Skip to content

Christians and the immigration issue

7 September 2010

When you see headlines in the news like this, it is clear that the timing of this week’s synchroblog on the immigration issue couldn’t have been better.

Urgent meeting on Zim immigrants – South Africa – IOL | Breaking News :

An urgent meeting to discuss the documentation of Zimbabweans living in South Africa has been planned for this week, Home Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said on Sunday.

He said details of the meeting with representatives of Zimbabwean nationals living in SA would be released in due course.

“The meeting will be held this week, since the announcement by the Cabinet to document Zimbabweans living SA, there had been a great deal of distortion and misinformation particularly from NGO’s and ‘so-called’ immigration expert, aimed at sowing confusion among Zimbabweans in the country,” he said.

Actually, immigration is not one issue, but many, all of which are sometimes hotly debated.

If we look at history, we find that sometimes countries encourage immigration, and at others they discourage it. Many countries encourage immigration of people with skills that are in short supply among their citizens. But they are less welcoming to people who are unskilled, or whose skills they don’t require, and who will merely come to swell the ranks of the unemployed. And sometimes it works both ways. Here in South Africa, for example, we see trained medical people — doctors and nurses — emigrating to countries where they will be paid more. And we find doctors and nurses from countries where they are paid less wanting to come and practise in South Africa.

This has led to some strange things. For example, before the mid-1970s a lot of medical services in rural areas were provided by church hospitals and clinics. Often the doctors came from overseas. They could have been paid more in their own countries, but many of them saw their work as part of their Christian calling, so they wanted to be of service, even if the money was less. The government of the day did not like church hospitals, and in about 1973 most of those in the so-called “homelands” were nationalised, so that they could be under the ideological control of the government. The supply of overseas doctors dried up, and South African doctors did not want to work in the rural areas, where the money was not so good. So many of the former church hospitals were staffed by medical students who had been conscripted into the army.

Many immigrants, both skilled and unskilled, are refugees or semi-refugees. They are often prepared to do any work, whether it fits with their skills or not, and they are often prepared to work harder than local people, and to do work that the local people are unwilling to do.

I had a brief experience of this myself, back in 1966. I had finished my university degree in South Africa, and had a bursary to study in the UK, but because the South African academic year finished in November, and the UK academic year only started the following October, I had about 10 months to fill in while waiting. I worked as a bus driver in Johannesburg, and was trying to save money for my fare to the UK when I got a phone call from a security policeman who wanted to see me the next day, so I skipped the country, and landed in the UK almost penniless. I applied for a job driving buses for London Transport, but had to be able to show the immigration authorities that I would not, by doing so, deprive a British citizen of a job. At that time London Transport was short of 7000 bus drivers and conductors — more than the entire operating staff of the Johannesburg Transport Department, which had about 1300 drivers and conductors altogether. There were all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. In order to get a job, one had to have permission to work, but in order to get permission to work, one had to have a job. So I got a taste of the kind of thing that most immigrants have to go through (and, in that time of apartheid, South Africa discriminated in similar fashion against the majority of its own citizens).

In South Africa in 2008 there were outbreaks of xenophobic violence between February and May. They started in Mamelodi, where we go to church, and spread to other places. Foreigners were beaten up, chased out of their homes, their homes were sometimes set on fire, and some were killed. And the complaint was that the foreigners were taking jobs. The strange thing, though, was that, as Father Frumentius, the priest in Atteridgeville, noted, when the foreigners had been chased out, there were no South Africans moving in to provide the goods and services that the foreigners offered (see No bread, no matches, no candles — thanks to xenophobia).

There is also a perception that immigrants, legal and illegal, are responsible for the high crime rate, and this leads to resentment of immigrants and fuels xenophobia. How much truth there may be in this perception I can’t say, but there is also a suspicion that much of the xenophobic violence of 2-3 years ago was sparked by criminal gangs who were threatened by foreigners muscling on on what they saw as their territory. There were reports that they arrived by minibus taxi and began attacking foreigners and calling on others to join them.

All these things, and lot more, help to make immigration a contentious issue. Sometimes the contentiousness gets quite irrational, as I noted in a post on my other blog a few months ago, which is perhaps worth repearing here: Notes from underground: Which country are we talking about here?. It referred to a letter that appeared in the Cyprus Mail:

Surely I’m not the only person to see the irony of British expats in Cyprus making comments on the UK elections last week such as: “I’ve got nothing against immigrants but there are too many and it’s getting out of hand” and “Immigration concerns me. It’s only a little island”?

Coming over here… can’t speak a word of the language and the colour – pink as lobsters, some of them.

And the comments on that blog post referred to several other instances of this irony — British ex-pats living in Spain with similar complaints to those in Cyprus and Danish immigrants to Argentina complaining about immigrants from other places living in Denmark. But best of all was the story that Pauline Hanson, an anti-immigration politician from Australia, who had herself immigrated to Britain. So it seems that some of the people who are most vociferously opposed to immigration are themselves immigrants. As the old Fidonet tagline put it: “Illegal immigration is a problem in Australia; ask any Aboriginal.”

So how should Christians respond to “the immigration issue”?

