We are All Immigrants

"A wandering Aramaen was my ancestor. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien." (Deut. 26:1-5)

"Who is my neighbour?" (Luke 10:29-37)

Isobel and I were delighted this week when we heard that our eldest grand-daughter, Thea, had received her Masters degree at the University of the Witwatersrand with a first class pass. What I found particularly interesting is that she wrote her dissertation in a field of study that did not exist just a few years ago. It is called "migration studies", a field of research that is rapidly expanding because human migration has become a major global social and political issue.

Last Thursday evening I watched a debate on the BBC between the leaders of five of the political parties in Britain who are contesting the forthcoming national election. One of the major issues debated was immigration, with the leader of UKIP insisting that the major cause of Britain's woes is the flow of immigrants into the country. Earlier that evening I had watched the Parliamentary debate on the xenophobic attacks in our country. Similar debates are taking place around the world. Of course, human migration has been going on from the beginning of history. There has never been a time when large swathes of people have not been moving across the face of the earth in search of work, food or security. And given the rapidly expanding global population, the scarcity of resources, and scourge of war and violence, the process won't be halted. No wonder everybody is talking about it from Presidents and Prime Ministers to the man and woman on the street.

According to our reading from the Old Testament this morning, when the ancient Israelites were asked to declare their faith in worship when the offering was received, they said: "A wandering Aramaen was my ancestor. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien." Yes, Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam, was a migrant in search of a better place for him and his family to live. So, too, the story of the Exodus is all about the migration of his descendants from Egypt to the Promised Land, and much of the story that follows in the Bible is about how these migrants related to the indigenous population when they settled in Palestine -- a story that continues to this day. In short, much of the Bible has to do with the search for the Promised Land and how to live there amongst strangers when you, as aliens and foreigners, arrive. And don't forget that Jesus and his parents were also migrant refugees in Egypt when they fled the persecution unleashed by Herod.

Yes, the history of the world is to a large degree a history of migrations of people in search of security, food, land, a place to live and flourish. And this process will never cease, certainly not as the world population expands and the need for resources becomes increasingly demanding. You might control immigration with laws and regulations, but you cannot stop migration and immigration. After all, it was colonial powers like Britain, who made Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans citizens of the Empire; Germany that imported Turkish Muslims as guest-workers who would do the tough jobs; and France that colonised North Africa turning Muslim Algerians into French citizens. You cannot turn round and now say, "sorry guys, we should never have colonised you!" It's too late. Former colonial powers have to accept the consequences of their colonial expansion from which they benefitted so immensely. Having taken natural resources at will, they now have to accept the people whose countries they plundered. And, of course, the wealth of South Africa was built on the backs of migratory labourers.

Like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, "First Nation" indigenous people as they are called, the Khoi and San in our context, are now a minority. The rest of us have all come here from somewhere else. My grandparents who settled in South Africa were colonial migrants in search of better opportunities for themselves than they could find in England. And, as recent studies have shown, most of the population in Britain today were, at one time, immigrants! Even the Queen's ancestors came from Germany and France. And moreover, recent immigrants have made an enormous contribution to the well-being of Britain. Where would British cricket and rugby be without some South Africans who have immigrated there! And can you imagine the English Premier Football League without its foreign born players! And probably the majority of church-going Christians in Britain today are black, as is the Archbishop of York!

The root cause of our problems, the one that ignites xenophobia, is not immigration but poverty and unemployment, a lack of housing, decent education, greed, war and political mismanagement. Unregulated immigration may exacerbate these problems, but immigrants are not the problem. There are undoubtedly bad apples amongst them, drug lords and money launderers, but immigrants are people in search of a better life like all of us at one time or another. The tragedy is that those who are most vulnerable often become the scapegoat when things go wrong and so become an easy target for locals to vent out their anger and frustration. The problem will not go away if and when immigrants are forced to go back from where they came. The process will continue. What is required is for all of us to learn how to live in "the Promised Land" with people who are different from you. Which, as I have said, is at the centre of the Biblical narrative.

In listening to a radio discussion on the outbreak of xenophobia I was pleased to hear one of the Zulu leaders in KZN say that he had gone to church last Sunday and heard a sermon on Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. This, he said, speaks to our situation. How right he was, and his pastor is to be congratulated on his sermon. Jesus also lived at a time when people would have nothing to do with foreigners. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan he was challenging those who regard the Samaritans as inferior, he was questioning the stereotypes people had of others, and making them the scapegoats for all their ills. The point of the story is, of course, that it was a foreigner who came to the aid of the Jew who had been robbed and beaten, not his fellow countrymen, even the most religious.

If the outbreak of xenophobia teaches us anything, it is that when people lose respect for those who are different, treating others as less human than themselves, it is but a step or two away from turning them again into victims of violence, and even a step towards genocide. "Who is our neighbour?" Jesus asks us. Well, who do you think is your neighbour? Not just someone like you, but often someone who is quite different from you. He or she is your neighbour, says Jesus, and we should learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. After all, how would you like to be treated if you were an immigrant or refugee? Let us never forget that we are all immigrants and that our father in faith was a "wandering Aramaen!"

(John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus.)