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We must learn to find the Divine in the Stranger and the alien Other

We struggle in the consumerist war-free West with the other, with Strangers. When someone with a credit card and pale skin settles in another land we often hear them referred to as an ‘expat’. Others permanently abroad are deemed ‘migrants’, ‘illegals’ or ‘asylum-seekers’.

Few of us have direct experience of the conflicts that devour post-colonial states, where diffuse identities and profound inequality fuel endless conflicts which displace innocents, and sometimes not-so-innocents: humanity in its manifold complexity. But not only wars push a person to leave home: malnutrition still afflicts almost a billion; climate change will drive drought, flooding and disease; many of us are pulled simply by an evolutionary urge to improve our lot.

The legal definition of a refugee as a person fleeing conflict or persecution is archaic and unfair on migrants and host nations; it takes no account of internal displacement or the soon-to-be-felt-impact of ecological wreckage. Migrants have understandably used the process as a way of bypassing dead-end legal channels, and who would blame them?

But most of those forming the recent five-million-strong Syrian exodus fall squarely inside the legal definition of a refugee. Many Europeans shudder at this unprecedented encounter. Alone among politicians Angela Merkel has shown moral leadership, perhaps informed by a Christian ethos, even if she has wavered and in the end apologised. Nonetheless, civil society (especially in Western Europe) has displayed a remarkable generosity.

Up to now the Irish State has responded to ‘the problem’ with the banal savagery of Direct Provision where asylum-seekers are denied employment and cooking facilities, and live on a pittance.

In response to the Syrian exodus, in contrast to the charity and sympathy of most Irish citizens, the Irish State has been painfully slow at fulfilling its public commitment to take four thousand, itself derisory; the Department of Justice claim that 870 will be resettled by the end of the year. We may speculate that there is a fear in government circles that they will eventually be ‘punished’ for favouring the foreigner over the indigenous Irish; and perhaps there is a calculation that compassion will easily dissipate in the event of any problematic integration of a predominantly Muslim population.

We might attribute the present moral muddle to a post-modernit world where we have difficulty determining Significance, especially against a background of declining appreciation of the narratives contained in sacred traditions. Insignificance, according to Milan Kundera in his last novel ‘The Festival of Insignificance’, has become “the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters”.

For understandable reasons, many consider religion a dirty word identified with a patriarchy where women’s bodies have emerged as a key battleground. But the philosopher Richard Kearney in his book ‘Anatheism [Returning to God after God]’ (2010) proposes “the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: those polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history”.

Richard Kearney
Richard Kearney

Similarly, as the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer awaited execution in a Nazi concentration camp for his apparent participation in the plot to kill Hitler, he proposed a reformed Christianity after the “Death of God” heralded by Nietzsche, Freud and totalitarianism. He wrote: “The God of religion, of metaphysics and of subjectivity is dead; the place is vacant for the preaching of the cross and for the God of Jesus Christ”. To Kearney: “Christianity thus becomes not an invitation to another world but a call back to this one, a robust and challenging ‘Christianity of this world’, a secular faith that sees the weakness of God as precisely a summons to the rekindled strength of humanity”. This is a call for compassion where we set aside our selfish desires.

Kearney finds in the Abrahamic faiths as well as in Eastern traditions valuable responses to the alien stranger. Thus Jacob sees the face of God in his mortal enemy: “The message is this: the divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received in our midst”. He recalls a Passover prayer: “You shall not oppress a stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt”.

Kearney contends that: “The very fact that the Lord must repeatedly enjoin justice to prevent hatred of the foreign is itself an acknowledgement that initial responses to aliens are more likely to be fear than love”. He acknowledges that “for every Francis of Assisi there is an Inquisition and for every Saint James, a Jim Jones”, but points to the Golden Rule to treat ‘thy neighbour as thyself’ found in almost all faith traditions – which demands hospitality to the outsider.

We may easily wash our hands of responsibility for that alien other. The welcome of an unknown person is surely irrational, or we can imagine the possibility of an encounter with “the divine as exile,” and overcome any fears. Kearney acknowledges, however, that there are “limits to hospitality, at least for finite beings”.

A particular challenge to our hospitality lies in a prevailing distaste for the Islamic faith from which is drawn most of the Syrian exodus, and which has been tainted by association with terrorism, especially after the 9/11 atrocities. Since the 1970s in the Middle East and elsewhere political grievances are often articulated through a resurgent Islam. This is in contrast to Christianity which has faded from politics, at least in Europe, mostly surviving in conservative forms that have little in common with Bonhoeffer’s idea of a “Christianity of this world”, or the early voices of Liberation Theology in Catholicism.

