Humanity on the Move: Immigration, Religion, and Mercy

Humanity on the Move: Immigration, Religion, and Mercy


By John Smelcer & Dereck Daschke
(special thanks to Amber Johnson & Robert Thurman)

Everyone comes from somewhere. I’ve been thinking about that saying much as of late, especially as it relates to the current tide of suspicion and mistrust of immigrants. According to the most recent U.S. Census, less than 1% of Americans are indigenous. It just so happens that my entire family tree on my father’s side is, in fact, Native American. My ancestors have been here for 10,000 years or longer. It follows that 99% of all Americans are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants to the United States. Much of the hostility and resentment is based on religion; although many proclaim it is a matter of economics (“They’re taking our jobs!”). But that is a lie we tell ourselves to rationalize our lack of compassion and mercy, as well as our manifest racism and intolerance of other religious traditions.

As an example, a couple weeks ago I was sitting in my usual writing spot at a cafeteria here in a small Midwest town, when three white middle-aged people sat down at the booth next to mine. When their breakfast arrived, I watched them holds hands in silent prayer as they gave thanks to God for the food they were about to eat. Obviously devout Christians...or so I thought. A few minutes later, a family from Congo stood in line to order their breakfast. Seeing the Black family from Africa, I overheard the three “Christians” vilifying the family: “We don’t need devil-worshippers like them in our country,” “They’re probably Muslims,” “They’re here to take our jobs,” and “They probably speak some monkey language.”

Hardly Christian charity.

There are a number of Congolese families living in this small town, all immigrants in search of a more stable place to live and raise their children, all of which go to the same school as my daughter. I happen to know some of them, including the family standing in line. The mother is a medical doctor and the father has a Ph.D., but in America, they lack the proper licenses to work in their respective professional fields. Instead, they work minimum wage jobs trying to make ends meet for their family. Congo, the subject of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was a colonial possession of Belgium up until 1960, with a long history of Belgians brutalizing the African populations, even hacking off hands. Congo remains a dangerous and unstable region. Congolese speak French—the “Language of Love.” Furthermore, and most importantly, they are Christians. After the waitress served them, I watched as the Congolese family prayed in silence as well, thanking the same God for their food. The comments by the three white “Christians” sitting at the booth were about race, not economics. But you could never convince them of that. They would swear up and down that they are not racists.

We each have many lies we live with in order to maintain our sense of identity and our insular worldview.

The event depicted above is certainly not unique to where I live. It is representative of religious intolerance and racism across America, and to a larger extent, throughout the world. As this article was being written, a white man in Olathe, Kansas walked into a bar and without provocation shot two men from India who were peaceably watching a game on television. Before opening fire, the perpetrator shouted, “Get out of my country!” His actions were motivated by religion and race. Would he have shot white immigrants from England or Australia?

mpMost people who are looking for a new country in which to live fall under two categories: some are immigrants—people in search of a better place to live and to raise their families, a place with a promise for a more secure future. For the most part, their decision to move is a matter of choice. Others, however, are refugees fleeing violence, oppression, and food and water scarcity in order to save their lives and the lives of their family. For them, there is no choice; it is a matter of survival. Imagine the Jews trying to escape Germany in the mid-to-late 1930s during the rise of The Third Reich. For them, it was escape or die. During that terrible time, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to the United States to escape Fascism. They were the lucky ones. Albert Einstein was among them. In fact, in a letter to President Roosevelt, it was Einstein who persuaded the U. S. Government to begin research and development of the first atomic bomb, which, though controversial, brought about the eventual end of WWII and may have spared the loss of millions of lives. (Photo of the author in the cafeteria booth in the small Midwest town)

It is imperative at this point in history to remind followers of every religious faith that at one time or another their founding figure or contemporary leader was an immigrant or a refugee.

christiantraditionAccording to Christian tradition, Joseph and a pregnant Mary fled Nazareth to escape King Herod, who swore to kill the infant Jesus. Everyone knows the rest of the story: Jesus was born in Bethlehem and shortly thereafter he was carried away to Egypt to hide from Herod’s wrath until Herod died and it was safe for the family to return. Jesus and his family were refugees, escaping tyranny and threat of violence. What would have happened if Egypt had refused Mary and Joseph and made them turn back and return to Judea and Herod’s waiting arms? There would be no Christianity. And what about Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Jesus carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem up to Golgotha, thereby fulfilling Jesus’s mission? The Bible tells us that Simon was an immigrant from Cyrenaica, a province and community almost 800 miles away on the southern Mediterranean Sea in North Africa (Mark 15: 20-22). What if Simon and his family had not been allowed in Judea? Who would have helped the faltering Jesus that day? What story would be told if Jesus had simply died on the streets instead of on the cross? It seems to me that Christians owe a debt of gratitude to all nations that open their arms to immigrants and refugees. Jesus certainly appreciated that he had escaped death as a refugee. He spoke often about helping those in need, as he had been helped him in his hour of need. It is often said that Jesus may appear as a destitute stranger on your doorstep to test your mercy and charity.

What are refugees and immigrants if not people in need on your doorstep?

