By Savitri Hensman
Harrowing images and recordings of children separated by force from their parents at the Mexican border have shocked many people, in the USA and beyond.
Because of the outcry, President Donald Trump has halted the policy, which targeted refugees and unauthorised migrants. But it will take time to reunite families – indeed this may be very difficult in some cases – and basic rights continue to be violated. The emotional damage may be permanent, especially for those already fleeing horrific violence.Some migrants ‘aren’t people, these are animals’, he had earlier declared.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has whipped up fear of foreigners, claiming that ‘those who don’t block migration at their borders will be lost’ and ‘Africa wants to kick down our door.’ He has brought in a law making it unlawful to help undocumented migrants.
Feeding hungry asylum-seekers or giving them legal advice can lead to a year’s imprisonment.
The Italian far-rightdeputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, has called for a census of the Roma community, though ‘unfortunately’ those who are Italian cannot be expelled. This had alarming echoes of the targeting of Roma during the fascist era. Earlier he had urged a ‘mass cleansing’ of migrants, ‘street by street’.
People can have understandable concerns when, for instance central governments settle many refugees in particular areas but fail to provide enough support. But such words and actions go far further. In much of the world, a hardening of hearts seems to be taking place.
Loving the stranger, welcoming Christ
To Christians, such a harsh stance may seem disturbing. Concern for the outsider is one of the themes running through the Bible, along with recognition that hospitality and respect for the ‘alien’ may be a source of blessing.
For instance, people of faith are urged, ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19.34).
Abraham’s welcome to foreigners results in an encounter with the Divine while Joseph, when freed from slavery, saves his adopted homeland from famine.
Jesus’ call,‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 7.12) and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12.31) set clear standards.Matthew 25 suggests that turning away the hungry, thirsty, sick and stranger may involve refusing Christ.
Jesus’saying ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’ (Luke 18.16) is widely known.
The New Testament portrays the church as one body in which every part is equal, a new community in which barriers of ethnicity, nation, culture and social status are broken down. This is reflected in prayer and song.
Baptism and communion prefigure a just and peace-filled heaven and earthwhere all enmity and prejudice are overcome through Christ’s self-giving love, made known through the cross. Many churches are active in welcoming new arrivalswho, in turn, have kept many inner city congregations alive.
Yet, disturbingly, theseleaders whipping up hostility make out that they are acting on ‘Christian’ values. Trump gained, and holds on to, power through support from white evangelicals, though even some of his core supporters regarded caging infants as a step too far.
His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, quoted Romans 13 out of context to justify enforcing the law dividing families. This is a familiar ploy to those of us old enough to remember apartheid in South Africa; though Paul immediately afterwards emphasises the law of love.
And if the wise men at the start of Matthew’s gospel – when Jesus and his family become refugees – had indeed obeyed the authorities, his life might have been very short.
Orbán, who is Reformed, claimed last year that ‘God’s teachings have led us to see not a mere coincidence or whim of fate in the fact that, here and now, there is a Christian government of faith leading Hungary.’
During a campaign rally, Salvini clutched a rosary and swore on the Gospels and Italian constitution that he would be ‘loyal to his people,’though the Pope firmly opposes his policies and his private life is far from any Catholic ideal.
Nor is this trend confined to a few countries. A Pew Research Center report (https://pewrsr.ch/2KE8jOa) worryingly revealed that, in much of Europe including the UK, Christians, especially regular churchgoers, were more likely than the non-religious to have negative attitudes to foreigners, immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities. In other words, non-believers seemed more likely to love the alien as themselves.
Closing the gap
How can we make sense of this mismatch between the language of love and so different a reality?
To begin with Christians, like others, tend to be heavily influenced by the norms of those around them and what politicians and media say. Fear and prejudice may be blatant or subtle, for instance when victims of overseas disasters get far more air-space if they are white, creating the impression that other lives matter less.
Also insecurity around rapid economic and cultural change may be channelled against easy targets, rather than the powers-that-be, who seem further away and more daunting. Indeed scapegoating ‘outsiders’ can give a certain sense of unity in a fragmented society, though far removed from that which Christ offers.
Faith can be confused with national pride and Western identity or the familiar and comfortable. It can also be difficult truly to see the reality of those whose lives are far removed from ours and tempting to shy away from others’ suffering.
Yet there are times when stories are shared and linked with that greater story of God’s love or neighbours work together to showcompassion and seek justice, growing to understand one another better.
Through creating more spaces of this kind, barriers can be overcome and love become real.