WE WERE STRANGERS, TOO

Pope Bids Refugees to EU ‘Bienvenido’; Europe Says ‘Non’

As Europe closes its shores to immigrants and refugees, the pope asks for welcome of the stranger fleeing war. Is Europe ready to listen?

Earlier this month the Vatican announced the installation of free showers for the homeless in public bathrooms in the city-state. Now it emerges that the Pope wants the rest of Europe to follow suit and provide political asylum and public services on a much grander scale.

In a speech to the European Parliament and Council of Europe, Pope Francis told Europeans that they have to stop being self-absorbed and open their borders to immigrants and refugees from war-torn regions. Never one to mince words, Francis described Europe as giving off the “general impression of weariness and aging” and—with chauvinistic rhetoric that assumes women are useful only when they procreate—he compared her to an elderly “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” So much for “respect your elders.”

Francis’s mild misogyny aside, the Catholic Church’s compassionate position on immigration is familiar to US Catholics and politicians. Conservative and progressive Catholic Bishops alike have rallied behind reforms to the immigration system.

In the case of illegal immigration in the southern states of the U.S., it is easy to dismiss the Catholic position as religious self-interest. A high proportion of illegal immigrants are Catholic, and, thus, skeptics see advocacy for these immigrants as the Catholic Church looking after its own.

Francis’s latest statements demonstrate that the Church really means it. The refugees that Francis wants to see welcomed in Europe are predominantly those seeking asylum from war-torn and disease-struck regions in Africa and the Middle East. While he received a round of applause, his speech comes as something of a shock to Europeans, who see themselves as more socially progressive than their political allies in the United States.

While it might seem like a political issue, hospitality towards strangers has been a religious issue since the dawn of Western civilization. Generally, the foreigner is a class of person often aligned with other vulnerable populations like widows and orphans. The Bible explicitly and repeatedly calls for the construction of a system that protects and cares for these groups.

As President Obama noted in the speech that accompanied his executive order on immigration, Exodus 23:9 reads: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.”

In fact, arguably the most famous Biblical story of divine judgment—the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—is about the failure to provide hospitality to strangers. The two angels whom the people of Sodom seek to rape are strangers and it’s for this ill treatment that the cities are punished. The story is not, as is commonly thought, a story about modern sexual ethics—after all, Lot offers the people of Sodom his two young virgin daughters as sexual substitutes for the visitors—but it is a story about how to treat people. As it turns out God really hates it when you abuse strangers.

There’s no shortage of similar examples in the New Testament. The Gospels describe how Jesus dispatched his disciples on a missionary journey throughout Judea and the Galilee. He told them that if they weren’t welcomed by the locals they should shake the dust off their feet when they left in anticipation of the harsh punishment the inhospitable would receive on Judgment Day. Jesus told the disciples that it would be worse for the townspeople who turned them away than it would be for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. And, let’s face it, it doesn’t get a whole lot worse than outright destruction.

The principle that outsiders should be welcomed and provided for was a cross-cultural theme in ancient cultures. Hospitality was a critical building block of ancient society: the popular Greco-Roman idea that the gods travel in disguise as beggars and strangers policed good behavior and encouraged people to provide hospitality. In a world without motels and restaurants, people were required to welcome strangers into their homes. It was the most common and concrete opportunity to do unto others as you would wish to have done unto you.

However, welcoming refugees is an expensive and potentially risky proposition for European countries. Once people are inside the European Union, their ability to travel without documentation and access generous (and expensive) healthcare programs is relatively unrestricted. In some countries, like the UK, the inability to control intra-European immigration has contributed to the rise of conservative anti-EU political parties, such as UKIP. Embracing those fleeing war in the Middle East would come at a high political, economic, and (potentially) public health cost.

It remains to be seen if Europe will heed the Pope’s latest directive. But Francis is on solid Biblical ground here. When a 77-year-old man calls you “haggard,” maybe it’s time for a facelift.