By Alfredo J. Gonçalves, CS
When we consider the condition of the migrants, refugees, displaced people, travelers, etc., the expression “sign of the times” emerges naturally. In fact, this is how the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) refers to the phenomenon of the “multitude of stateless persons” who, today and more than ever, travel the roads of the world. Not to mention those who die or simply disappear into the waters of the Mediterranean, in the sand of the desert or at unknown borders.
However, the problem does not concern only the institutions, whether public, private or religious. It is rather a huge challenge that involves several instances of international relations, governments, civil society, Churches, non-governmental organizations, entities, social movements, and so on. More than a century ago, during the historical migrations caused by the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII published the Encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), a document which inaugurated the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC), using the expressions such as “the spirit of revolutionary change” and the “disturbing of the nations” (NR 1). Indeed, the two expressions vividly and significantly express the reality of constant movement of migrants in all directions.
Looking at migrants with God’s eyes
As concerns the Old Testament, we will focus our attention on what scholars call the “historical creed” of the people of Israel: Deuteronomy 26: 5-10, which is its more elaborate version, and Exodus 3: 7-10, which is a more primitive version. As we know, this is the incident that led to the election of Israel as God’s people. When we compare the two versions, we find four verbs in the first singular person, all attributed to God, which show us a common thread or a central theme that goes through the entire Bible. “The LORD said: I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so, I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down* to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3: 7-8).
The four verbal forms – see, hear, know and come down – indicate that, as their “founding experience”, the Israelites have developed the theology and the spirituality of a God who, not only, pays attention to the concrete situation of his people in the country of slavery, but also and above all, came down to walk alongside his people in his Exodus through the desert and, later, in the exile and the diaspora. This act of coming down will be fully realized in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus. It is also important to stress at this point the sensitivity and solidarity of a God who is close to his people oppressed by Pharaoh, and who sides with those who suffer and those who are humiliated. In short, this is a God who loves the poor, not only because they are poor or because they are necessarily “good”, but because they are victims of adverse historical circumstances. The prophetic movement also emphasizes the same theology and spirituality, especially during the troubled times of the monarchy and the exile. The combination of the alliance between liberation and promise is therefore girded with new vigor. Hence, the triple prophetic tone. The first tone is the reminder that “you were slaves in Egypt”; therefore you should not oppress the stranger who dwells among you nor should you oppress your brother.
The second tone is the denunciation of various forms of oppression, because you, “Hear, you leaders of Jacob, rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not your duty to know what is right, you who hate what is good, and love evil? You who tear their skin from them, and their flesh from their bones”, says the prophet Micah (Micah 3: 1-2). And third tone is the annunciation, which is like the breath of an oppressed people waiting for the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem, “a new heaven and a new earth” (cf. Isaiah 65: 17-25). With regard to the New Testament, the itinerant Prophet of Nazareth (John P. Meier) takes the Book of Isaiah to announce what we can call “Jesus’ program or manifesto” (Luke 4: 16-20; Isaiah 61: 1-2). It reveals from the beginning his predilection for the oppressed, the slaves, the prisoners and the poor, a program which, in other words, takes the terms “orphan, widow and stranger” from the Old Testament.
The preferential option for the poor is therefore rooted in the heart of the Master, because he has a special concern for the marginalized, the powerless, the migrants and the excluded – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25, 35). The second text is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, where the Evangelist Matthew usually interrupts the narrative, to introduce short summaries and highlight something that should not be forgotten. “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness”, says the text. Then, it continues: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt 9: 35-38).
The presence of the Church, both in the country of origin and in the host country, is not a novelty of modern times. In fact, at the end of the nineteenth century, Bishop J.B. Scalabrini founded two religious Institutes (of men and women) and a Secular Institute, to accompany the Italian immigrants, both in his own Diocese of Piacenza and in other regions of Italy, on the other side of the ocean, that is in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and elsewhere. It was, as he used to say, to bring them the “smile of their country of origin and the comfort of faith”. He also said: “for the migrants, the country to which they really belong is the land that gives them the bread”; and concluded, saying: “the migration, in fact, extends the concept of homeland”.
It is no exaggeration to say that, the words of Martin Luther King: “I have a dream” become a driving force in the life of the migrant. Paraphrasing Euclides da Cunha, we would say: “the migrant is first and foremost a strong person”.
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