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Pope Francis, Refugees, and the Big Levitical Beach Party

Pope Francis, Refugees, and the Big Levitical Beach Party September 8, 2015

What irks me most about the guy is his grin, which is roguish, the mark of a born schmoozer. In my world, if you’re a Somali refugee and you want me to give you a cigarette or buy you something from the Circle K, your job is to appeal to the better angels of my nature by looking abject or stoical. Either one will do; I’m not picky. But affecting an Errol Flynn smirk is out of order. If you’re going to schmooze me, Errol Flynn-style, out of your next nic fix or Cheddarwurst hot dog, who does that make me, the schmoozee? Olivia de Haviland? In my own damn county?

I visit the nearest Circle K twice daily – once in the morning, once in the evening. About half of the time, my simpering incubus will be sitting on the shaded bench by the bus stop. “Hey, buddy,” he’ll call out. Either I’ll stomp over to take his order or – just as likely – stomp past him through a puddle of invisible guilt.

Few refugees from any country are nearly as feckless as Hot Dog Man. Feeding him isn’t exactly in the same league as being scourged at the pillar. Still, after so much soapboxing on behalf of Angela Merkel’s noble – and, I maintain, just – efforts to settle the refugees now making their way into Europe, it seems fair to reflect that playing host can be a bit of a headache.

By their very nature, newcomers disrupt routine, introduce an element of the unknown. They threaten the existing social fabric to a greater or lesser degree. When they arrive destitute and in waves, that degree tends to be greater. The Catechism of the Catholic Church strikes a sensible balance on the subject, recognizing the difficulties involved in population transfers and imposing reciprocal obligations on all parties:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens (2241).

But in the pastoral letter issued this spring to mark the 101st Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis seems to have landed hard on the migrants’ side of the teeter-totter:

In fact, in an age of such vast movements of migration, large numbers of people are leaving their homelands, with a suitcase full of fears and desires, to undertake a hopeful and dangerous trip in search of more humane living conditions. Often, however, such migration gives rise to suspicion and hostility, even in ecclesial communities, prior to any knowledge of the migrants’ lives or their stories of persecution and destitution.

It might be apples and oranges to quote this alongside the Catechism. Francis isn’t defining or parsing Church doctrine so much as commenting on it. Given the occasion, we should expect his commentary to favor the migrants. The emotive language and imagery – “suitcase full of fears and desires” – are what makes Francis, Francis. But as long as the pontiff insisted on reading “suspicion” and “prejudice” in natives’ minds, he might also have conceded that these could have some reasonable grounds. It would have helped distinguish them from bigotry and xenophobia.

Francis goes on, quoting himself, in part, from the previous year’s Day of Migrants and Refugees:

The multicultural character of society today, for that matter, encourages the Church to take on new commitments of solidarity, communion and evangelization. Migration movements, in fact, call us to deepen and strengthen the values needed to guarantee peaceful coexistence between persons and cultures. Achieving mere tolerance that respects diversity and ways of sharing between different backgrounds and cultures is not sufficient. This is precisely where the Church contributes to overcoming frontiers and encouraging the “moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization … towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”

This is bold. This is visionary. Not only does the Holy Father take “the multicultural character of society” for granted, he seems to be all in favor of making societies more diverse precisely because he believes that will make better Christians of us all. “Frontiers” are obstacles to overcome on the way to creating bonds as catholic as the Catholic Church. When I try to imagine Francis’ end game, I picture a teeming, everlasting World Youth Day – on the beach.

The Pope isn’t making this up out of whole cloth. In Leviticus – which has to do with a lot more than shellfish and *Ahem* – God commands the Jews: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” A Jewish friend has pointed out to me that this commandment is repeated 36 times over the course of the Old Testament – more often than any other.

And yet it would be a relief to see lip service paid to stability, continuity, a sense of ownership – all the intangibles that make societies work. When strangers sojourn permanently, interests clash and divisions arise that can’t wholly be put down to the “defensiveness” and “indifference” of the people they’re sojourning among. Lately, those less sanguine about the long-term effects for Europe of admitting so many refugees have been citing Submission, Michel Houllebecq’s novel describing France’s domination by a Muslim party. Without reading it as prophecy, or singling out Muslims as uniquely thirsty for power, it’s obvious, from a quick look at the rise of identity politics here and in Europe, that we can expect a lot of brawling on Francis’ beach.

But at least the pope is leading by example, calling on every parish, monastery, and religious community in Europe to shelter at least one refugee family. Two families will be pitching their tents in Vatican City itself. Peter Hitchens may be rightly skeptical of the UK’s “posturing notables simpering ‘refugees welcome,’” but Christ’s vicar doesn’t know the meaning of “Not in my backyard.”

There may, finally, be no easy way to reconcile the Biblical imperative to show mercy for its own sake and sober, grown-up worries over the ultimate consequences. And, perhaps, there’s less need than nervous nellies would have us believe. As a Syrian friend of mine reminded me last week on Facebook, “Syrians don’t generally want financial help or shelter as temporary solutions they simply want to stop this killing machine…Really, man, there’s nothing like home.” Living life as a transplant is not a proposition that appeals to everyone.

But Hot Dog Man remains — as an individual, and as a not-quite-worst-case scenario for human migration. As long as he sticks around my neighborhood, I have to be merciful. The last time I saw him, he was sitting with two friends. One was his countryman, the other was mine. Relieved that the native bums hadn’t been run completely out of business, I bought hot dogs for all of them. When I brought back the franks in their paper trays, I apologized for serving them dry – the dispenser was out of mustard.

Hot Dog Man looked up, and with that insolent grin of his, said, “You could have put cheese on it.”

Pray Pope Francis doesn’t distribute pamphlets to newcomers containing Matthew 5:41.


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