“For I was a Stranger…” – Public theology perspectives on Migration & Asylum
Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture on March 1, 2016 in Cape Town
- Bp Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, presiding bishop of the Protestant Churches in Germany
“South Africa has lost a son of the soil. The South African church has lost a key
theologian. The Ecumenical Movement has lost a prophet. And the University of KwaZulu-
Natal, and particularly the School of Religion and Theology, has lost an astute administrator,
dedicated academic, an agent of transformation, and a caring friend.”
These words from the Eulogy by the School of Religion and Theology of UKZN express some of the feelings of loss which so many people in different parts of the world have felt when the news of Steve de Gruchy’s death spread in the global community. This evening today is an occasion which is not like some other lecture engagement for me. It is not only an honor but also a personally moving occasion for me. I had worked together with Steve in the biotechnology group of the World Council of Churches. In the meetings we had had during the first decade of this century in different parts of the world I got to know him not only as a bright theologian but also as a deeply morally sensitive and passionate public intellectual and a warm colleague and friend.
I remember last seeing him as if it was yesterday. Six years ago I was in Volmoed with my family where his parents John and Isobel de Gruchy live. It was a great joy for me when John told me that Steve was coming for a visit. I had the privilege of sharing some of his time there with him going for a walk along the creek exchanging our experiences as main editors of theological journals. When I said Good Bye to him together with his father I did not know that I would not see him again. The pain of losing a precious human being has meanwhile given room to a deep gratitude for the legacy of the time we had with him.
This evening I will speak about Migration and Asylum from a perspective of public theology. Let me underlie with a small anecdote why I think that Steve would appreciate today’s topic. While we were sitting together as a biotechnology group one of the colleagues from the North presented a book he had edited on Bioethics whose title suggested that this was something like a compendium on this theme. Steve got really upset, actually you can say: angry. The authors of the book were all from the North. He expressed his dismay about the complete ignorance of African scholars and pointed towards work from different countries in Southern African which had to make an important contribution. In this situation he was a strong voice of the marginalized, which he was so often – in this case of the marginalized in the scholarly community.
Every time we are in the danger of ignoring the contextuality of our scholarly work in the academic power centers of the Western world I think of Steve and his outbreak of frustration. His clarity had its effects on me.
Therefore I am making very clear that when I speak to you today about public theology’s perspectives concerning migration and asylum I am speaking from a German point of view. And since I was asked to also give you insights into what happened in Germany in the last year around what we have come to call the “refugee crisis”, I will begin by giving you an account of it. I will then give a biblical reflection on the ethical basis of dealing with the stranger and the range of the biblical commandment of love of neighbor. Finally I will use Max Weber’s distinction between an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility and Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms to show how politics can appropriately draw on such ethical insight.
2. The “refugee crisis” in Germany and Europe
In the year 2015 over 1 million refugees were registered entering Germany. One can only speculate about additional non-registered, illegal entries. In January 2016 once again 91,000 people were registered with the EASY-registration system.
The numbers show that the largest group is made up of people from Syria who chose to cross the Mediterranean Sea – first between Northern Africa and Italy and then increasingly between Turkey and Greece. Thousands drowned in the sea. They fled because of continuing hostilities in large areas of their country, and because of the completely inadequate conditions in the refugee centers in the neighboring countries. Besides from Syria people came from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and African countries such as Eritrea and Nigeria.
If you had asked anyone in Germany a year ago whether our country would be able to receive such a great number of refugees in a year, everyone would have shaken their head. But we did manage. We have experienced a revolution of empathy in our country since the summer of last year, based on the commitment of hundreds of thousands of volunteers just in the Christian parishes throughout Germany, and many more in other organizations.
In the first half of September most of the refugees traveled across Budapest and Vienna to Munich – there, on some weekends, up to 20,000 people were received. The refugees received a very warm welcome in Munich. Hundreds of volunteers helped the officials distribute beverages and food, clothing and toys to those arriving.
