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Rheinfelden, Switzerland, October 2 – 4, 1985


Dilemma and Challenge


1. The God who is concerned

From millions of mouths the crying and groaning of refugees for freedom and salvation rises up to heaven; and, as in the time of Moses, God hears the cry of his people and of all those who are oppressed, and speaks to his people as he once spoke to Moses, saying: „I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the land of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.“ (cf. Exodus 3, 7-12).

Today, as then, God commissions us saying: „Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh. Lead my people out of Egypt.“ And we, like Moses, could answer: „Who are we then, that we should go unto Pharaoh, and bring forth the Israelites out of Egypt?“ There is only one answer, emphasizing that this is God’s mission: „I will be with you. And this shall be a sign unto you that it is I that have sent you … When you have led the people out of Israel, you will worship God on this mountain.“

This will be the mountain, as in Isaiah’s vision (cf. Isaian 2, 2-4) „that is established at the top of the mountains and is exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many nations shall go up to it and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob. And he shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many peoples. And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war no more.“

In the burning bush God shows his concern for the oppression of his people. He enters the history of the people of Israel as the one who is concerned. His name announces solidarity: I have come down, I come, I am there, I am concerned, I share your fate and will turn it again. God acts as one who is concerned. And as his messenger he also choses someone who is concerned, a refugee who has killed one of his oppressors in his anger and has had to flee the country.

From Egypt God called his Son (cf. Matt.2.15) to announce the definitive beginning of the final era. Jesus Christ applies to himself the word of the prophet Isaiah that he has been sent to bring the Good News to the poor, to proclaim deliverance to the captives, to set at liberty the bound and to proclaim the year of grace of the Lord (cf. Luke 4.18). He too is a refugee and a foreigner, executed outside the gates of the city for proclaiming a message of freedom and redemption, but rising again from the underworld of death to provide release to those enslaved to death. He will come again, in the last days, as judge, and before him shall be gathered all the nations, and he shall then ask who recognized him and helped him when he was a prisoner and a refugee. (cf. Mt. 25.36).

2. The Church’s concern

2.1 The Exodus experience

In later years the prophets exhorted the people of Israel again and again not to oppress the stranger in their own country, and tried to provoke the people to concern by reminding them of their Egyptian past.

The Exodus, the flight from the land of oppression, is one of the central memories of the people of Israel and has found a permanent place in the collective memory of the Jewish people. This experience becomes alive and real every year at the celebration of Pessah.

Christ belongs to the people of God, which in a very particular way follows in the footsteps of the people of Israel, a people who, freed from slavery in Egypt, participated in God’s plan in their march to the Promised Land. Following the resurrection of the Lord the life of the Christian is a passing, with Christ, from death to resurrection, an emigration from the slavery of this world and an entry into the area of God’s sovereignty, where everything and everyone is created anew in Christ.

And it is between the Exodus from Egypt, the land of slavery and oppression, and the eschatological reconciliation of all peoples that we must situate the Church’s task with regard to exiles. In this context the Church can see itself as the communion of exiles, but of exiles who are at the same time free men. There is a deep inbuilt communion and solidarity with the refugee, which should find expression in a feeling of mutual recognition, closeness and a sense of shared destiny.

But there is also another factor very much related to this present time, which forces the Church in the world, and we ourselves included, to be directly concerned. This is the phenomenon that the Church is forced into flight in the form of untold thousands of its members. And here we are not talking about spiritual homelessness, but the phenomenon that this Church is in physical flight in all continents, that she too suffers in her own body the fate of the refugee.

In this sense the refugee has become a sign of the underlying exile and homelessness of the Christian. He becomes for the churches an exhortation to convert from being all too established and conformed in an unjust world.

2.2 The Christian as a foreigner

In the first centuries of the Christian Church at least, the attitude of Christians towards life on this earth was conflicting and ambivalent. Whilst living each in his own country, they still felt themselves to be a sort of secondary citizens who did not quite fully belong, taking part in everything as (full) citizens, but reacting as if they were foreigners. Here is a description from Letter to Diognetus which states literally: „Every foreign country is their homeland and every homeland a foreign country.“

Right from the earliest times Christians have seen themselves as strangers in this world, as persons without full civil rights, paroichiae (parochia, giving the word „parish“). The Christian congregation has been the congregation of strangers and sojourners, who in the last analysis belong nowhere and yet are at home anywhere.

This sense of being foreigners within existing political and social structures ties in with the sense of having a permanent home, described as heaven, and which already exists in the fellowship of the Church. Paul describes this new homeland in a letter to the congregation at Ephesus, a town which he had to flee in secret: „You are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and belong to the household and family of God.“ (Eph. 2.19.)