The example of the Prophet Muhammad who began the conquest of an empire is quite different from that of Jesus Christ who demanded that his disciples put down their swords at the critical moment of his arrest. But Christianity also draws on an Old Testament replete with savagery and the wide-ranging Islamic corpus contains many teachings complementary to the New Testament.

Notwithstanding the peaceful sentiments of Jesus Christ, Christianity has been used as an excuse for more slaughter than Islam through history, especially in Central and South America.

All too often religion is used as a tool of power but, conversely, contained in these traditions is the bedrock of our ideas on human rights. As Jonathan Swift put it: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another”. In any faith of note there is surely a kernel of goodness otherwise it would not have won adherents in the first place.

We must decouple religion from power and permit debate and discussion in that sacred space while asserting universal red lines to which we can all subscribe, such as a prohibition on torture.

No less than other traditions Islam has a sense of the sacred stranger. An important saying of the Prophet was that: “Islam began as a stranger, and it will become a stranger. So blessed are those who are strangers”. Some years ago, living in Damascus for a few months I was struck by the value given to hospitality in Syria where the ancient phrase ahlan wa sahlan (“welcome to my home”) greets entry to any establishment.

Rather than identifying the particular values of any religion in a single text, the French sociologist Olivier Roy sees so-called ‘Islamic’ terrorism within the context of Globalisation and not within the fabled Clash of Civilisations imagined by Samuel Huntingdon. In ‘Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah’ (2006) he argues that a sacred book, such as the Koran “is not Napoleon’s Civil Code or an insurance policy, where everything is put in unequivocal terms”.

Roy says the “key question is not what the Koran actually says, but what Muslims say the Koran says”. He proposes that:

“The real genesis of Al Qaeda violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom”.

Perhaps Roy goes a little too far in ignoring scriptural injunctions, but it is a point worth making that so-called Islamic terrorism is a product of its time and there are other peaceful narratives that Kearney points to.

The wider phenomenon of Political Islam has its origins in the failure of the alien model of the nation state in many warring post-colonial societies especially since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, combined with the gross inequalities of rentier states drawing a foreign income from natural resources such as oil. To attribute the appalling spiral of terrorism to something peculiar in the Islamic tradition is historically inaccurate. Terrorism is a copycat disorder that feeds off its own appalling spectacles and it originates in the West.

Since the 1890s terrorism – involving the propaganda of the deed which exploits a media fascination with the macabre – has been employed by alienated individuals representing a wide variety of political credos, beginning with anarchists. The extreme instability we find in Syria/Iraq and at least until recently in Afghanistan gave its execution free reign which has occasionally, and devastatingly, spilt into the West.In Europe while individual attacks have seen far greater loss of life than previous terror campaigns from the IRA and others the outrages have also been less frequent. It usually takes a desperate, damaged and highly marginalised person to commit crimes of the magnitude we have witnessed.

An immigrant is almost by definition attempting to improve his quality of life. The suicidal alienation required for a terrorist act is extremely rare, especially if people see the prospect of their families prospering; there are forty-four million Muslims in Europe many third generation immigrants and even indigenous converts, the overwhelming majority getting on with life. The vast majority of their religious leaders condemn the taking of innocent civilian lives, which is explicitly prohibited in the Koran.

The attractions of Islam to immigrant groups in the form of solidarity and transcendence is obvious. It may be that we in the West actually have something to learn from their sense of community and charity, even if we have serious problems with aspects of their moral teachings particularly on issues like gender and homosexuality. But respectful dialogue can be fruitful. As Kearney puts it: “How can one discover the God of hospitality in one’s own tradition if one is not open to dialogue with others”.

It is also important to situate prevailing attitudes towards Third World immigrants, of whom Muslims are the most numerous in Europe (with Trump-targeted Catholic Latinos more prevalent in the US), in the context of rising inequality under Neoliberalism. Zygmunt Bauman argues that they become scapegoats as long as the real powerbrokers of a Neoliberal Globalisation are untouchable. He claims they are treated as: “waste products of civilisation” in his book ‘Wasted Lives’ (2010). He further contends:

“Refugees and immigrants coming from ‘far away’ yet making a bid to settle in the neighbourhood, are uniquely suitable for the role of the effigy to be burnt as the spectre of ‘global forces’, feared and resented for doing their job without consulting those whom its outcome is bound to affect. After all, asylum-seekers and ‘economic migrants’ are collective replicas (an later ego? fellow traveller? mirror images? caricatures?) of the new power elite of the globalised world, widely (and with reason) suspected to be the true villain of the piece”.

