RECONCILIATION BETWEEN MIGRANTS, REFUGEES AND SOUTH AFRICANS. A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR
Prior to the elections of May 8th, 2019, during the electioneering period, some members of the public openly advocated that migrants and refugees be repatriated. Such sentiments of hostility are frightening especially in view of the fact that attacks on migrants and refugees have happened with such a “degrading frequency” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 7.3). Attacks on migrants are a defiant rejection of God’s Commandment:“Thou shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Such attacks regrettably cast a dark shadow on the unsurpassable value of life. They speak to a tragic diminishing of the sense of God’s presence. They advance the culture of death. They render the people’s conscience obtuse.
COLLAPSING THE WALL OF SEPARATION
As far as Christians are concerned, faith has a direct bearing on the attitude of people towards each other. Within the context of the conflict between migrants and the South Africans, St. Paul’s words are of particular relevance:
“But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep (us) apart, actually destroying in his own person the hostility” caused by man-made geographical borders (Eph. 2.13-14).
Migrants and refugees through the death of Christ on the cross “are no longer aliens or foreign visitors” but members of God’s household (Eph. 2.19). And as members of God’s household, they are family and therefore ought to be treated with the dignity they deserve. South African believers, are also members of the same household of God. It is therefore incumbent upon them to treat migrants and refugees as brothers and sisters. Migrants and South Africans stand as equals before God.
A NEW FELLOWSHIP
The celebration of Easter, of the Paschal Mystery, is a powerful reminder that the Cross of Christ abolished alienation and reconciled all people to God and to each other (Eph. 2.16). The triumph of the Cross is the reason for the collapse of the wall of separation. The rich fruit of that collapse is invariably described as a “new humanity”, a “new fellowship”, a “new creation”, a “new solidarity”, a “new family” and a “new body” with Christ as its head (Eph. 1.23; Gal. 6.15). When South Africans mount an attack on migrants and refugees they submit themselves again to the “yoke of slavery” of the apartheid years. They separate themselves from Christ and have fallen from grace (Gal. 5. 2, 4). The Letter to the Colossians describe this “new fellowship” as God’s “chosen race” that “should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience”. “Bear with one another” and “let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home in you” (Col. 3. 12-13).
UNITY IN JESUS CHRIST
One of the major concerns of the Apostolic Church was the question of unity. The unity of Christians was paramount. On this question, there was no compromise. Through Baptism one becomes a member of the Body of Christ’s Church (1 Cor. 12-13). This membership is based on conversion and on faith in Christ. This fundamental message of unity is repeatedly stated by St. Paul in his various writings: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, for all are one in Christ (Gal. 3.11; Gal. 6.16, Rom. 10.12). René Padilla writes that this unity in Christ is “no mere spiritual unity, but a concrete community made up of Jews and Gentiles” (R. Padilla, p.75). What is therefore desirable within the South African context, is a genuine, concrete unity between migrants, refugees and South Africans. South Africans themselves are in desperate need of unity. The divisions caused by apartheid still run deep.
ST. PAUL’S ANALOGY OF THE BODY
The importance of unity is illustrated further by the use of the metaphor of the body in the Hymn to love in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13.2). The Corinthian Church was torn apart because some of the members claimed to possess spiritual gifts that were superior to those of others. This claim apparently enhanced their status within the church community. Within the South African community, the division between migrants, refugees and South Africans is fuelled by the unfortunate belief that migrants are here to take advantage of the benefits of housing, health-care, employment and education at the expense of the local people. Now St. Paul uses the analogy of the body in order to contradict such an erroneous belief. He says the metaphor of the body simply highlights the diversity and collaboration of the different members of the body: “God has formed the body together, giving all the more honour to the least members so that there is no bodily rupture and members are mutually concerned about one another” (1 Cor. 12. 24-25).
Migrants and refugees by virtue of the harsh and even inhumane conditions in which they find themselves, are the least members of the body who deserve attention. The parable of the Last Judgement drives the message home. All the nations will be assembled before the King and he will say: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take your heritage, the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world ……. For I was a stranger and you welcomed me, – in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt. 25: 32,35,40).
