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Refugee crisis: Meaning in the face of suffering

16 4.27.17_pope.refugees.lesbos PAGEPope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in this April 16, 2016, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

April 27, 2017
Father David Hollenbach, SJ

Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, research professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at its Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, spoke March 24 at a Georgetown conference: “Theology Without Borders: Celebrating the Legacy of Peter C. Phan.”

In recent decades the forced movement of refugees and internally displaced persons has been rising markedly, reaching 67 million displaced people today. This is higher than at any time since World War II.

Many agencies responding to these crises are secular, working on the basis of a vision of universally shared human dignity supported by secular values. Faith-based agencies also play an important role in assisting refugees.

The contributions of religious communities in response to the current crisis are both distinctive and substantial. The import of the faith-based contribution is evident from the scope of their work. For example, the largest religiously inspired humanitarian organization in the United States, the evangelical agency World Vision US, has a budget of approximately $1 billion annually, approximately the same as major secular organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam, while Catholic Relief Services’ budget of more than $600 million is similar to that of the secular International Rescue Committee.

Thus faith-based agencies provide a significant share of the assistance for people driven from their homes by war or other disasters. There is little doubt, of course, that religious communities are sometimes among the causes of forced migration when they regrettably generate interreligious conflict. Nevertheless, most religious traditions possess deeply held normative convictions that support action for peace and on behalf of displaced people.

The beliefs of Jews and Christians lead them to see all persons as brothers and sisters in a single human family no matter what their religion, nationality or ethnicity. Every person has been created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and thus deserves reverence and respect. Pope Francis drew on this biblical vision during his recent visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, where he assured Syrian refugees seeking entrance into Europe that “God created mankind to be one family” and called Europe “to build bridges” rather than “putting up walls.”


Abrahamic tradition
The three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their origins to the patriarch Abraham, who was a migrant to the land of Canaan. Jewish identity is shaped by the story of the Exodus – a migration from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of God’s promise. The New Testament portrays the newborn Jesus as fleeing persecution as a refugee to Egypt along with Mary and Joseph. Muslims measure time from Muhammad’s hijra from Mecca to Medina, a kind of forced migration. Thus each of these major faiths has a forced migration across borders as one of its founding elements.

Asian religions also insist that ethical duties such as dharma in Hinduism and compassion in Buddhism do not stop at national or religious boundaries. A similar sense of universal responsibility can be found in African traditional religion, where Bantu concepts such as “bumuntu” (humanness), “umoja” (unity) and “ujamaa” (solidarity) point to the interconnectedness of all persons.

Religious belief also plays an important role is sustaining those afflicted by crisis and supporting the engagement of those seeking to help them. Wars and other disasters not only kill many people; they also fracture the framework of meaning provided by secular explanations of life’s purpose. Humanitarian crises can cause a kind of seismic upheaval on the spiritual level, a sort of spiritual earthquake that fragments the patterns of daily secular existence.

Both the victims of humanitarian crisis and those trying to help them stand before a rift in the structure of meaning that sustains ordinary life. These emergencies destroy expectations about how life will normally be lived. They raise the question of whether evil and destruction have gained the upper hand in human existence.

Humanitarian crises, therefore, point to two possibilities. Those forced from their homes by crisis can conclude that the rift in this-worldly meaning they face descends into an abyss where efforts to respond are pointless. This can result in despair. Alternatively, they may come to perceive, however dimly, a source of hope that goes deeper than the world that has been fractured by crisis.

Jon Sobrino pointed to this possibility when he described how some of the people whose lives were turned upside down by a devastating earthquake in El Salvador saw the death of Jesus on the cross as a sign of God’s presence in the midst of their suffering. The cross pointed to God’s presence with them in their suffering, sustaining them and bringing them hope. Faith also invited other believers to work to alleviate the suffering. Faith can thus sustain both those whose lives have been shattered by crisis and also support the action of those who have come to their aid, even when the struggle is long and hard.

This shattering of meaning by the crises that drive people from home means that displaced people have spiritual as well as physical needs. Jesuit Refugee Service tries to respond to these spiritual needs through a kind of response it calls accompaniment – a willingness to listen to refugees tell their stories and to assure them that they are not alone in their struggles. This is a form of assistance that is often called psychosocial support. But it can also go to a deeper, even spiritual level. It can even take the form of pastoral care when those providing it have been appropriately trained to provide such assistance.


Interreligious understanding
At the same time, JRS, like nearly all faith-based humanitarian agencies, insists that its accompaniment and service are offered to all in need “regardless of their race, ethnic origin or religious beliefs.” In an analogous way, Islamic Relief states that while its mission is “inspired by our Islamic faith and guided by our values,” it also believes that “those in need have rights over people with wealth and power – regardless of race, political affiliation, gender or belief,” especially those facing the crisis of displacement.

This points to a possible tension between the positive role of faith in responding to refugees and the need for religious nondiscrimination by faith-based agencies. This tension calls for a clear commitment to both religious nondiscrimination and to interreligious understanding and collaboration.

Accompaniment of those from another tradition who are facing crisis means fully respecting their religious freedom and their religious convictions. It also calls for listening to their deeper questions about meaning and hope, and for respectfully sharing one’s own best insights on how to deal with these questions. This is not formal interreligious dialogue, but it is a concrete form of communication that can lead to a lively and practical interreligious understanding. This kind of interreligious accompaniment is a form of what Pope Francis has called “spiritual encounter.” It can be one of the important kinds of assistance faith-based organizations bring to refugees.

Several marks of genuine interreligious exchange noted by theologian Catherine Cornille help clarify what is needed for this kind of accompaniment to happen.

First, it requires humility. If one accompanies some of the Muslims driven from their homes by war today, one should expect to learn something – very likely something important about the meaning of life.

Second, this accompaniment requires a certain level of commitment. One should be willing to speak about what sustains one in the face of the struggles and losses that arise in the crisis one is facing. Expressing convictions and doubts humbly and honestly can create genuine bonds between agency staff and those they aid, bonds that can help sustain both groups.

Third, it calls for recognition of the mutual interconnection among those suffering from displacement and those seeking to aid them. Both the displaced and those assisting them equally share a common humanity that links them together. This means standing guard against any hint of condescension.

Finally, the needed exchange will require a concrete, experiential empathy for the role of beliefs in the life of a person who is a member of another faith community.

If these requirements for genuine accompaniment are present, we can avoid the false choice between an abusive proselytism and a secularism that sets aside deep issues of meaning as if they were unimportant.

Retrieved from originsonline.com, Catholic News Service documentary service. Excerpted by Catholic San Francisco.

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