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Saturday, 1 January 2011

Church, state and refugees

Joshua Ralston in Refugees and the Role of Religious Groups draws attention to the central role that religious organizations play in the long resettlement journey for refugees that begins with forced exile, moves through a sojourn  in a refugee camp, and ends for some at least with resettlement in a new country.
Church World Service, Jewish Family Services, World Relief and many other denominational organizations are involved in every step, from the handling of interviews and applications to determine refugee status, to meeting new arrivals at the airport, and providing the first few months of housing. The relief or mission agencies of churches and synagogues are integral partners in the government's response to refugees.
This appears to be a perfect symbiotic relationship, with the state providing what only it can - a political polity and the possibility of citizenship - and religious groups offering what they are best equipped to provide - hospitality. The political limbo of statelessness, which consigns refugees to "bare life" outside the law (as Giorgio Agamben describes it), can apparently only be overcome through the joint efforts of religion and state.
Ralston questions whether the church can be totally comfortable with the terms of this partnership and moves to articulate an approach that treats the church's own distinctive character seriously.
While much of the religious involvement in resettlement is laudable, it still regularly falls short of the call of Jewish and Christian scriptures to love the alien as "one of your own citizens" (Leviticus 19:33). Central to the biblical narrative is a reminder to love and treat the stranger as a neighbour.
However, partnership with the state presses Christian mission increasingly away from this biblical mandate and towards what the German Jesuit theologian Johan Baptist Metz calls "a service providing religion." Under this model, refugees are not new neighbours or possible joint-members of the body of Christ, but clients to whom a political service is owed.
Bretherton is right to worry, then, that "involvement with the state often exacerbates social divisions and forces the church to mimic the state in its form and practices." At times, the church's response to refugees resembles something like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once the service is met - with a pick up at the airport, a quick welcome, and few months rent paid - the church's mission moves on to its next project.
What is lacking in this model is the kind of long and patient friendships that nurture community, alter the national character of the church, and challenge the state's assumptions about citizenship and human identity.
 One way that the church might enact this is to follow what Bretherton calls "doxological politics," which "hallow" or bless the lives of refugees through acts of listening, community organizing, offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and shared worship. All of these acts serve as ad hoc ways to move beyond the service-oriented logic of resettlement and toward genuine encounter and mutual enrichment.
Another model is found in the Jesuit Refugee Service's practice of physical accompaniment, which signals God's presence alongside those excluded from national polity.
The church can thereby hold a mirror up to liberal democracy's claims of inclusion and human rights by demanding the state live up to its own ideals. As political philosopher Selya Benhabib argues in The Rights of Others, "There is not only a tension, but often an outright contradiction, between human rights declarations and states' sovereign claim to control their borders as well as to monitor the quality and quantity of admittees."
Hallowing the life of refugees and accompanying them beyond the services of resettlement includes advocating for just national and international immigration policies that are grounded in something more than the economic needs of the welcoming nation.
This is not to say that the church, or other religious organizations, should abjure their roles in resettling refugees. However, if they are to partner with the state in this process, they must also stretch their imagination and political commitments beyond the borders of the nation-state and the national rhetoric that accompanies debates on immigration.
The church would then act as a public and political witness to the presence and dignity of refugees, both locally and worldwide. In so doing, the church might be surprised to find itself following the way of the God who, in Karl Barth's wonderful phrase, journeyed into the far country for our sake.

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