by Adanna James
My last few blogs have sought to use theological and philosophical insights to reflect on current situations taking place in Europe, among them the refugee crisis and terror attacks. Not much has changed in the climate of Europe since my last blog. In some ways one can even say that the situation has intensified regarding these two issues, which is why I approach this blog with some apprehension. I want to continue to try to use theological insights to reflect upon the refugee crisis ever aware that it is a crisis of majestic proportions. This latest insight I draw from political theology and it concerns the theme of friendship particularly in the context of crisis. In Guido de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account he argues for friendship as a form of political action especially in politically unsettling situations. It is my hope that this could help envision imaginaries for political action beyond the ordinary to respond to the refugee crisis.
Friends in Dark Times
In de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship he makes a claim for the inherently political nature of friendship or its “parapolitical” nature which connotes the sense that it exists alongside politics in a significant sense. His focus is not so much on defining friendships but on observing how they take place as supports to political systems. He does this by looking at friendship through the lens of judgement. Judgement stands out for him as the defining mark of that which is political, set apart from other forms of public, social life. The aim of judgement is “safeguarding the integrity of public life in society” against injustice which threatens the common good. This renders the political space an interventionist authority in the affairs of public life. De Graaff’s focus, however, are those times when such judgement is aborted or not practiced by political authorities due to widespread corruption, for instance. The example used throughout his work is Nazi Germany and comes mostly from Hannah Arendt’s reflections on judgement and “the dark days of Nazism.” In such cases an emergency situation develops where judgement is urgently necessitated and has to be undertaken by citizens in lieu of political authorities who fail to practice judgement. This emergency judgement is meant to intervene in the thoughtlessness of corrupted political systems offering a space and opportunity to reflect by expanding one’s imaginations to see through the eyes of others. This results in a common sense which takes into account real, non-imaginary others and a faithful representation of their perspectives. In so doing judgement also affirms the plurality inherent to the public realm which is often usurped in times of political darkness. Judging entails judging with others, others who one chooses to live with. For de Graaff these others are friends. These friendships not only arise out of judgement, but are acts of judgement and common sense. Judgement is then expressed in the faithfulness of friendships as opposed to broken down systems and pronouncements.
Friendship as a preventative measure
There is no debating that the ongoing Syrian civil war with its fallouts of a refugee crisis and terror attacks (both in Syria and Europe) can be described as a dark political time which threatens not only the common good of the people of Syria, but also, in a widening global village, a worldwide common good. As the threat of terror attacks looms over Europe, it is therefore necessary to remain vigilant against political actions which may lean in the direction of a failure of right judgement and common sense, where vengeance may be employed and the recognition of the plural aspect of the public space denied. For de Graaff, friendships not only act in defiance of corrupted political spaces, they can also prevent the corruption of the political space.
I call you friends
"Mama is an angel". "Every morning when she wakes up, she comes and kisses us." These words describe the everyday happenings in the relationship between 82 year old grandmother Panayiota Vasileiadou and the five Syrians she now lives with after opening her home to them. Of how this relationship began the BBC reports that Haja, a 22 year old Syrian who had fled the city of Aleppo in February and had found himself in Idomeni, a border village between Greece and Macedonia, came by Panayiota’s home to borrow a cooking pot one day. When the pot was returned he appeared at her home with nine other friends who were drenched. The report states of Panayiota, “I was afraid at first but one of them was holding a six-month old baby…” Following this, others came asking to take a shower at her home. Panayiota also stated that she would see some of them walking on the road, but that they did not come to ask for help. She would offer them toast, eggs, cheese pies. Soon thereafter she would invite five of them to come live with her in her home. The report also states that some neighbors were not in agreement with her actions of opening her home to the Syrians, “fearing an influx of people with extremist views.” But, as Panayiota says, she was able to sympathize with the plight of the refugees “because I suffered the same. If I hadn’t experienced that, I wouldn’t know. I have been through all those difficulties myself... the cold, the hunger, everything.” "Today they are refugees but we were also refugees in the past." Panayiota was referring to the horrors of her past when she fled her village, Chamilo which was burnt to the ground in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
While it is difficult to make comparisons between Nazi Germany and the current European political landscape, I still think that a parapolitical nature of friendship can be discerned in this story of Panayiota and the five refugees. Her act of opening her home can be seen as a parallel to what the BBC has described as the controversial decision on the part of Macedonian political authorities to shut its borders with a 40km fence, resulting in more than 10,000 refugees being stranded in squalid conditions in the village of Idomeni. Panayiota’s act of befriending the Syrians also offers a response of judgement that takes into account real, non-imaginary others. This occurred when she took a second look at the nine Syrians who came to her for help, noticing that one was carrying a baby. Her own fears were dispelled in that moment of judgement which arrested a cycle of fear, rejection and anger in response to the current political climate of terror attacks. The story ends with Panayiota calling on the politicians to open the borders. She asserts that the refugees are not beggars and should be allowed to get on with their lives. She adds "I'll miss them if they do manage to move on - especially the girls. They keep me company. We talk and we laugh even though we cannot understand what each other is saying…"
This alternative form of political action that friendship offers is not a naïve response to the current crisis. It does not boast of providing solutions. However within it I see possibilities for saving persons, particularly members of the Christian community, from a sense of apathy in the wake of political situations that appear insurmountable.
Will Ross, “The Idomeni Grandmother who helps Syrians on a monthly pension,” BBC News, 25 April 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36127051 [accessed 8 April 2016].
Guido de Graaf, Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).