Refugees in Crisis: Spiritual Resources and Ethical Principles

David Hollenbach, SJ

 David Hollenbach, SJ / Church Life / 11 September 2018

Paid Article

The humanitarian system is severely challenged today. There are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the situation a “monumental crisis” that will require a response based on “monumental solidarity.”[1] We need to develop much better ways of protecting the humanity of those threatened by tragedies today.

The first part of this article highlights some resources found in the religious and spiritual traditions of our world for responding to this crisis situation. It gives particular attention to Christian inspiration to serve the needs of the displaced, and then it proposes some ethical perspectives that are more policy-oriented.

Religious and spiritual perspectives

Recently some secular political philosophers, like Joseph Carens, and some refugee scholars, like Philip Marfleet, have been arguing that the time has come to make borders fully open to all who are fleeing from persecution, conflict or disaster.[2] In a similar spirit, the modern human rights movement affirms the universal dignity of all human beings and seeks to tear down walls dividing people into those who count and those who do not count when the most basic requirements of humanity are at stake.

This orientation also has strong support in the world’s great religious traditions. Both Judaism and Christianity hold that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and share a dignity that reaches across the borders between nation states. Pope Francis drew on this biblical vision during his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, where he assured Syrian refugees that “God created humanity to be one family” and called Europe to “build bridges” rather than “put up walls.”[3]

Further, albeit with slight differences, each of the great monotheistic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – trace their origins back to the Patriarch Abraham, who was himself a migrant from the home of his kinsfolk to the land of Canaan. The identity of Jews is shaped by the story of the Exodus: a migration from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of God’s promise. And the New Testament tells us that just after his birth, Jesus was driven from his home by persecution as a refugee to Egypt along with Mary and Joseph. Muslims measure time from Muhammad’s hijra, or migration, from Mecca to Medina. Thus each of these faith communities sees its religious and ethical commitment as reaching across borders.

Thus in 1963 Pope John XXIII affirmed that “the fact that someone is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from their membership in the human family as a whole.”[4] Consequently “Refugees cannot lose [their] inherent rights simply because they are deprived of citizenship of their own States.”[5]

Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that the Christian vocation includes a responsibility to reach out to refugees in a spirit of compassion or mercy.

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