The metaphor of the body represents an appeal to South Africans to break the chains of sexism, ethnicity and exclusive nationalism. It is an appeal that the continent of Africa be seen as a home of all the people who live on it. South Africans have to come to terms with the reality of interdependence among African nations. The harsh realities of war, persecution, disease, persistent poverty and corruption experienced in other countries, are destined to have an unavoidable impact on South Africa. South Africa is not an island nor are its borders hermetically sealed.
If South Africans only loved South Africans and excluded migrants and refugees, what good would that serve? Incidentally South Africans do not necessarily love themselves. They face serious challenges. Violent service delivery protests irrupt from time to time and leave in their wake the destruction of property, namely schools, clinics, libraries, buses etc. Levels of violent crimes are unacceptably high: murder, rape, femicide and gangsterism. The cancer of corruption has weakened the entire fabric of society. Unemployment (27%) and the resultant poverty have given rise to high levels of frustration and despair among the poor. The country’s leadership is at its wits end. South Africa is currently a society angry at itself.
Notwithstanding the bleakness of the image that emerges, it is morally reprehensible to discriminate against migrants and refugees who are equally trapped in a situation of dire need. They are worse off than the local people because they are in a strange land. They do not have the fortune of depending on the network of friends and the extended family. It is against such a background that the parable of the Good Samaritan calls on each one of us to “become a person who treats every one encountered – however frightening, alien, naked or defenceless – with dignity and compassion” (Johnson, L. The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, 1991). In spite of the hardships faced by South Africans, it is still demanded of them to be humane and charitable. Pope Benedict XVI quotes Paul, the Apostle of the nations: “even if we speak the tongues of men and angels, and if we have the faith to move mountains, but are without love, all will come to nothing” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China, no. 6, 2007).
There has to be a change of heart among South Africans and a deep desire to be welcoming. There is an urgent need to accept the reality of the migration of people not just here in Southern Africa but the world over. It is imperative that suspicions be dissipated and divisions overcome. From this imperative flows a radical consciousness of the unity of those who belong to Christ or alternatively those who are genuinely human at heart. Faith leads a believer to promote solidarity, mutual acceptance and mutual support.
PENTECOST AND EXCLUSIVITY
Again René Padilla points out that “loyalty to Jesus Christ relativized all the differences” (R. Padilla, p.76). Thus on Pentecost day the Gospel was preached in a variety of tongues to people from the four corners of the world. “And they were all excited, because each one of them heard the believers speaking in his or her own language” (Act. 2.6). The thrust of the message of the event of Pentecost as far as migrants and refugees and South Africans are concerned, is that they essentially belong to the one body of Christ, one community of faith in spite of their race, place of origin, colour or social standing. The pulling together of resources by the Pentecost people continue to offer a compelling model to divided communities that they do have the potential to overcome their differences and work collaboratively for the promotion of all the people. For this to happen, St. Paul insists that the warring parties need to change their behaviour “modelled on a new mind”. This is the only way to discover what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do (Rom. 12.2). A new mind, accompanied by a new attitude and a new set of values are what is needed in order to bridge the gaping divide between the migrant community and the South Africans.
THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT
Scripture reminds us that the role of the Spirit is multifaceted. It is the Spirit that pours God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5.5). It is this love that should serve as the basis of unity amongst the different people of God. It is this love that is meant to repair the rift between conflicting parties in society. Regrettably there is resistance to its influence and invitation. Hence the need for conversion at the very instigation of the self-same Spirit. It is by the power of the Spirit that obstacles and prejudice are overcome. It is the Spirit that enables people to reach out to each other, to support each other, to heal each other. The Spirit gives life and sustains fellowship (Pope John Paul II, Dominum et Vivicantem, no. I). “Though indelibly different we are”, the Spirit gives a new identity to all the people who come from the different parts of the African continent (Bellah, p. 304). Taking after Mary, all the believers are invited to treasure and to ponder the role of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. The effects of our faith ought to manifest themselves in our relationships with others (Lk. 2.19).
