Migrants: From individual indifference to communal and divine compassion

by Adanna James

Five ways to kill a Migrant: 1) Indifference

Drowning skins, eyes stark open with the stare of death, hands grasping, mouths open crying, hungry, traumatised, dying, dead. Human beings wrapped in white sheets, or unwrapped, in coffins.


I adapt the title from Edwin Brock’s poem, Five Ways to Kill A Man, as I attempt to bring some theological reflection to bear upon recent coverage of the migrant crisis in European and Asian territories. Whether as victims of human trafficking or desperately fleeing terrors from a homeland, a myriad of images has been flashing across our screens these past few months. Over three thousand deaths have been recorded across the Mediterranean last year. The toll continues. Yet I don’t think I’m being presumptuous in stating that for all the atrocities we’ve seen and heard about this issue, we remain largely unaffected.

And that’s what I choose to write about; our indifference. I turn to Catholic pastors Henri Nouwen, Donald Mc Neill and Douglas Morrison’s 2010 re-printed Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life for some more insight into this phenomenon of indifference in the wake of tragic, human suffering. Originally published in 1982 from the pastors’ own discontent ‘with the individualism and spiritual dryness of [their] academic lives,’ they highlight how a bombardment of such images in the media as described in the opening lines of this blog actually works against the showing of compassion, since they cause persons to come face to face with their own powerlessness in the face of dreadful, human suffering. Such “confrontation with human pain often creates anger instead of care, irritation instead of sympathy and even fury instead of compassion.” In addition to our powerlessness the absolute depravity of the human being presented on our screens removes all sense of identification with that individual as a human being. “Some of the lowest human drives are brought into the open by  a confrontation with miserable-looking people…this was the case in the Nazi, Vietnamese, and Chilean concentration camps, where torture and cruelty seemed easier the worse the prisoners looked.” Thirdly, the neutrality of it all, where these images take up forty to fifty seconds of a newscast in which Sepp Blatter is re-elected President of FIFA, AC Milan wins the Champions League, transportation strikes take place in Belgium and a new technological gadget is birthed result in a forced response on our part to tune out the ‘bad news’, in order to go to bed and have a good night’s rest without losing one’s sanity. Is it any wonder then that we remain unmoved by these images?

Compassion is communal and divine

But our sense of powerlessness and our lack of compassion points to a fundamental flaw according to the pastors. We tend to see compassion as an individual character trait, when really compassion is something essentially communal. Its communal nature removes the sense of powerlessness an individual feels when faced with the woes of the world. A community has to mediate between our helplessness and the actual reality of suffering that we are faced with. Naturally, being Christian, they put forward the Christian community as that mediating force, and this is worthy of more reflection before simply bypassing it as personal religious sensibility.

For starters, the authors not only view compassion as communal, for them it is also divine. Divine compassion is “the compassion of the one who keeps going to the most forgotten corners of the world, and who cannot rest as long as there are still human beings with tears in their eyes.” Understanding God as God in Christ, the suffering servant, also lies at the heart of understanding compassion as divine. Reflecting on the Greek splangchnizomai used in the Scriptures to speak of Christ’s being moved with compassion, the pastors show how splangchna, the entrails of the body, signifies something ‘deep and mysterious’ about divine compassion. It’s not superficial.

The Christian community makes this divine compassion present in the here and now when it constitutes solidarity, servanthood and obedience, three core components of the divine compassion identified by the pastors as expressed in Christ through the Scriptures. Solidarity refers to the way we live life together. This living together is expressed through letting go of individual anxieties and making a space for everyone to be. Compassion automatically takes place where this kind of living occurs. Secondly, servanthood colours the kind of response given to suffering others. It is patterned on Christ’s self-emptying. Different needs can be serviced by the different gifts each has. Thirdly, obedience gives the community its Christian specificity. Through prayer and meditation persons are forced to let go of the idea of compassion as a personal hobby, which is not sustainable.

Even as they explicitly advocate the Christian community as the mediator between individual concern and human suffering, their concept of Christian community demands a broadening of understanding. Not restricted to religious life, or persons sharing a home, it is meant to include networks of support and encouragement that make up a person’s life. They cited Thomas Merton’s acuity of what was taking place in the world despite not being informed through the media. Through letters he received and responded to wherein persons wrote deeply about their lives, including Christians, non-Christians and atheists, a community of compassion was enabled. Merton deeply entered others’ lives and was encouraged by others.

As such the authors suggest identifying where community of this type is already taking place in and around us. Aren’t we involved in networks of support and encouragement (be it from family or friends)? Haven’t we come into contact with personal suffering in a tangible way? If so, then we can already begin using the ideals of the Christian community to mediate compassion. As a student in Belgium the migrant crisis has come home to me personally through encounters with classmates from Syria, Nigeria and Palestine all of whom have had firsthand experience with terror attacks in one form or another and have fled home in the hope of something better. We spoke. I listened, asked questions, and apologised for my lack of ignorance. The BBC news was no longer for me about nameless faces. I cried as I watched these stories. I prayed, I spoke to others about their situations and begged their prayers. Ordinarily this may come across as some form of trite self-glorification, but really, it signalled for me a move from emotional numbness over the horrors of the realities underlying today’s migration crisis to feeling something, deep in my entrails, a small step in the direction toward compassion.

Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Photograph source: see here


Public Role of the Church: Justice or Love?

Vincent van Gogh,  The Good Samaritan

Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan

Ellen Van Stichel

If one wants to discuss the public role of love within Christian theology, one cannot escape the question of the relationship between love and justice. For rather than love, justice is generally conceived as the public virtue. Within the Christian tradition, however, the Gospel message focuses on love. Hence, should not the public role of Christianity be identified with love as expressed in the 7 works of mercy and exemplary shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan? One cannot deny that this kind of charity belongs to the core business of our faith. But has not a one-sided focus on love as charity often resulted in so-called ‘agapism’, which is very good in treating the symptoms of social issues by fulfilling immediate needs, without having to deal with the structural causes grounding these problems?

What is often minimalized in this ‘agapist’ approach is the importance of justice in Christianity. A mere glance into the writings of the prophets in the First Testament immediately shows the importance of justice for the Jewish people. Amos, for instance, famously reacts against well-intended offers by the Jewish people if they are not accompanied by acts of justice, understood as care for the anawim, the excluded (i.e. the poor, the widows, the orphans, etc). In fact, the harsh distinction between justice and love/charity seems to be a particular interpretation; for, as the biblical scholar John Donahue (1977) has argued, “[t]he traditional contrast between obligations in charity and obligations in justice is foreign to the Bible.”

Besides the Bible, Catholics can also refer to their social teachings, which have emphasized the importance of justice from their official beginnings in the 19th century. That justice should be realized within society is unquestionable; whether it also belongs to the task of the Church to make this happen, however, is the object of debate. Inspired by Latin-American developments, the synod of bishops of 1971 was very clear: supporting the Jewish idea that liturgy without acts of justice is insufficient, the bishops firmly stated that “action on behalf of justice is a constitutive element of preaching the Gospel.” Quite some ink has flowed on the meaning of ‘constitutive’ here, but I would stand with those who see justice as an essential characteristic of Christian faith and thus as part of the mission of the Church.   

Moreover, the bishops laid the groundwork for a particular concept of justice that was later much elaborated upon by the US Bishops in the letter on the economy (1986), a letter with sustained relevance for today.  The synod introduced the idea of justice as participation in Catholic social teaching. It is not enough to ensure one’s needs are met or respected, they argued. Rather, we should consider whether all have the opportunity to participate in society as political, social and cultural actors. Do people have access to the global economy? And if so, in what way? Do they belong to their political society? In fact, this notion of justice as participation is nothing else than updating Amos’ call: include into society the excluded.


All this may seem very abstract, but during the expert seminar on Politics of Love, Leo Penta sketched for us how this might look in practice with a concrete example: the German movement of broad-based community organizing. His main challenging question was “how can diverse people in and through their civic groups and institutions act collectively in the public arena for the common good over the long term?” By building relationships, this community organizing aims to bind people who can then act politically in search of justice.

From a theological-anthropological point of view, what is interesting here is Penta’s view on personhood. One the one hand, the project is realistic enough to realize that self-interest is at the basis of the involvement of concrete persons: it is because they are worried about something, or find themselves in a particular situation, that they are looking for relationships which can help them. Because they are on their own, they lack the necessary political power to resolve their problems. On the other hand, relationality is considered as ‘constitutive’ of the human person, which makes them also willing to undertake this collective action. In this context, “actively building relationships across boundaries” is considered as “an act of public love”. In contrast to many civil society actors, community organizing does not start from a single issue, but from the need to build relationships in order to gain collective empowerment. Penta summarized this in the notion of “enabling community”: it is the community as such that needs to be enabled; but at the same time, it is the community which enables. Its end goal is exactly the participation and inclusion of outsiders, such as ‘immigrants, disabled and disenfranchised persons’. For this reason, community organizing is an example of the Church actively participating in the struggle for justice while giving flesh to its mission of love.

Maybe things should not be so black and white. We cannot ignore the amazing results and implications of this focus on short-term loving acts for society, as the majority of current public services in the field of health care and education arose from Christianity through its religious congregations and orders. And although they fulfill certain (immediate) needs, one can hardly hold that these are mere acts of charity, considering their structural consequences for those who benefit from them. On the other hand, there will always be ‘tears which the bureaucracy won’t see,’ such that love, as seeing the face of the other in its particularity through the structures, will always be necessary. 

Ellen Van Stichel is a post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (KU Leuven) and member of the Anthropos research group.