With refugees coming from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America and elsewhere, the contemporary mass movement of peoples 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.
For Pope Francis, this movement of peoples and the suffering it entails has been a constant theme of his pontificate. One of the first things Francis did as pope was to visit Lampedusa, a small island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa. It is the first piece of European dry land that many refugees from Africa and elsewhere reach. Tragically, it is a goal that has claimed the lives of many who tried to get there on overfilled, dangerously inadequate boats. Pope Francis has also has visited Middle Eastern refugees on the Greek islands — also favored points of disembarkation in Europe — a journey all too often ending in death at sea. He has seen the suffering and knows it firsthand.
The pope addresses that suffering powerfully and poignantly in his 2019 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The theme of the pope’s message is “it is not just about migrants.” Speaking of a “growing trend to extreme individualism” and “a utilitarian (equating the value of human life with 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 indifference says, “I just don’t care.”
In his message, Pope Francis recognizes the challenges that “target countries” face in receiving and absorbing large numbers of displaced people. Consider, for example, Lebanon. For a time, almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon consisted of refugees. The social, political and economic impact of this reality was almost impossible for the tiny country, which is about one-third the size of the U.S. state 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 that is central to the message of Jesus.
There is no doubt 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 that are inextricably interwoven with the moral and religious dimensions.
The moral and religious dimensions of the treatment of migrants and foreigners are 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.
It is clear that, not only the period of slavery in Egypt, but also the liberation from that slavery had a profound impact on the religious ethics of the ancient Hebrews. While it may come as a shock to some, the “nuclear family” is a modern invention and was unknown in the ancient world. The “family” was always the extended family, extending to the point of becoming a clan or a tribe. The stories about the origins of the “Twelve Tribes” in the Book of Genesis all trace each tribe back to what is called an eponymous (one who gives the name) ancestor. Hence, each tribe saw itself as a family.
Thus the idea of extending protection, hospitality and kindness to someone beyond the extended family — the ger or alien — was a revolutionary break with the customs of the time and region. It introduces a more universal ethic into the religion of the ancient Hebrews.
Another interesting point, with contemporary implications, is that the Israelites are commanded to treat the stranger as a “native.” The Hebrew word used here is ’ezrah. It has the connotation of something that 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”) in German. 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).
It is ironic that Israel’s enslavement in Egypt provided a motivation for compassion. In sharp contrast, the hatred of what the pope calls “nationalists” against immigrants in North America, for example, ironically lacks the self-transparency to see that they themselves were not long ago also immigrants. The “Golden Rule” of “do unto others” (crucial in Leviticus 19:34) seems to have been forgotten or simply does not apply.
Such treatment of the stranger and alien contradicts the Judeo-Christian tradition. With an almost uncanny precision, God commands the Israelites not merely to tolerate, but to love the stranger as if he or she were as native as the local soil.
That is not always an easy thing to do. There are huge challenges and people are — at times justifiably — afraid. In a pastoral way, however, Pope Francis calls us to overcome our 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 a suggestion.