The turning point came with the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., which marked the beginning of the change of Christianity from a religion of strangers and sojourners to a state religion. This led to Christians no longer thinking of themselves as people without civil rights, but as full citizens, and beginning to attempt to live as full citizens of two kingdoms, the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Once this had happened the foreigner was once again, in classical fashion, the other, the one-who-does-not-belong, the person with whom the Christian must enter into a genuine relationship, a relationship he has still not found to this day. This is part of the dilemma of the Church when faced with foreigners and in particular with refugees.

2.3 The universality of the Church

A further dialectic step makes the foreigner in the congregation into the neighbour, the friend of the group. The New Israel, as Christians style themselves, becomes a community of every people and nation, where there is no more Greek or Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian,

Slave or free man (Col. 3.11.), the notion on which the faith of Israel was based and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, continuously kept alive by the prophets. All this was rooted in the conviction that all human beings are created by God and belong to one human family. The eschatological fulfillment of the unification of all people can already be seen in the universality of the whole Church and of every congregation. This universality lies at the heart of Christian faith and practice.

This also involves the rights of the individual human being. According to the Christian outlook the refugee has not only a humanitarian right to be accepted in every country but also a legal right, since the whole world belongs to everybody. This is part of an old Christian tradition, subsequently buried by the principles of private ownership and of the national state, which is expressed for example by Ambrose, the 4th century Bishop of Milan, in the words: „The Lord desired that this earth should be the common possession of all people and that its fruits should belong to everyone.“ The Christian view is that the earth exists to provide the means of existence and growth for everyone. Everyone has the right to find on this earth what he needs. If people are forced to leave their home country, it must be made clear that they remain members of the human family and citizens of a universal society and the fellowship of all peoples.

In this context it is important that the Church treats this viewpoint not just as an internal dogma obligating all Christians to accept refugees as having such rights, but go on exert pressure to have it recognized as a basic human right. The Church must play its part in having this concept embodied in international treaties and agreements.

3. The Church’s action

3.1 Respecting the dignity of the refugee

The most important way of bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel is to understand and respect the full humanity of the refugee, which he has in the eyes of God by virtue of being a human being and a creature of God. This is nothing other than seeing the face of Jesus, who through his incarnation became one with mankind, in the face of the refugee. The refugee is entitled, both from a Christian and a human rights point of view, to be regarded and treated with full human dignity, regardless of race, language, religion, sex, political convictions or social rank.

The churches must therefore require of the country granting asylum that the refugee be treated at every phase of his temporary or permanent stay in a humanly dignified manner. This includes the possibility of asking for asylum, being entitled to a fair and constitutionally guaranteed asylum procedure, lodging, protection against persecution, development of the personality and a suitable employment opportunities.

The churches must take great care here that the definition of who may or may not be recognized as a political refugee is not restricted by external or internal political considerations, much less by economic, nationalistic or racist ones.

Whereas the United Nations Convention on Refugees refers only to people fleeing their homeland from a well-founded fear of persecution, the churches are tending towards a broader definition of what a refugee is; they also demand and provide help for people leaving their home countries for reasons of natural catastrophes, civil war, ethnic, racial, religious and political suppression or because economic conditions there no longer permit the individual and his family to lead a decent human life. In this way the Church defines as worthy of protection not only the individual human being but also whole families and minorities affected by the above-mentioned events.

The Church’s particular concern is for individuals, families and groups who have fled their home country without being given the status of refugees in their host countries. Their helplessness is a special challenge to the Church to make it possible for these people to live a decent human existence.

The example of solidarity with fellow Christians points to the fact that solidarity with refugees goes beyond the boundaries of the Church, as Christ meets the Church in every human being. Christians have been gripped by a love which makes no distinction of origin, religious confession or political conviction, and which knows no exceptions. What we are talking about is that love which sees in the other the brother or sister in need and is only concerned with one thing: providing directly the respect and help due to one’s neighbour.

And the churches must take the side of the refugee for his own sake, and not for any other reason or motive. In particular our motive must not be to proselytize people of other faiths and creeds in the negative sense of the word. This would endanger rather than promote the deep mission of the Church towards all peoples.

3.2 To be the voice of the voiceless

The cry and complaint of the refugees which rises up to heaven is heard only in heaven. Refugees have no say, no voice, either in their old country or in their host country. This lack of a voice includes so-called democratic countries, in which refugees, like all other foreigners, do not have a vote, and are therefore unable to play a role in direct majority decisions, other than being used by politicians taking advantage of the generally negative attitude of the local population.

