‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.’ Hebrews 13:1-3, NRSV
A friend recently shared the following story on Facebook: Pia Klemp, a young sea captain from Germany, is being prosecuted by authorities in Italy. The charge: she provided aid to refugees and thus became complicit in illegal immigration.*
Pia works for ‘Solidarity at Sea’, one of many NGOs (the best known among them is ‘Doctors Without Borders’) whose mission it is to save people’s lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since more and more countries in Europe have shut their borders and/or elected politicians who are anti-immigration, the situation for refugees – and those who help them – has become dire. There has been a clamp down against NGOs saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean. Faced with prosecution – or the threat thereof – there is practically no private ships patrolling the sea between Africa and Europe anymore. The European Union just announced that ‘Operation Sophia’, the EU’s program to save lives in the Mediterranean, basically will be cancelled – no more ships are being dispatched, just aircraft will patrol the airspace above the ocean from now on.
Since 2014, when the civil war in Syria broke out in full force and forced many people to flee, more than 2 million refugees reached Europe, most by sea. In that same period, more than 18,000 refugees (!) lost their lives or went missing (data from the website of UNHCR, the Refugee Agency of the United Nations). In the second half of 2018, after NGOs were threatened with legal consequences, the number of casualties rose dramatically: according to the UNHCR, 1 in 18 of the refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean has not survived.
Over the years, NGOs and ‘Operation Sophia’ saved ten thousands of lives – lives of people who tried to escape war, violence, and poverty.
The case of Pia Klemp is symbolic and symptomatic for what is happening in Europe right now. People who care for their neighbor, people who see it as their duty to save lives, people who see a shared humanity in all people – no matter, where they are from – are being threatened with legal consequences. For they have broken laws – laws that, in the end, disregard the dignity of human life. It’s easier to look away and ignore the plight of those in distress.
Pia Klemp is frustrated and disillusioned. She says, ‘What good are human rights if they only apply to some?’
I know the issue is complex. I know there are always ‘bad apples’ among those claiming to flee violence and try to take advantage of the system. I know there are those who profit from the human trafficking of refugees. But what does our conscience tell us as we are confronted with the suffering and deaths of fellow human beings? What does God tell us?
Throughout the Bible, we find many passages that talk about extending hospitality to strangers and immigrants. Leviticus 19:34 even gives a reason for welcoming the foreigner: ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’
You were aliens yourselves…most, if not all people, somehow have a ‘migratory background’ – ancestors who had to leave the place they called home and start over new in a different place.
My grandmother was from Silesia, which in 1742 became Prussian and, later, German. In 1945, in the aftermath of WW II, it became Polish. My grandmother and her family were expelled from the region they called home and became refugees. Even though they were German and ended up in different parts of their own home country, they were seen as intruders. My grandmother had many stories to tell how she and her fellow refugees were called ‘Flüchtlingspack’ – which roughly translates to ‘refugee scum’ – and how hard it was for them to be accepted.
It is so easy to label someone in derogatory terms, to experience them as the intruder and the stranger, and to hold them responsible for all kinds of issues. It is so easy to dehumanize others. It is so easy to look the other way or shrug one’s shoulders as so many die of violence and as refugees in this world today. But Lent is a time when we remember Christ’s suffering and death for the sake of the WORLD (John 3:16). Lent is a time we remember Christ’s suffering and death for all humanity.
God is a God of life, not a God of death – not even the death of a refugee. As Christians who follow this God of life, we have an obligation: the obligation to follow God’s laws of love and welcome of the stranger.
Kyrie, eleison – God, have mercy.
*The article, albeit in German, can be found here: https://ze.tt/als-kapitaenin-rettete-pia-klemp-gefluechtete-auf-dem-mittelmeer-nun-wird-gegen-sie-ermittelt/?utm_term=facebook_zonaudev_int&wt_zmc=sm.int.zonaudev.facebook.ref.zeitde.redpost_zon.link.sf&utm_content=zeitde_redpost_zon_link_sf&utm_source=facebook_zonaudev_int&utm_campaign=ref&utm_medium=sm&fbclid=IwAR3arWEdov3RV75L8zUYrJy-d8zSO9UShCATXCGlKoOw6uNsrfceFSz2mhQ
Picture by pixpoetry on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German