People whose lives had been threatened life and limb by waves on the sea were now welcomed with a wave of helpfulness. The expressions on the faces of those who had experienced atrocities in their homelands and a life-threatening journey to a new country were a mixture of amazement, relief and simply pure joy.
The helpers who I spoke with did not doubt for a minute about the deeper meaning of what they were doing, even after many long hours of work. The public officials worked to the limits of their personal capacity. One picture went around the world – a police officer is playing with a little refugee boy who had just arrived, and while playing with him puts his police cap on the boy’s head. They both have huge smiles on their faces. This picture moved me deeply.It stands for a police that does not spread terror and violence the way refugees have so often experienced it themselves, but serves to protect the dignity of the human person. In that respect it is a picture of hope for me.
Meanwhile the situation has become much tenser in Germany, even though the readiness to help in receiving and accompanying refugees remains very high among Germans. There is a growing sense of insecurity whether we will be able to deal with large additional numbers of refugees in an environment in Europe where almost all countries refuse to take a considerable share of refugees. Journalists write about an increasingly isolated Chancellor Merkel in her unbendable plea for European solidarity. After the events of new year’s eve at Cologne station where hundreds of men with Arab background molested women without any effective action by the police right wing populists have gained support in the polls going beyond the 10 percent margin. Some do not shy away from using violence – there have been assaults on refugees, politicians and journalists. Refugee accommodations have been the object of arson; fortunately no one has been hurt seriously in these attacks.
Although such criminal action is widely condemned in the population people ask whether we will manage the integration of so many people with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Fear of Islam has increased through terrorist attacks with Islamic background.
And yet we see that the supposedly easy solution of closing borders which has developed increasing attraction to some, is leading to irresponsible consequences. The recent political developments have shown how a policy of closing borders by Austria and South Eastern European countries, suspending the European border free space of the Schengen treaty, has now led to a situation where large numbers of refugees are jamming in Greece. Every day the situation in this country, the economically weakest on in whole Europe, becomes more dramatic. The only immediate hope now is a summit with Turkey in a week where Turkey is supposed to be motivated to keep refugees in the country with the generous financial support of the European Union rather than letting them go on to Europe.
3. Refugees and the Churches
The churches in Germany play an essential role with regard to refugees. That has partly to do with the fact that approximately 70% of the population belongs to one of the major denominations (the Evangelical or the Roman Catholic churches) which makes them important social players who can raise their voices for weaker members of society and make pleas for humanitarian solutions. Another reason is the social work that the churches do in refugee accommodation facilities, by supervising those who are in need of protection and by consulting with designated experts. Many church congregations offer language courses and a place to meet and get to know one another.
The Evangelical church alone has provided an additional 100 million Euros in Germany to accompany refugees. Above and beyond this, and this is becoming more apparent as time goes on, it is important to synchronize the help, to train the volunteers and to make sure there is a good network of consultation and supervision everywhere. For although the prime task is to find accommodation for the refugees it is equally important to integrate them as quickly as possible and help them feel comfortable in the way life works here. Simultaneously, it is important to maintain and strengthen society’s acceptance of refugees and migrants.
The churches are important partners for politicians and administrators in this situation. Since the beginning of September, there have been several high-level meetings between the Chancellor and representatives of social groups, in which the churches play an important role. Since the Cardinal of Munich Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference and I as presiding bishop of the German Protestant Churches, are representing around 50 out of 80 million Germans, our voice is heard. And we are completely one in our public theological stands in this question.
Which sources can be used as a means of orientation for political action with regard to this question? What does it mean when we say that our continent, when describing the roots of its identity, relies upon the Christian tradition in a special way? How should we look at humanitarian traditions when the tasks for them are so great that the energy needed to address them threatens to weaken? Is the commandment of universal love as an utmost claim destined to fail?
4. The basic orientation of biblical ethics
4.1. God’s image and likeness
We can see that the central topics of the legal and constitutional traditions of continental Europe have close ties with Judeo-Christian tradition so that we can today, fortunately, still stress with emphasis that they have been incorporated into an overall consensus that includes not only particular religious or ideological traditions but can be seen in a context which includes all of society.