I think of our Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Johannesburg, and there is irony there too. We started it at a time when most Orthodox Churches in and around Johannesburg were immigrant enclaves, where South Africans were (and in some still are), regarded as “xeni”. We chose St Nicholas of Japan as out patron saint because he was a Russian missionary who went to Japan and planted a Japanese Church, not a Russdian one. We wanted a South African church and a South African Orthodoxy that would be multicultural as South Africa is, and not an ethnic enclave. But somehow we have always had a fairly high proportion of immigrants in the parish. Some of them have been birds of passage, stopping temporarily on their way to somewhere else. We had a Russian family that moved to Australia (and a couple of Russians who went back to Russia). We had a Syrian family that went to America, a Romanian family that went to Australia. We’ve had Americans who have gone back to America, and Brits who have gone back to Britain. We have several Romanian families who have stuck around, Zimbabweans, Kenyans, Serbs and Congolese, and some from Greece and Cyprus. So we are not just multiethnic and multicultural, we are multinational as well. I suppose that makes us more sympathetic to immigrants, at least most of the time. We did at one time have a Bulgarian immigrant who joined the AWB and wanted to chase all the black South Africans out of the church! In his case the sympathy wore a bit thin.

As Christians we are members of a “parish”, which makes us “parishioners”.

But what is a “parishioner”. The word comes from the Greek pariki, which means “beside the house”. The usual explanation is that the “house” is the parish church, and so the pariki are those who live around it. But if you translate it into Afrikaans, pariki becomes bywoners, which literally means “those who live next to”, but is usually applied to sojourners or squatters. In other words, people who are not permanent residents, but are birds of passage, temporary residents.

In this sense, St Peter addresses all Christians as “parishioners” when he says “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” — ᾿Αγαπητοί, παρακαλῶ ὡς παροίκους καὶ παρεπιδήμους, ἀπέχεσθαι τῶν σαρκικῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν, αἵτινες στρατεύονται κατὰ τῆς ψυχῆς (I Peter 2:11). Parikous = strangers.

As the Epistle to Diognetus puts it:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking (literally, “paradoxical”) method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners (literally “parishioners”). As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring (literally, “cast away fœtuses”) They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.

The word translated as “sojourners” is, again, pariki. And, as Christians, we are all sojourners, squatters, temporary residents in this world. While “immigration” may be an issue for the world, for Christians there can be no issue about how to treat immigrants.

  • Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 22:21).
  • But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Lev 19:34).

Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 the notion of the sovereign nation-state has dominated the understanding of the way the world works. It is one of the characteristics of modernity and the modern worldview, with the concepts of passports, frontiers, citizenship, immigration and emigration. But as the Epistle to Diognetus makes clear, such things are to sit lightly with Christians, for whom every foreign country is a fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. We are all ex-pats, we are all sojourners, we are all resident aliens in this world. So we will not get too excited about supporting the restrictive immigration policies of governments, especially when they are manifestly unjust or require us to behave unjustly towards foreigners.

As Christians we believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is: the compass of the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps 23/24 v. 1). National boundaries and frontiers, citizenship and immigration and emigration are of temporal and not eternal significance.

“The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).`

_______

This post is part of a Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers post on the same topic on the same day, so that people can surf from one to the other and get different views on the same basic topic. You will find links to the other synchroblog posts below.

    10 Comments leave one →
    1. Darrell permalink
      7 September 2010 11:01 am

      Interesting post; here in America we have many aspiring students who do not have the resources to train themselves in skill sets that are needed by the economy but they see our government allowing people who have the skill sets to immigrate into the country. Their simmering anger is understandable and I image the same thing is occurring in SA.

      Another problem in our country is that there are now more applicants for skill based training, people with the resources to obtain the needed training, than there are institutions to train them.

      Approximately 10% of our workforce is unemployed, while the unofficial figures are closer to 20%.

      One of the major responsibilities of government is to identify and resolve social problems before they become unmanageable. But governments across the ideological spectrum have an ongoing failure in carrying out this responsibility.

      A Christian prayer:

      Forgive us, Lord, for shedding each other’s blood, for You shed
      your blood for all of us.
      Forgive us, Lord for destroying life, for You came that we might have more abundant life.
      Forgive us, Lord, for justifying destruction as if we were creating something good.
      Forgive us, Lord, for seeking forgiveness, but failing to forgive.
      Have mercy on us, Lord! Heal us and all Your world, and save us!

      Amen.

    2. 8 September 2010 3:11 pm

      Great post. It’s interesting to hear about how immigration effects South Africa.
      I am myself an ex-pat/immigrant – an American living in the Czech Republic and since making that move I have not been able to look at the immigration issue the same way. Nations and boarders sit more lightly with me now. I could really relate to the quote you shared from the Epistle to Diognetus. And this, “We are all ex-pats, we are all sojourners, we are all resident aliens in this world.” So, true! And yet how quickly many forget…

    3. 8 September 2010 8:32 pm

      Thanks for the very informative and interesting post and for the reminder that it doesn’t matter where we dwell, where we were born, where we journey to – we should see ourselves as the stranger and love strangers as we love ourselves and would want others to love us.

    4. 9 September 2010 1:43 am

      Hi Steve–
      Great post as always–I enjoy your perspective on the issue.

    5. 10 September 2010 4:28 am

      thanks, steve. as always, i always appreciate the breadth and depth of your perspectives. i am glad the synchroblog is back!

    Trackbacks

    1. Eyes Wide Shut to People on the Move | Peter's Progress
    2. – Together We Can Make Dreams Come True — Sept. Synchroblog: Christianity And The Immigration Issue « Grace Rules Weblog
    3. Teflon Christians, Refugees and an Invitation to a Christ-like Humanity | Peter's Progress
    4. Immigration Reform – Yes, No, Don’t Care « Godspace
    5. Immigration Reform – September 2010 | synchroblog

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 288 other followers

    %d bloggers like this: