Refugee Religions: The Complex Relationship Between Poverty and Power

Refugee Religions: The Complex Relationship Between Poverty and Power

(Photo credit: Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Pope has been at it, and so has the Archbishop of Canterbury. Christian-minded columnists such as Giles Fraser have been doing it too - all of them laying out the religious imperative for offering refuge to refugees.

They are absolutely right, of course. If you are Jewish, Moses fled from Pharaoh. If you are Christian, the Holy Family fled from Herod. If you are a Muslim, remember that Mohammed fled from the Quraysh in the Hijra.

In other words, all of the Abrahamic religions venerate people who were once refugees, vulnerable people forced to flee violence, desperate to protect their loved ones, choosing terrifying and perilous journeys to lead them from terror and peril.

With such a combined history, there is no option but welcome. The West has been built on these ancient stories. You don't get the love of the beatitudes without the slaughter of the innocents. You don't get the 10 Commandments without the trauma of the Passover.

But the relationship that religion has to refugees is far more complex. Pharaoh, Herod and the Quraysh were all powerful men convinced that they were doing the righteous work of their own gods. The violence that they perpetrated was done with sincere religious conviction, purging their lands of filth and heresy, attempting to protect their people from corrupting influences.

Thus, the call to protect the weak and shelter the displaced that the Pope and others have made cannot be made from a simple religious standpoint because religion is so long ingrained in the violence and colonial oppression that has caused people to flee in the first place.

Whenever God promises a land to a people He unfailing appears to fail to communicate to those living on the land that the deeds have been handed over. No matter, they are infidels, philistines, backward tribes who need saving from their own primitive selves.

From the Crusades to the brutal march of Christianity through Africa and India and the Americas and on to the conquests of ISIS, the three Abrahamic religions all refugees in their nativity have grown up to become powerful instruments that have caused so many others to have to flee and find refuge.

It is not enough to point to the holy books or teachings to argue that offering shelter to refugees is part of the Christian duty of the West. We must first admit to ourselves the complex Capitalist inheritance that these once-poor faiths have gifted us in the riches of the Vatican or the ostentation of Westminster Abbey.

Having done so, we need to decide once and for all that the call to love each other must always trump the call to be devoted to any divine demand. The most godly thing we can do is to close our ears to the power of the gods and open our hearts to the poverty of our fellow human beings who are suffering because of the apparent religious devotion of blinkered young men. ISIS is a truly horrible beast, and Assad a genuinely wicked man, but to rail against them without seeing how our powerful Christian past helped create them is to prevent the root of the problem being exposed: whenever we look up from the earth and become bedazzled by heaven, our focus on the purity of God inevitably leads to ethnic cleansing.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells a story about God coming to judge the earth. Some of the people who are praised are left confused:

'When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

This is perhaps the best guide we have. In banishing thoughts of god from our minds, we are clear-headed enough to see that theological arguments are meaningless. The most godly thing we can do is to live as if god did not exist.


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