Theological discourse about displacement/flight and migration is first of all based on the impuls from the Biblical story of creation that every human being is of infinite value, that this value is given to each of us by God and that it cannot be taken away from us by anyone. This phrase most often cited when talking about displacement/flight and migration can be found in the idea that has achieved wide acceptance in international legal systems following the painful historical experience of violence during the last century, but which is still so often a distant goal: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.”
Historically speaking, the churches discovered their acceptance of this sentence relatively late, although the impulse for it comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. That human beings are made in God’s image, as the well-known Bible verse, Gen 1:27ff states, directs our focus to those whose condition is at greatest risk because of their special vulnerability. Refugees and migrants seeking asylum belong to this group as well as those who have lived longer in our country but who do not have access to social and economic processes because of poverty or discrimination.
We are so used to the idea of humanity’s being created in God’s image and likeness as being a basic element of our cultural thought that we sometimes forget how preposterous but also how precious that claim is. In psalm 8 we read: “Yet you have made them (human beings) a little lower than God”. This strong assumption found within the Jewish tradition leads to the idea that God has come into the world as Jesus Christ in Christianity. We cannot more strongly justify the humanitarian legacy to which we are indebted than with the conviction that we encounter God in every human being, more explicitly: in one who was crucified, in one who was a victim of political and religious persecution, whose execution was slow and painful.
This theological basic assumption puts aside all religious interpretations which aim to make a cult of religious inwardness out of this revolutionary world view. Based on this, there is no relationship with God without a relationship to my neighbor. In my view, the question is not whether the church, which is informed by this tradition, takes part in public discussions about dealing with human need, but rather how it responds to it. Theology is no theology but idolatry if it deliberately restrains from going public.
What then can we learn from the Bible as the decisive source of Judeo-Christian tradition about how to deal with refugees and asylum?
4.2. “For you were also strangers…”
The fundamental characteristic of a biblically based Christian ethics is – and this is absolutely remarkable considering our topic – that it is an ethic stemming from a migration movement. Within exegetics, the so-called “Creed of Israel” is regarded as Israel’s initial confession of faith which for that reason can also be seen as something like the starting point of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Dtn 26: 5-9 states:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as [a stranger] an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with [great] a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
We Christians, together with Jews, believe that, as part of God’s being, God is One who led his people out of oppression and slavery in Egypt into freedom. In light of the insoluble connection between the relationship to God and the relationship to my neighbor it becomes clear as to why the commandment to protect the stranger has nothing to do with moralizing. The commandment to protect the stranger has its validity by being firmly rooted in the history of God’s beneficial relationship with people.
The book Leviticus states: “When [a stranger] an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the [stranger] alien. The [stranger] alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the [stranger] alien as yourself, for you were [strangers] aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev 19:33ff; also Dtn 10:19ff; Ex 22:20).
This statement can be seen as the classical expression of the rootedness of love in the relationship between God and humanity. For it doesn’t just say: love the stranger! Instead the commandment is a twofold plea. Firstly, there is an appeal to reason based on experience: “You know what it is like to be a stranger and shunned. Treat the stranger the way you would like to be treated if you were in the same situation.” The second way the commandment is endorsed is by referring to God himself: at the end God says “I am the Lord your God. Whatever concerns the stranger, concerns me, just as your concerns are my concerns. I am your God, I care for the stranger. So shall you care for the stranger!”
The basis for this openness to the stranger is an ethic of empathy. This can be seen best in a passage in Exodus:
“You shall not oppress a resident [stranger] alien; you know the heart of an [stranger] alien, for you were [strangers] aliens in the land of Egypt. (Ex 23:9)
By understanding and empathizing with the vulnerable situation strangers are in, it becomes plausible to treat them with honor and respect.
With the constitutive character of empathy we encounter a special characteristic of Judeo-Christian ethics that is most visible when looking at how one should treat strangers but is valid for the entire ethical system. It really comes into focus when we look at the New Testament and a specific aspect of the commandment to love, namely its close connection to the so-called “golden rule”.