A key need of refugees is that those who talk about solidarity with them also make their voice heard on their behalf. The vocation of the Church to provide a voice for those who have none is part of the prophetic announcement of salvation. First and foremost this is God’s pledge of salvation to the refugees themselves, saying that God has not forgotten them, but recognizes their need and provides for help. This pledge is made by Jesus Christ, the prophet, in and through his Church acting as the instrument of God’s message and act of salvation. In the person of Jesus Christ, the message and the act of salvation, proclamation and healing are so closely related that to announce the salvation of God in a purely rhetorical fashion without miraculous changes taking place in the place where the word of God is uttered is either impossible or makes the Church unworthy of credibility. This means that the prophetic solidarity of the Church towards refugees is not only aimed at changing in their circumstances, but that it also brings about this change in a marked and exemplary manner and in a way which points forward to the final completion of all things.

The Church’s proclamation of salvation is at the same time a criticism of the rich and the powerful. In the same way as Amos the Church will have to proclaim in the palaces of Ashdod and the palaces in the land of Egypt: „Assemble yourselves upon the mountains of Samaria, and behold the great tumults in the midst thereof, and the oppression in the midst thereof. For they know not to do right.“ (Amos 3, 9-10).

When we talk about the rich and powerful, we are referring to the leading political and social forces in those countries from which people are forced to flee. We are also referring to the global community, within which the „great tumults“ are the mutual interests linking the states from which people are fleeing to those to which they are fleeing without any real alternative. The Church then has a central role in pleading for the preservation and respect of human dignity and in lifting up its voice prophetically whenever this human dignity is violated or disrespected.

The Church as the advocate of the weak recognizes the difficult political and legal consequences to the state of accepting, lodging and dealing legally with a large number of people seeking asylum. Despite this the Church in its prophetic function fulfills the role of guard and advocate of human dignity. In public discussions the Church is first and foremost on the side of the weak, with whom it proclaims its solidarity. It makes their concerns and sufferings its own. This means that the Church not only represents their concerns, but makes them its own, trying to think, speak and act as if it were itself the person seeking asylum. As soon as the Church begins to do this seriously, it can find itself forced to put its own interests and those of the majority of its members into second place.

3.3 To be ready for conflict

Perhaps solidarity and help is only self-evident as long as it does not directly effect one’s own pocket or basic interests. The critical question can be raised of whether the Church is not in fact too concerned by the refugee problem and too involved in public debate. Of course no one would deny the Church the right to provide direct emergency aid and to do everything which in our societies would be regarded as being specifically charitable work. The Church is now, as always, highly welcome as a provider of social services, but only in so far as this corresponds with the political aims and overall conditions set by those in power.

This particular political outlook and the corresponding attitude towards Church charitable services, is adopted without further thought by the public at large. This also has an effect within the Church. In the last analysis Church members are also members of society and identify all too easily with the interests of that society. These are people with the same options as the politicians they have voted into power, which makes it almost inevitable that they adopt the same political aims and arguments. However, as soon as these aims and arguments are no longer the same as those of the Church, then confrontation becomes necessary.

This conflict can hardly be avoided. The first reason is that in the refugee area the churches have become ever closer partners of the state, which tends to treat it as a semi-government organization, including providing finance. This inevitably raises the problem for the churches of carrying out their advocate role without making false compromises on the one hand and without endangering their cooperation with the state for the benefit of refugees on the other. This can have the inevitable result that, if conflict arises, the Church has to risk the threat of the state reducing or completely cutting off its financial resources and finding itself standing unequivocally on the side of the refugees. If not it would endanger its biblical mission and become an accomplice of injustice.

By the very nature of things such conflicts are unavoidable because of the priority the Church gives to the human person with his rights and dignity, whilst the state gives, and indeed perhaps must give, priority to its own interests. In any case the necessary political compromise is normally carried out at expense of the weaker and the very weak. This we must protest against everywhere and at all times.

4. Common action

4.1 The congregation

Independently of whether or not the Church creates its own special refugee organizations and institutions, the whole people of God is called to exercise Christian solidarity with refugees.

The authentic place of God’s saving action is the congregation of the redeemed and liberated. This is the place in which the universality of the Church can be experienced through the acceptance of everyone. The deepest need and longing of the refugee to be heard and to feel accepted as a human being, can best be met within a congregation which itself has overcome all racist and nationalistic prejudices and has developed a feeling for the equality and unity of all mankind. In its proclamation, prayer and advocacy it becomes the direct voice of the voiceless, indeed, it does not leave him voiceless, but gives him back his own personal voice again through direct contact and dialogue.