The most important religious figures in the Jewish Torah (the Christian Old Testament) all had to seek sanctuary in other lands at different points in the Bible’s narrative. Abraham and his family escape to Egypt to wait out a severe famine in Canaan; but he feared facing a choice between being murdered so that the Egyptians may take his wife and deceiving Pharaoh about his relationship with Sarah. He chose the latter, and when Pharaoh discovered the deceit, Abraham and his family had to flee their adopted home. Generations later, the sons of Jacob, the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, follow in Abraham’s footsteps and seek refuge in Egypt from yet another famine, but this time they encounter their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery there years before. Reconciling, he welcomes his brothers and their families to settle in Egypt, where they prosper – so much so, they trigger a backlash amongst the native Egyptians, who enslave the lot of them for generations. This scenario set the stage, finally, for Moses, a Hebrew spared an order of execution at birth only to become, unaware of his true heritage, a member of the royal family. When he intervenes on behalf of a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian by killing the man, he flees the country to avoid the consequences of his actions. On the run, he is fortunate to meet the daughters of a priest of Midian, and his kindness to them is repaid with marriage to one of them. After returning to Egypt to lead his people out of servitude, Moses and the Children of Israel were still denied a homeland, fated to wander in the desert for forty years. Suffice it to say, the foundational stories of the Jewish tradition, which is also shared by Christians and Muslims, are harrowing tales of displacement, uncertainty, and constant threats to life. Even when the heroes of the Torah find respite in a new land, it is always tenuous, dependent on the mercies of others to make room for them. Following their revolt against the Romans in the First Century, the Jews lived out these tales again for nearly 2000 years after their dispersal (“Diaspora”) among the nations. That bloody history only underscores the precarious life of a refugee – even for God’s Chosen.

jewishRecently, in the United States, there has been a wave of vandalism against Jewish synagogues, centers, and cemeteries. This must be stated clearly: Jesus was Jewish, as were all of his disciples. Simon, who helped Jesus carry the cross, was Jewish. Paul, who is credited with spreading Christianity out of Judea, was Jewish. Peter, who the gospels say was the first Pope in Rome, was Jewish. To deface Judaism is to deny Jesus’s heritage, including Joseph and Mary (Jews both). The callous actions of these vandals are based on racism and religious intolerance, not economics. Do not believe the old, tired lie. (Photo: Muslim-Americans right vandalized Jewish gravestones in Philadelphia, 2017)

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was also a refugee. His vision that would eventually become The Quran came to him at first near Mecca. For years, just as Jesus had done, Muhammad spoke to assembled crowds about his message. But eventually, he drew the ire of religious leaders (as did Jesus in Jerusalem), and in 622 AD, Muhammad and his followers were forcibly driven out of Mecca. For ten years, Muhammad and his small band of followers lived in Yathrib, later renamed Medina, among three enclaves of Jews (and I would argue early Christians), who took him in and let him live peaceably among them. It was during this time that Muhammad learned about The Old Testament and the Gospels, and this is why they figure so prominently in The Quran and why he specifically refers to Jesus as a fellow prophet of God to be respected. During these years, Muhammad wrote a series of covenants commanding Muslims to protect Christians (to learn more about these covenants, read my previous blog, “The Sum of Our Fears: Islamophobia, Faith & Non-Violence”). Eventually, in 632 AD, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca. The rest, as they say, is history. Muhammad was fortunate to have found a place and a people who welcomed him and sheltered him and gave him the safety to continue to articulate his vision. Would there be an Islamic tradition if Muhammad had not found such a refuge?

In the history of Buddhism, Shakyamuni fled his kingdom. After enlightenment he was repeatedly attacked by competitive Brahmin gurus, and from within, his ever competitive half-brother Devadatta tried to kill him a few times. Buddha, it seems, was always on the move. For more contemporary Buddhism, Tenzin Gyatso, better known to the world as the 14th Dalai Lama, assumed his role as the spiritual leader of Tibet in 1950 after China invaded Tibet. In 1954, he traveled to Beijing to have peace talks with Mao Zedong. In 1959, he was forced to flee Tibet as Chinese soldiers were destroying monasteries and killing monks. Since then, he has lived in exile in Dharamsala, Northern India. During the Vietnam War, Buddhist monk and anti-war activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, had to flee his home country in fear for his life. Since then, he has made his home in a small community in France. Buddhism, it seems to me, owes a debt of gratitude to the kindness of people and nations who took in these two influential Buddhists and gave them a safe home to continue to spread their message and examples of compassion and nonviolence.

overOver the next decades, rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to cause coastal flooding and storm surges in some regions, inland flooding from heavier rainstorms in others, as well as widespread droughts and famines that will affect more than a billion people. As it becomes increasingly difficult for many of us to fulfill our basic needs, competition for resources, food scarcity, political upheaval, violence, and rampant inflation will force people to go in search of new places to exist. It will be a matter of survival, not choice. How will we treat those displaced and migrating human beings? How will we be treated? (Photo: Flooding in Bangladesh, 2016)

All four religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism—instruct their adherents to show compassion to those who are suffering and to offer them charity and mercy. It is hypocritical to say you love God and yet deny those who seek refuge when your religious founder benefited from peoples and nations who took them in and gave them refuge in their time of need. Pope Francis recently said as much.

Dereck Daschke teaches religion at Truman State University. Amber Johnson teaches a course on society and climate change at Truman State University. Robert Thurman teaches Buddhism at Columbia University. To learn more about of Simon of Cyrene’s amazing story, read John Smelcer’s The Gospel of Simon (2016) Learn more at 

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