4.3. The Double Commandment of Love and the Golden Rule
Let us begin with the double commandment to love, the answer that Jesus gives when asked which commandment is the greatest: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:35-40)
Here we see that Matthew emphasizes the special importance of this twofold commandment to love by calling it “the law and the prophets”, (Mt 22:40), a phrase that underlines the fundamental character of this commandment. There is only one other New Testament tradition that is honored with the title of being “the law and the prophets” and thus containing the entire content of the ethics of Jesus: the golden rule. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)
The golden rule can truly be seen as a key phrase for understanding ethical orientation and the ability and necessity to empathize with others. The commandment to love, interpreted through the golden rule, can be understood all the more as a commandment to empathize and in that way demonstrates the same basic structure that we saw when looking at caring for the stranger. The commandment to care for the stranger is a reminder to empathize with others by pointing out the people of Israel’s historical experience as a community that commemorates its own oppression.
That a biblical ethics oriented on reciprocity corresponds with deep human experience, and for that reason motivates people on the basis of their experience, can be clearly seen in the reaction to the arriving refugees by some elderly Germans who were also displaced persons. The relatively strong readiness on the part of the older generation in Germany to take in these refugees has to do with the memories of their own experience of forced displacement out of the former German areas in Eastern Europe. Thus current experience underscores the sustainability of a biblical ethics of empathy as the basic approach for dealing with refugees and migrants today.
We have seen that caring for the stranger in the Bible is insolubly connected to the relationship with God. Its most pointed formulation can be found in the parable of the day of judgment, in which dealing with the stranger is the touchstone for dealing with Christ: “I was a stranger,” Christ says “and you welcomed me…” (Mt 25:35). It is not without good reason that taking in the stranger, who is always seen as being in danger and for that reason vulnerable, is prominently regarded as one of the works of mercy which we do to Christ himself.
It is also remarkable that the Christmas story is a story about fleeing and asylum. According to Matthew (Mt 2:13-15) the parents of the newly born Jesus, on the run from King Herod, are not turned away at the Egyptian border but are allowed to stay. The savior of the world shares the same destiny as the lowest of the low. He was a refugee. This story plays an important role in the Coptic-Orthodox church of Egypt and there are many legends which surround it. The Coptic Christians – above all Pope Tawadros II – do not fail to remind us that Egypt is also holy land. There are numerous places that are venerated as places where the mother of Jesus rested with her divine child. And this tradition has also found its place in the art world, namely in icons. Thus a visible sign shows us how to this day this little refugee has become an integral part of their history and a sign of divine blessing.
What was it that mobilized people in Munich, in Saalfeld, in Dortmund and in so many other German cities to welcome people that they had never seen before? And what is its source? What is it that motivated these people?
The answer is easy. It was simply empathy. It was a feeling that the suffering that people fleeing from terror and violence experience is one’s own suffering. The extent to which this empathy was visible and tangible all over Germany when faced with the refugee’s suffering, that is the real historical aspect of what we experienced and are experiencing in Germany, which goes beyond current discussions about the limited German capacity to take on refugees.
The way in which the commandment to love can be the basis for an ethics of empathy when encountering migrants and refugees is also determined by the question of how universally the commandment of love should be lived. There are, however, ethical approaches which follow the popular opinion that we should first take care of those in need in our country. These show a deep skepticism for the universality of the commandment to love.
5. Those near and those far – the extent of the commandment of love
The American theologian Stephen Post argues for a concept of “loving thy neighbor” that puts special relations in focus. Special relations are those relationships with family and friends, those people who are close, that share an especially intense kind of love. This orientation towards “special relations” is combined with a strong criticism of concepts of love, such as the classical work written by the American ethicist Gene Outka on agape, which are oriented toward the universalism of the enlightenment and find powerful expression in the human rights tradition.
