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.

bootvluchtelingen

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

 

Reading Together: Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human

As the last key note speaker of the conference Re-Imagining Human, David Jasper (Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow), founding editor of the journal Literature and Theology, concluded:

‘For me the study of literature and theology is the most serious thing I have ever been engaged in. It has been a task of retrieving a theological sense of being human, but before one can even begin to do that one must begin by retrieving a sense of being human at all, without which we are nothing. Before we can recover any sense of God (whatever that might mean or in whatever language), we must elect to engage in a constant mutual release in forgiveness of one another in order to remain free. My old friend Bob Detweiler, may he rest in peace, … a man who knew suffering, once described this release as best found in what he called religious reading, which
“might be one that finds a group of persons engaged in gestures of friendship with each other across the erotic space of the text that draws them out of their privacy and its stress on meaning and power.”
And it is in this space that we might begin to find the consolations of religion speaking again. Detweiler suggested we recover two German terms once used by Meister Eckhart but taken up also by Heidegger: Gelassenheit and Geselligkeit. Gelassenheit: “a condition of acceptance that is neither nihilistic nor fatalistic but the ability – and it may be a gift – to move gracefully through life’s fortunes and accidents, or to wait out its calamities.” Geselligkeit: sociability, or togetherness.
            Reading together texts which resist all attempts to simplify and manipulate we may learn again to live through a religious tradition into a form of theological humanism which has recently been outlined by David Klemm and William Schweiker in which it is neither God’s will nor human flourishing that alone offer any sufficient measure for human life. Yet brought together they offer guidance in the human responsibility for integrity of life.  I am not sure that we have succeeded very far in persuading anyone in either church or academy of the profound importance of what we have tried to do. But, in our various ways, we must keep trying. I return sometimes to the end of the book of Job and try to place myself in Job’s position:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 5b – 6)
The point of God’s great outburst is not that there is no meaning, or even that meaning is a human category, but that it is beyond our reach, only to be accepted. The end of Job, as Muriel Spark well understood in her novel The Only Problem, is neither a frame nor a finished form but a story that holds its secrets and hides its causal links, a story not to be accepted simply nor refused, but which prompts endless questions to God and to ourselves. If it pains it also restores, and it enables us to move on, to craft our own story from memory, in Kierkegaard’s phrase in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, it keeps “the wound of the negative open.”'

[Extensive quote with the permission of the author.]

Jasper’s lecture Retrieving a Theological Sense of Being Human was delivered at Re-Imagining Human, the 17th Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture, hosted by  Anthropos Research Group, Faculties of Theology and Arts, KU Leuven, 18-20 September 2014.