In Whose Image?

How do we image the refugee? This crucial question arises from Pope Francis’ 2013 homily in Lampedusa, his 2018 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, and the US and Mexican bishops’ 2003 letter concerning migration.(1) While I applaud (and am challenged by) the response these documents call for, I am concerned with a potential problem that may arise as the refugee is imaged in relation to God and to self. My question: as the Church attends to Scriptural witness in order to orient the response to the refugee, how, in a rushed movement of facile sympathy, might/does the otherness of the refugee become flattened and conflated with God and/or the selves of human hosts and companions?

This problem relates, on one hand, to Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus speaks of the Son of God separating the sheep and goats and declaring that “just as you did [an act of mercy] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40). Pope Francis incorporates this story into the refugee context when he proclaims, “Each stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected stranger of every age”;(2) the bishops also echo this reference.(3) This association of Jesus and refugee raises questions of 1) the nature of the identity between Jesus and the least of these; and 2) the resulting motivation of the Christian or the non-Christian citizen who acts on account of the Gospel text.

First, in what way(s) is Jesus present in the least of these? Is Jesus identical with the needy stranger, even absorbing this other? Is Jesus spiritually in, with, and under the desperate refugee, present consubstantially as a sacrament? Is Jesus’ presence symbolic, sympathetic, and distant? Is Jesus innately present in the needy one or only present in the relational encounter of the potential sheep/goat with “the least of these”? Is Jesus present in the struggling stranger only as he is universally present in his glory? The list could go on.

Neither the Evangelist nor the church leaders venture an explanation, likely in acknowledgement of the mystery of the account and the presence. Their silence is understandable, but it allows for certain interpretive and motivational problems.

One danger has to do with the potential “de-othering” of the stranger through use of this text. Because of the king’s words, “You did it to me,” the unique identity and circumstances of the one in need can easily be lost. If one is not careful here, the identity of the least of these – the refugee or migrant, those who are hungry and imprisoned – is swallowed up by that of the mighty sovereign and judge; suffering is not reconciled but subsumed. Such a current flows against an understanding of God’s creation as constituted by creatures who are other-than-God, even as they are in intimate relationship with their Creator. Otherness – between God and creature, and also, in an important sense, between creatures – is basic and even good, and even though this otherness is surely mediated by the new household of God inaugurated in Christ, it is not eliminated. Accordingly, even terms like “solidarity” and titles like “Strangers No Longer” should be used with care, lest they dismissively hurdle over otherness.

Another danger has to do with the question of motivation. It is significant that in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats did not know that they were encountering the king/Son of God in the refugee, prisoner, etc. When, however, this text is proclaimed as a foundation for receiving and serving those in need, this critical not-knowing is lost, as the image of Christ is made primary. People may respond to this image in love, but they are more likely to respond with fear of punishment or desire for reward. The bishops make this motivation explicit, with reference to both human/ecclesial and divine judgment: “We judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us”;(4) “The ‘Son of Man’ who ‘comes in his glory’ . . . will judge his followers by the way they respond to those in such need.”(5) Once again, there is, at least potentially, an effacement of the refugee as other, as the responder primarily images the prospect of divine (dis)favor, which is as much or more an imaging of the self as it is an imagining of God.

This imaging of the self is my other area of concern, and it relates to a cluster of Old Testament texts, generally represented by Leviticus 19:34, which says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(6) My concerns here roughly align with those outlined above, so I will not develop this second point as fully. But briefly: What is the nature of the connection between the refugee-other’s suffering and my/our own experiences of suffering? Is this likeness constitutive of my response or secondary? What if a potential responder does not have a history of alienation? In drawing together common experiences, do we stumble into a too-easy sympathy that minimizes irreducible difference, de-others the refugee-other, and projects the self as the determinative ethical principle? This line of thought questions even the second part of the Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39; Lev. 19:12). What would it mean to love your neighbor, the refugee, without reference to self, with attention only to the other?

This reflection is offered with the belief that right reasons – right images – for doing the right things are profoundly important. More promising images are germinally present in the three Roman Catholic documents addressed here. Pope Francis and the bishops speak, for instance, of the “values of the Kingdom of God that [Jesus] proclaimed,”(7) “enrichment of all,”(8) and “a life worthy of human dignity.”(9) These constitute a vision more proper to and fruitful for the crucial task at hand: the refugee-other as distinct person created in the image of God, whose flourishing points to God’s shalom, in which we freely participate through the new creation given in Jesus.

1. The three sources considered here include 1) Pope Francis’ “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018 (hereafter, “Message”); 2) Pope
Francis’ homily on his visit to Lampedusa; and “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. and Conferencia del Episcopado
Mexicano, 2003) (hereafter, “Strangers No Longer”).
2. Pope Francis, “Message.”
3. “Strangers No Longer,” par. 3.
4. Ibid., par. 6.
5. Ibid., par. 26.
6. See the very beginning of Pope Francis, “Message.”
7. “Strangers No Longer,” par. 3.
8. Ibid., par. 21
9. Ibid., par. 29

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