If it is true – as Stephen Post says – that the natural order of life has theological and moral dignity, if God regulates the world through “special relations” between individuals, then these cannot be judged morally the same way that impersonally distant relationships are which are simply based on “equal regard”. Of course we have duties towards strangers, says Post, and exclusive concentration on family and friends is problematic. That does not mean however that this concentration can be denied its moral priority.
This position’s charm lies in its proximity to intuitively logical daily experience. Naturally we feel a direct moral responsibility towards those children who are entrusted to us than to those children in need in other parts of the world. For that reason, paying less attention to our own children than to those children in the world who are less fortunate would rightly meet with moral criticism.
Still it is no accident that in the New Testament the commandment to love is explained with those stories in which the act of love goes beyond special relations. This goes both for the rich young man and the command to give his money to the poor (Mt 19:16-26) as well as for the good Samaritan who, as a foreigner, gives aid to the injured Jew (Lk 10:25-37).
The intuitive plausibility of being responsible for those individuals in our social proximity and the universalism of the commandment to love will not be in conflict with each other if we understand universalism as “concrete universalism” and weave it into an ethics of empathy.
Concrete and close personal relationships in our social proximity and the universal concern for human well-being – so the core of this idea – are a result of each other. Taking action for those “far away”, for people with whom we have neither a personal connection nor share a common religious or ideological orientation, then becomes an abstract surrogate for love if it is not continually fed from the experience of giving and receiving love in our own personal circle. The ability to give love to those far away is possible because direct social relationships teach us and show us practically what people suffer from and what they hope for.
From the perspective of a concrete universalism, a life of gratitude in the density and intimacy of “special relations” is not in competition with a life focused on universal love but rather supports it. The ability to love those who are far away from us touches once again upon empathy. A father who loves his children and cares for them, who then practices love in “special relations”, cannot then, with regard to a theological-ethical understanding of love, but help to open his love universally. Because he is able to clearly experience the density of human relationship in direct social proximity, he will be able to love those strangers who live far away from him more than simply abstractly. He will be able to put himself in the shoes of the father seeking asylum who is not allowed a work permit, who then cannot offer his children the future security he wants to give them but instead lives every day in fear of being deported. Because he has given and received love in “special relations” he is able to give love beyond those “special relations”.
A position that sees Christian love as acting only in those relationships of close proximity underestimates the universal potential of loving empathy. The conviction that all of God’s people are God’s good creation surpasses an understanding of the commandment of love primarily based on closeness or distance. Through empathy, which is the goal aimed at by the commandment to love, the neighbor who is distant becomes the one who is close.
Of course no one can help all the needy people in the world. The limits of our loving and empathic actions, however, are not geographical in nature but are determined instead by the amount of strength that we have. From the perspective of the biblical doctrine of justification we do not deal with our limits by lowering the moral norms that we consider binding but that we bring before God for the things we were not able to do and ask for forgiveness. This is the only way a morally highly sensitive person can maintain his/her sensitiveness and at the same time lead a life of inner freedom. I am convinced that the doctrine of justification which liberated Martin Luther 500 years ago has not lost any of its relevance today.
If we now have a firm ethical ground on an empathy based approach towards refugees, what does it mean for politics? It seems clear that stating the importance of empathy is not enough for political decisions which sometimes are characterized by dilemma situations and demand hard decisions.
In ethics this question has frequently been debated with a pair of terms originally coming from Max Webr’s famous lecture “Politics as Vocation”: ‘ethics of conviction’ (Gesinnungsethik) and ‘ethics of responsibility’ (Verantwortungsethik). In the debate on refugees some politicians have used this pair as a weapon against the churches position, suggesting that we were taking a position of blue eyed Gesinnungsethik while politicians had to act responsibly.