The gifts of the Spirit are intended to be put into practice for the benefit of the community. The gift of sharing in Christ’s body, the gift of unity, imposes an obligation on all the recipients “to make that unity a living reality” (Gaybba B. The Spirit of Love, p. 183). The gifts are to be put to good use in order to enrich the community and not to be hidden in the ground (Mt. 25.18). Brian Gaybba rightly points out that the gift of unity requires “a visible expression” (Gaybba, op cit. p. 183). Reconciliation and peace between the migrants and South Africans requires a visible expression. The initiative needs to be taken by South Africans for they are the ones who threw the first stone (Jn. 8.7). Attacks on migrants has been a direct assault on the human dignity of migrants. This has been a trampling underfoot of the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. This calls for a reparation by both individuals and their communities. A symbolic gesture of making amends at national level would go a long way towards assuaging the aggrieved. A public apology accompanied by a concrete action of restoring the dignity of migrants would be the appropriate thing to do. The fact that it has not been done, speaks to the hesitation and ambivalence of the South African leadership.
To many migrants and refugees, while they were still in their homeland, the words of the Book of Exodus were music to their ears: “I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave drivers. I mean to bring them up out of that land to a land rich and broad, a land where milk and honey flow” (3. 7-8). This is how the word of mouth advertised South Africa. But now migrants who have been harassed, arrested and detained for not having identity documents and those who have been maliciously attacked in their neighbourhoods, tell a story not of milk and honey, but of humiliation, insults and name-calling.
The above description of contempt, pain and suffering is contrary to the role of the Spirit among us as described in the Letter to the Romans: “The Spirit you received (both migrants and South Africans) is not the spirit of slavery bringing fear into your lives again. It is the Spirit of sons and it makes us cry out ‘Abba, Father!’ (Rom. 8. 14-15). Both migrants and South Africans have received the Spirit of adoption. Thus by the power of the Spirit we are made members of one body, children of God, “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharing His sufferings so as to share His glory” (Rom. 8.17, Kasper, W. Harvesting the Fruits, p. 24).
HARDSHIPS. THE PLIGHT OF THE POOR
The conflict between migrants, asylum seekers and South Africans is at the instigation of the latter who feel frustrated and disappointed by their own political leadership. The pain and suffering of South Africans stem from their craving for land, housing, employment and education for their children. Abject poverty has become a formidable barrier to human progress. And so, migrants cannot be made the scapegoat of the shortcomings of the South African State. The conflict between migrants and South Africans is a case of the poor fighting the poor instead of forging bonds of communion and solidarity among themselves with the explicit aim of overcoming their common predicament. Poverty and deprivation are not a matter of fate. Such conditions can be reversed by a collective human effort. The pain and suffering of both the migrants and the majority of South Africans, should perhaps, from the viewpoint of Scripture, be seen as helping “to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col. 1.24).
Most migrants and refugees, given the hostile environment they find themselves in, in South Africa, can genuinely identify their negative experience with that of the Apostle Paul when he says: “Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in; bewildered, we are never at our wits’ end; hunted, we are never abandoned to our fate; struck down, we are not left to die” (2 Cor. 4. 8-10). The suffering of migrants at the hand of their fellow African brothers and sisters can only strengthen their resolve to overcome the odds. David Bosch has this to say about such a challenge:
“To be a stranger and at the same time at home in another society, to become part of another country and people, to surrender the ties with home and family, to learn another language until it becomes your own, to identify with the struggles and needs of another people” – is a true test of the mettle of the migrants and refugees (Bosch, D. A Spirituality of the Road, p.24).RELIVING
Some of the migrants and refugees have had to experience the indignity of bribing their way through the border-posts in order to enter South Africa. As if that was not enough, they have also had to queue for weeks on end, sometimes sleeping in the open, in order to apply for the requisite documents. They were compelled to pay bribes in order to jump the queue. They jostled against each other like cattle. Many struggled to find accommodation upon their arrival. This undignified and virtually hostile reception was for many a prolongation of the nightmare which pressurized them to leave their countries of origin in the first place.
