There is an old African proverb: “When elephants fight the grass suffers”.
It’s important when considering wars, like the situation in Syria and Iraq, Yemen, Eritrea, and South Sudan that we not only listen to varied voices of political and religious leaders, but also to the ‘voice’ of the grass. Our faith invites us to heed the cry of those with little power or resources [if any], who are ‘collateral damage’, and who flee for their lives while the ‘elephants’ with guns and tanks and planes and propaganda fight it out.
The reading from the Hebrew Bible is that of two elephants fighting it out – the Israelite army [and its champion David] and the Philistine army [and its champion Goliath]. While the historicity of this encounter is far from certain, the consequences of war on civilian populations are well known. People’s lives are disrupted as they are forced to leave, and so begins a struggle for survival.
The reading from Luke’s Gospel is the story of a Syro-Phoenician woman, petitioning for her daughter’s well-being, who challenges the racial/religious blinkeredness of Rabbi Jesus. As a female foreigner it is likely she was one of the ‘grass’, a refugee forced to flee due to economic and/or military reasons. Her challenge to Jesus is a challenge to us. Will we share the food on our table, the resources of our country, with refugees?
The plight of refugees is a global horror story that gets worse by the day. In 2015, in the Mediterranean, we’ve been watching the biggest mass migration since World War Two. Thousands of desperate families pay racketeers for space in overcrowded and unseaworthy little boats to flee the chaos in Syria, Eritrea and across sub Saharan Africa. 1800 have drowned so far this year, and the Italian coastguard alone has rescued another 170,000. With receiving countries in Europe running for cover, the casualty rate promises to keep rising.
Closer to home is the same desperate refugee flow from persecution and poverty across South East Asia, notably in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Safe havens are just as scarce as they are in the north. Indonesia and its neighbours offer no welcome. Australia neatly deflects the survivors of ocean ordeals to Nauru, willing to pay that island’s government A$1000 per refugee per month for keeping them away from Australian shores. And just in case that makes us feel smug, our own Prime Minister worries aloud to reporters that the boat people might be coming our way, knowing the opinion polls will thank him for his concern.
What we once saw as a humanitarian crisis is now portrayed as a security threat. Caring for refugees used to be a noble enterprise. New Zealand wore the refugees it received from Europe after 1945 as a badge of honour and welcomed later migrants as much needed labour.
But immigration has become a toxic issue; politically divisive in Western Europe and America, and the flow on effect is felt here. Now we rank 87th in the per capita list of countries willing to resettle refugees.
There is no political consensus yet for raising our ludicrously low quota of 750 a year. Ludicrous when you consider there are 53 million people looking for a new home. Even meeting the request from Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty to double our quota, would, in his words, “make a world of difference”.
The current crisis is as much about us as them, revealing our paralysis of will and lack of leadership. It’s as much about our poverty of spirit as it is about the refugees’ desperation.
The law of the sea says those who can help must. But there is no such law on land. Unlike the old slogan for American Express credit cards, “Don’t leave home without it”, refugees carry no security when they leave. They begin a journey knowing it may never end, but such is the measure of their despair, they are willing to risk drowning with their children rather go on enduring the conditions at home.
Their only security is people like us. The ones who watch their plight on television news each night and wonder what we can do to help.
There is no legal requirement to host refugees. But there is a powerful moral imperative, rooted in the Gospel tradition of justice and mercy and a God whose hospitality is unconditional and generous beyond imagining.
Translating that imperative into government action is a challenge that overshadows most others right now, as new millions join the exodus from poverty, persecution and war.
Welcoming the stranger has never been more urgent - for the sake of their humanity and for our own.