Ever since the Enlightenment, the question of whether spirituality is a necessary or even viable aspect of social life has been raised. Faith, understood as a set of beliefs in more or less authoritarian rules imposed from above, has met with increasing suspicion. In a world in which the rights of individuals and democratic social systems were evolving, religious systems seemed to be backward-looking obstacles to the progress of western nations. At the same time, religious systems often supported the colonial and imperial ambitions of western states. They mirrored the construction of the world in terms of ‘the west vs. the rest’, by propagating a world view based on the division of the world into a Christian and a non-Christian sphere.
The strength of the legacy of such a cultural epistemology can be seen in the frequent attempts on the part of theologians and politicians to argue for the protection of a ‘Christian Occident’ or a ‘Christian Europe’. An extreme example of such a mindset was the campaign of the Austrian Freedom Party during the run-up to elections in 2013. All over the country, large billboards broadcast the blue-eyed leader of the party in friendly conversation with healthy people of light skin colour, with accompanying text reading: ‘Love your neighbour. For me this means our Austrians’. Notwithstanding protests by mainstream Christian churches in Austria, the Freedom Party garnered almost a quarter of the votes of the Austrian people. Obviously, for this party known for its aggressively xenophobic campaigning, the trick of ‘positive’ advertising had been successful. The implication seems to be: what is wrong with loving our Austrians? There is nothing wrong with protecting a Christian inside from the migrating non-Christians flooding Europe from the outside.
From a theological point of view, of course, this logic is utterly flawed with respect to the key text on neighbourly love in the New Testament. The parable of the Good Samaritan is still known, I believe, by large portions of the secularized European population. It may still belong to Europe’s ‘Christian heritage’, but it most decidedly is not a story that is attached to one particular religion. It is the story Jesus tells an interlocutor who had asked the question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The story ends with two surprises: firstly, the person who shows neighbourly love is a migrating foreigner, a hated Samaritan passing through Jewish territory. Secondly, it is not the person rightly inhabiting the homeland, but rather this migrating foreigner, who extends a helping hand. The theological outcome is ambiguous. One aspect, however, can be summarized by saying that neighbourly love materializes not just by providing support to the outsiders, but, importantly, by acknowledging the agency of these outsiders in order to be helped by them. Thus, theologically speaking, to restrict neighbourly love to ‘our Austrians’ is to distort the parable recounted by the ancient Greek writer of Luke’s Gospel.
Religious systems, including Christian missionary activities through the ages, have been misused to deny the agency of the ‘other’. However, using the parable of the Good Samaritan as a point of departure, I would say that a grounded spirituality brings together an expectation of the agency both of the divine and of the human ‘other’. In the case of the Good Samaritan, this ‘other’ was a migrant. Such spirituality has political implications. If a political system takes seriously the notion that the sedentary view is not necessarily the view that best serves the common good, a new openness may emerge towards the multiple ways in which a migrant’s perspective can help to shape a society to be a more constructive part of the global village. A society that continues to understand its relation to migrating people as a matter of unilateral adaptation to an (often fictitious) sedentary culture is missing out on an indispensible political resource: the perceptive quality of the migrant’s vision. After all, as Homi Bhabha (1994) has said in reference to Salman Rushdie’s work, ‘the truest eye may now belong to the migrant’s double vision’.
A spirituality of migration has less to do with ‘being nice to refugees’, and more to do with an awareness that spirituality itself has a migratory character. Taking clues from the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is a spirituality that continuously is prepared to travel, so to speak, into the contact zones between cultures. And in contrast to all attempts of religious empire-building through the ages, it knows that it does not have a ‘permanent dwelling’ in the world, but is looking for a ‘future dwelling place’, as the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament has it. This future dwelling, however, is not to be imagined just as a lofty realm beyond social coexistence. Rather, I understand the imagining of a more just dwelling as a process that is simultaneously spiritual and political. And it needs migrants’ perspectives in order to be inclusive.
Benhabib, S. (2004) The Rights of Others. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge.
Groody, D. G. and Campese, G. (eds.) (2008) A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.