6. An ‘ethics of conviction’ based on responsibility
We have clearly rejected this interpretation. The churches call out for political decisions which go beyond moral correctness and which attempt to really change the situation. A social ethics which comes with a maybe inspiring prophetic attitude but only functions in theory, that is, when you never have to really politically act on it, is a poor one because it is without effect. A division of duties which allows the churches to voice humanitarian ideals and leaves policy makers alone in trying to find morally justifiable political solutions is not the right way. When politics puts humanitarian ideals at the bottom of the list, then it is not living up to its task. But the reverse is also true: if the churches do not recognize the dilemmas that politics has to deal with then their talk is missing the point.
Dividing up the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility between church and politics does not do justice to the complexity of the motives on both sides. In addition, it would be a distortion of the intentions with which this pair of terms was originally introduced. For it is just this connection in the distinction of both that Max Weber was specifically demonstrating when he introduced this pair of terms in his lecture “Politics as a Vocation” (Politik als Beruf) almost one hundred years ago.
For Weber, people who act on the basis of an ethics of conviction do not take into account the results of their conduct or are not ready to take responsibility for the results. People who act on the basis of an ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, consider the possible results and then decide upon their actions accordingly. However, what Weber finds crucial is for all responsible actions to be lead and informed by conviction. It is, Weber says, “immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man–a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’”
We have got to stop pitting humanitarianism and realism against each other. It does not aid the public discussion to have one political position claim to have an approach of “realism” while suspecting all other diverging opinions as being naive or saintly. Truly being realistic, from a Christian point of view, cannot be understood without viewing Christ as being the reality that grounds our reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrates this position impressively in his ethics under the heading “Christus, die Wirklichkeit und das Gute”. Realism can therefore not ignore what Bonhoeffer calls the “view from below”. Thus with respect to refugees, this means that realism always has be able to give a satisfying answer to the question, what does the realistic option mean for those weakest individuals in the situation.
Or once again in the words of Max Weber: each ethics of responsibility is based on a certain conviction. For that reason, ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility can never simply be placed opposite of each other but have to be placed in relation to each other. If the conviction is a Christian one then responsible conduct will mean to look at the consequences the decision will have for the weakest individuals in the situation when looking for a solution.
7. Two regiment doctrine
There is a second concept that has emerged as an argument towards political statements made by the church with regard to the refugee crisis. The so-called “two kingdoms doctrine” or more precisely the “two regiments doctrine” stems directly from the Reformation tradition and can look back at almost 500 years of reception in German history – sometimes with fatal results.
Martin Luther himself was confronted with the question in his practical occupation as a political advisor of how a prince could follow the commandment of compassion and at the same time do justice to his responsibility for the entire community. The commandments found in the Sermon on the Mount can and should be followed by each individual. They apply to the area which Luther calls the “spiritual regiment”. If, however, they are applied directly to political matters there is a danger that they bring about the opposite of what is intended. Instead of promoting compassion and love, the floodgates would be opened for those who are the strongest. For that reason, God’s “worldly regiment” is needed: it is the object of politics to ensure that the law is obeyed. And if the law is being sabotaged, measures are needed to enforce the law.
Time and again the two regiments theory is understood as saying that one set of rules is valid in the worldly area and that these rules stand in conflict with the commandment for compassion in the spiritual area. According to this understanding, strict political measures against refugees are not problematic because the Christian ethos of compassion has no validity in worldly areas.
This is not what Martin Luther meant. For Luther, the kingdom of the world is also subject to God’s regiment. And this God is none other than the one who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. For that reason, the law and compassion are not opposites but have to correspond to each other. Repeatedly, Luther makes strong demands that the actions of the upper classes take into regard the rights of the weakest individuals, especially with regard to economic justice. According to Luther, it is not a question of whether the representatives of the upper classes are required to help the poor but how they can best do it.
The German jurist, Udo Di Fabio, recently claimed the following in a lecture to the EKD synod at the beginning of November in Bremen: “Luther did not intend to make a contribution to the development of the civil legal system, however, objectively speaking, he did so. The kingdom of God should be ruled by grace and compassion whereas punishment and seriousness rule the worldly kingdom.” According to this understanding churches are not political actors. But Di Fabio does not deduce from that, that churches are not political. Churches – he states – “irritate the political process. They comment on the political process, they take a stance. They still represent, as they have for the last 500 years, a part of civil society that has a special intrinsic value based on faith, on the Christian message, on the Holy Scripture.”