MIGRANTS TEACH BY EXAMPLE
In spite of the overwhelming challenges, most migrants and refugees do not travel empty handed. The do not come cap-in-hand begging for hand-outs. Au contraire, they come bearing gifts. The decision to leave one’s homeland under trying circumstances testifies to one’ courage. Migrants are courageous for they do not know what is in store for them in a foreign county. They are highly motivated because they seek to change their life-situation for the better. They have a positive attitude because they bank on succeeding. They are highly committed for the sake of their children. They are hard-working. They live by the sweat of their brow. Sometimes they work for months without pay in both the education field and in the health services. They persevere and are patient. South Africans are known to threaten to look for another job if not paid on time. Migrants walk an extra mile. Their generosity makes them vulnerable. Mean employers tend to exploit their availability and commitment. Migrants contribute to the vibrancy of the economy. Now these gifts, these spiritual qualities or these fruits of the Spirit are intended to enable men and women to make a meaningful contribution to society (1Cor. 12.8-10). The gifts of the Spirit are given to men and women inside and outside the Church. South Africans have been equally endowed with these gifts. Harnessing the gifts of all people can only bode well for the entire society. Gifts build. Bickering destroys and undermines the project of human development. “If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community” (Gal. 5.15).
South Africans have regrettably proven themselves to be poor hosts. This is so in spite of the fact that many South Africans were strangers and aliens in different African countries. Alain Thomasset writes that “our ability to accept and welcome the other fundamentally depends on our own sense of having been welcomed ourselves in our vulnerability” (Thomasset, A. p. 41). South Africans have a strain of memory loss. Those who are today in leadership positions were once in exile and enjoyed the hospitality given to them. They used to condemn apartheid abuses from the rooftop but now there is a deafening silence concerning afrophobia in their own country. There was a time when South Africans hailed some African leaders: Nkrumah, Lumumba, Haile-Selassie, Kaunda, Nyerere, Machel, Nujoma, Kenyatta, even Gaddafi. Today that adulation has just about disappeared and the people from the countries of these former leaders are not given the respect they deserve. South Africans have simply forgotten that they once enjoyed hospitality in other countries. South Africans were once treated with distain in their country of birth. But now we are treating others with a similar distain.
Discrimination against migrants and refugees does not only show itself during public confrontations. It is far more insidious than that. Discrimination is palpably felt in hospital and school admissions. Foreign nationals are expected to pay more or are simply turned away. Banks make it difficult for migrants to open accounts. The force of prejudice is felt by African migrants in their everyday life. And this is totally reprehensible for it defies the principles of fairness, of equal treatment and of human dignity.
In the past, South Africa took great pride in the work of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in spite of the controversy surrounding some of its findings. The work of the Commission is credited with having averted an open civil war between the different races in a post-apartheid South Africa. However, the legacy of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s “never again” motto, does not seem to have had a profound impact on the entire South African society. Otherwise how do you explain the animosity, the open and at times subtle hostility towards migrants. South Africa used to be praised for its gallant spirit of reconciliation. But that reputation is beginning to wear thin because of the visible anti-foreigner sentiment. What is the point of having one of the best Constitutions in the world and yet fail deplorably as a country to manage an ostensibly incipient ugly conflict between migrants and South Africans? This conflict needs to be stopped in its tracks before it causes incalculable harm to the country’s reputation.
Scripture says Christ “made peace by his death on the cross” (Col. 1.20). As followers of Christ we have a task to advance the recognition of diversity and to acknowledge as our calling the promotion of the dignity and sanctity of every person.
+Buti Tlhagale o.m.i.
Office of Migrants & Refugees. S.A.C.B.C.
30 June, 2019
1. Bellah, R, and Tipton, S. (eds). The Robert Bellah Reader, Duke University Press. London, 2006.
2. Bosch D. A, Spirituality of the Road, Herald Press. Ontario, 1979.
3. Chan Y, Keenan J, Zacharias R. (eds). The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics, Orbis Books. Maryknoll. New York, 2017.
4. Gallagher R, and Hertig P. Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, Orbis Books. Maryknoll. New York, 2009.
5. Gaybba B. The Spirit of Love, Geoffrey Chapman. London, 1987.
6. Kasper W. Harvesting the Fruits, Continuum. London, 2009.
7. Padilla C. Rene, The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle, in Gallagher R. and Hertig P. Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, Orbis Books, 2009.
8. Pope John Paul II, Dominum et Vivicantem, Encyclical Letter. Vatican City, 1986.
9. Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Catholic Church in The People’s, Republic of China, Vatican City, 2007.
10. Thomasset A. The Virtue of Hospitality according to the Bible, And the Challenge of Migration in Chan Y, Keenan J, Zacharius R, (eds), The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics, New York, 2017.