Like that elite, he considers, “they are untied to any place, shifty, unpredictable. Like that elite, they epitomise the unfathomable ‘space of flows’ where the roots of the present-day precariousness of the human condition are sunk. Seeking in vain for other, more adequate outlets, fears and anxieties rub off on targets close to hand and re-emerge as popular resentment and fear of the ‘aliens nearby’. Uncertainty cannot be defused or dispersed in a direct confrontation with the other embodiment of extraterritoriality: the global elite drifting beyond the reach of human control. That elite is much too powerful to be confronted and challenged point-blank, even if its exact location was known (which it is not). Refugees on the other hand, are a clearly visible, and sitting, target for the surplus anguish”.

He adds that they: “bring home distant noises of war and the stench of gutted homes and scorched villages that cannot but remind the settled how easily the cocoon of their safe and familiar (safe because familiar) routine may be pierced or crushed and how deceptive the security of their settlement must be”. Refugees remind us of the cruelty and division in other parts of the world linked to our excessive consumption of oil and other resources.

It remains to be seen whether the wave of sympathy shown by Irish people will rapidly dissipate.

At the heart of this is whether we have the spiritual resources to accommodate the impoverished Stranger.

The Stranger
The Stranger

Generally, rather than identifying with the stories of refugees and other marginalised groups, the consumer of news media in Ireland and elsewhere prefers titillation. News providers draw increasingly on the mundane experiences of the usually privileged writer (the best Irish exemplar is the Irish Times’ Róisín Ingle; “Will I start my Saturday with Fintan O’Toole or Róisín Ingle?”.) reflecting an attraction to confessional and usually light-hearted stories valued primarily for their online hits.

Reflecting this, Brian Boyd reported in the Irish Times (8/8/16) that the “signature assignment” of the US journalism teacher Professor Susan Shapiro is where students confess their most humiliating secret. She does this so they have a chance of selling their work in today’s marketplace. This is a hallmark of her own work: “In December my husband stopped screwing me”, was the opening line of one of her recent articles in the New York Times.

We swipe away humanity’s problems as if on the smart-phone dating application Tinder, proceeding to the next click bait in search of relief from the boredom that assails our waking hours. We sublimate our anger at our own lives or the state of the world by venting it on immigrants, cloaking intolerance with tame excuses: ‘just look at the way they treat gays – why should we accept them into our society’. We use their prejudice as an excuse for our own.

Lurking in the background is that fear of what lies on the horizon. We assume, without really interrogating the matter, that our government will do the right thing, but as Kearney puts it: “The stranger, from beyond the limits of our familiar nation or state, comes to remind us that there is always more to justice than meets our present legal code”. Rather than showing moral leadership most politicians seem to prefer to examine what focus groups are saying and input the data into policy.

We react with lazy emoticons and GIFs to the plight of a dead child on a beach but our intention is soon diverted by a cute shot of a living one. Worryingly Facebook recently adjusted its algorithm for its News Feed to promote posts from friends and family members over posts from publishers, and so recedes the prospect of social media being an agent of social change.

It is worth bearing in mind that our ancestors in Ireland who fled famine and pestilence in the 1840s would not have qualified as refugees. In the United States their presence stimulated the birth of the Know-Nothings, a nativist movement reacting against the emergence of a multicultural America. They attacked the Catholicism of the Irish claiming it was inconsistent with America’s democratic values. Today we attack Islam with the same arguments.

But American society for all its genocidal faults, did hold firm to the ideal of religious tolerance and diversity. The rising inequalities of our Neoliberal Age pose new challenges to that accommodation in the US and Europe while a global religious fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic brooks no diversity. Kearney’s idea of Anatheism – religion after religion denying fundamentalism – proposes that we can still draw inspiration from the challenging ideas contained in the sacred traditions that a Post-Modern assumption of Insignificance belittles.

In the book of Genesis we discover a first exile which may be seen as an allegory for humanity’s departure from nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers (or more accurately scavengers); then arose social hierarchies to preserve the seed and breeding stock imposing great constraints on freedom, including the ubiquitous institution of slavery. In ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton characterises the ensuing alienation from our true wild nature in the endless disputes between Adam and Eve after they succumb to the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge: “Thus they in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning, / And of their vain contest appeared no end”.

Our Original Sin of farming and its attendant despoliation of the Earth’s natural environment, brought a competition for resources that demanded a scapegoat, according to the French philosopher Renée Girard. The rejection of wealth and privilege by Jesus Christ and his ultimate self-sacrifice may be interpreted as a valiant effort to remove the need for such a scapegoat.

We now see a rampant consumerism that increases the need for that scapegoat. Poor immigrant populations are a convenient target. In us all there is a capacity for great compassion and blind greed, but the drift of our post-modernity makes us lose focus on that which is really Significant and the compassion embedded in the sacred traditions ebbs away.

By locating the Divine in the Stranger we overcome a primitive response to an alien Other, freeing ourselves to contemplate societies that accommodate a joyful diversity.


By Frank Armstrong