What Di Fabio says here can only be affirmed.
8. Consequences for politics
If we as a church take a stance with regard to refugees in the current political debate, the following concrete impulses result for the discussion:
Firstly: In light of the priority to take care of the situation’s weakest members, there is good reason to affirm a course of action which has a humanitarian orientation with regard to refugee policy in Germany. Empathy and legal power should not be regarded as necessary opposites, a view that is taken again and again. Even if the law implies a course of action that results in severe measures for individual people, it must be carried out with empathy. We, as churches, have intentionally never demanded taking down the borders as some might suggest. However, we have insisted that the border regime take the ideal seriously that every individual be entitled to protection from persecution, violence and war.
Borders do actually have social-ethical value since they are the basis for sustaining the order of a country or a union of countries. Without them, in the long run, the weakest members would suffer. But the way we use borders has to be in tune with our humanitarian tradition. This is what the current discussion is truly about.
Because it is so important to me that humanitarian actions and legal power correspond to each other, I have intentionally, by the way, always stressed that the carrying out of legal measures in the decision about applications for asylum will always also imply that some individuals return to their countries of origin. But again here the following applies: these people, who fell for the smuggler’s false promises, who sold everything they had in order to pay for their transportation out of their countries, are now all the more distraught and need all the more empathy when they are referred back to their countries of origin.
Secondly: The fact that Germany cannot take in the 60 million refugees worldwide is trivial. From a Christian perspective, limiting the number of refugees here in this country nevertheless cannot mean that we are indifferent to the destinies of others who are in need elsewhere. As churches we are part of a worldwide network in which we call each other “sisters and brothers.”
If an ethics of responsibility cannot stop at national borders, then all demands for a limitation of refugee entries in our own countries must be thoroughly considered with respect to the consequences they will have for those refugees who are turned back. The necessary limitation of refugee entries here must be tied in with intense efforts to find measures that make living in dignity possible elsewhere.
Political strategies that simply leave people in need to their fate are not responsible ones. This is the reason why the distribution of refugees in solidarity among many countries and the guarantee of protection in these countries, despite all current difficulties of implementation, is still the key to dealing with the refugee crisis. If we reject refugees coming from the Syrian war zone we must give an answer as to where they can flee to.
Thirdly: The great task of integration must be courageously approached. If the refugees’ future remains uncertain for months or years, if they have to wait in their follow-up accommodations without any clear perspective, then it will be impossible to help them integrate during this time.
Those Muslims who stress their religion’s potential for peace and want to understand it anew as a force for democratic civil society must be supported in their efforts. An approach to Islam which measures this religion based on the ideals of the Salafi or other fundamentalists does not only ignore the peaceful stance that the majority of Muslims living here or elsewhere has. This approach undermines the efforts of those Muslims who are fighting against these fundamentalists based on their decidedly Muslim convictions.
What will have a future, on the other hand, is an approach by Christian religion that is open for the strengths of other religions and supports these strengths with a respectful attitude. Where trust is able to grow on the basis of this kind of respectful approach, an open attitude towards the differences between religions is possible.
9. Where Hope Comes From
The demands on political decisions and on those making them are enormous at this time. Whoever makes decisions with “both passion and perspective” and understands politics here as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards”, as Max Weber has called it, deserves our respect. And – I add– is included in our prayers. For seldom has a practiced ethics of responsibility required so much conviction.
As Christians we are ambassadors of hope in difficult times. Because we know that God will leave this world, God’s own creation, not alone. I want to close with words by a man who knew what he was talking about when he expressed this certainty in a difficult time. At the end of 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following words from his prison cell: “I believe that God will give us in each state of emergency as much power of resistance as we need. But he will not give in advance, so that we do not rely on ourselves but on him alone. Through such faith all anxiety concerning the future should be overcome.”