What we are talking about is a new form of living together and partnership, a living congregation, where human friendship and salvation can be experienced without barriers or barricades. Partnership with refugees includes practical assistance in various practical situations. But more than anything else it is conversations, regular meetings, and the celebration of feasts and religious services, which allow friendships to grow and can make refugees feel accepted, not just looked after.

Finally, the congregation sees one of its important tasks as providing other congregations who are already involved or who are prepared to take on such an involvement with information on their own experiences and possibly encourage then towards similar solidarity. The role of such publicity is not only to increase involvement and solidarity but also bring about a more positive attitude in the public at large and in those with political responsibility.

The people most able to help here are Christians who can become active under their own initiative or who are easily activated. This is hardly the case for most members of Christian congregations or most Christian congregations, in particular because they are hardly in a position to see behind the political picture of the refugee provided by the mass media.

Experience shows that the people able to help are Christians and human beings with the necessary attitude and motivation to react independently and critically on the world around them as well as on public opinion, and who have the necessary time, together with physical and psychological stamina, to get involved in what is a very contact-intensive, but also a very conflict-oriented task. Such people know how to articulate their ideas both in a group and in public. The particular importance of such people is their desire to live out Christian values within a small community, but at the same time with a worldwide perspective.

4.2 Church aid organizations

It would be unthinkable for the Church to provide services for refugees without it having its own organizations. These organizations carry out a decisive task in the same way are other government and non-government organizations. The objectives, dynamism and methods of the Church organizations are no different from those of other similar services. If there is any difference it is in the Christian motivation of those working in them and their readiness to be active in areas which do not yet have sufficient public visibility and for which, for whatever reasons, no public funds are available. This applies in particular to those refugees who remain in the country without refugee status, but also includes areas where the state does not want welfare work to be carried out.

Christian social services ought to be known for their readiness to cooperate with all men of good will and with all Christian and non-Christian humanitarian organizations.

However, the services they provide in no way do away with the responsibility of the remainder of the Church, in particular of the communities and parishes. Their task is to help these by means of their expertise, the information at their disposal and their wide range of contacts, to provide their own Christian contribution.

4.3 Ecumenical cooperation

Solidarity with and advocacy of refugees is not something which the Church can either take or leave. It is the central task of the Gospel. The same applies to mutual cooperation between different churches and communities. Joint solidarity and advocacy and conscious cooperation on local, national and international levels, will be one more means of removing the barrier which prevents the churches from being a sign of unity between peoples. Common action, attitudes and prayer are the expression of a growing unity between Christians. We must also not underestimate the resulting improvement in communication and the exchange of important and helpful information, which should in fact be the natural reflex of a large-sized communio. A common involvement with people of all religions, races, nations and peoples emphasizes the responsibility of an ecumenism aimed at and embracing the whole world. In other words people’s belief in the credibility and competence of the Church will be permanently enhanced both inside and outside the Church by a common involvement on behalf of people seeking asylum. There is hardly any other area which can make such a large contribution of this kind in fulfilling God’s wish of bringing together people of all races and cultures into one and the same large human family under his sovereignty.

Der Dienst der Kirche für die Flüchtlinge ist ohne eigene Organisationen nicht denkbar. Sie erfüllen auf kompetente Weise, ähnlich wie andere staatliche und nichtstaatliche Einrichtungen eine entscheidende Aufgabe. Diese Dienste unterscheiden sich in Zielsetzung, Einsatz und Methode nicht von den vergleichbaren anderen Diensten. Es ist eher eine Frage der christlichen Motivation der Mitarbeiter und deren Bereitschaft in Bereichen tätig zu werden, die gesellschaftlich noch nicht genügend gesehen werden oder für die, gleich aus welchen Gründen, keine öffentlichen Mittel gegeben werden. Dies dürfte sich vor allem auf die Flüchtlinge beziehen, die nicht anerkannt werden und dennoch im Lande verbleiben, aber auch auf Bereiche, in denen der Staat Sozialarbeit nicht vorgesehen haben will.

Die christlichen Hilfsdienste sollten sich auszeichnen durch eine hohe Bereitschaft der Kooperation mit allen Menschen guten Willens und allen christlichen und nichtchristlichen humanitären Organisationen. Ihre Dienste sind keinesfalls ein Ersatz für die Verantwortung der übrigen Kirche, vor allem der Gemeinden und Pfarreien. Sie sollen diesen durch ihr Fachwissen, ihre Informationen und übergreifenden Kontakte behilflich sein, ihren christlichen Beitrag zu leisten.

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