That they may have life Part II

Erin Wilson on what role the Church should take in caring for asylum seekers.

In this two part article, Erin Wilson examines the Australian Government's approach to ayslum seekers and considers the role the church should play in caring for those fleeing persecution. You can find the first part here.

The secular state and asylum

The secular state as the prevailing mode of political belonging is the foundation of the current international asylum and human rights systems (for the two are inextricably connected). In large part owing to the dominance of realist International Relations theory, the logic of the secular state focuses on shortages and competition, “defending the national interest” against threats, known and unknown, to its survival. What then occurs is that the lives of those who belong to the nation-state become more valuable than the lives of those who do not. This is fine when every person is a member of one nation-state or another and when that nation-state upholds its duty to defend and protect the rights of its citizens. But when the state is unable or unwilling to provide that protection, or when a person does not belong to any state, the ethical shortcomings of secular state-based logic become painfully apparent. In this formulation, a life is only valuable when it is tied to a state. Outside of the nation-state, a life has no value, or at least, no state is prepared to claim responsibility for a life that does not belong.1 As Hannah Arendt has shown, this reality suggests that the secular notion of natural, innate, universal human rights accorded to every human being purely by virtue of being human is a fallacy. “Equality… is not given to us,” she wrote, “but is the result of human organization… We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.”2

The introduction of international law, particularly human rights and refugee law, has done much to foster this mutual agreement beyond the state, promoting a sense of global cosmopolitan citizenship and responsibility, in particular the idea that life has value simply by virtue of membership of humanity. Yet the daily realities of asylum politics, as most recently demonstrated by the Australian case, is that state-based exclusionary logic still dominates. If anything, the state has become, or is endeavouring to become, stronger. Life still only has value if it is tied to a state. If people do not belong and we cannot see them, then their life does not matter. It is as though they don’t exist.

The issue of asylum and protection is incredibly complex and there are numerous domestic and geo-political factors that impact on who is offered protection, when and why. States and those that govern them must balance the needs and priorities of their population (especially in democratic states) with their international responsibilities, the demands of geo-strategic alliances in trade and security along with a myriad of other factors. As such, the capacity of the state to offer asylum and protection and the manner in which this is done is invariably hampered by both material and ideological factors.

Christianity and Asylum

There are few institutions or organisations that have the capacity or authority to intervene against the power of the state on behalf of individuals and vulnerable communities in contemporary politics. Yet the moral authority which many religions possess, particularly the Christian churches in many developed countries, their nominal independence from political authorities, coupled with their commitment to faithful hospitality to the stranger,3 at least opens up the possibility that religious actors can in some way offset the harsh responses of states, provide greater protection and welcome to stateless persons and asylum seekers and even generate proposals for alternative forms of governance that bridge the gap between the state and the stateless.4

There are numerous examples of Christian organisations doing just that. Churches in the US during the 1980s directly violated US immigration law by providing sanctuary to asylum seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala deemed to be illegal immigrants by US authorities. Numerous churches in the UK have worked with 14 communities to declare their cities, including London, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bradford, ‘cities of sanctuary’ for asylum seekers,5 with similar initiatives being undertaken by churches in Switzerland.6 Baptcare and the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, amongst others, offer similar asylum and sanctuary services in Australia. Another older, famous example is the Huguenot community in Le Chambon, France, who sheltered Jewish refugees during World War Two.7 In Germany, the Asyl in der Kirche (Asylum in the church) network emerged unofficially in the early 1980s in response to German government attempts to deport Kurdish and Lebanese asylum seekers, despite the unrest that existed in their respective homelands, with individual parishes offering asylum.8 As more parishes developed church asylum policies and procedures, a formal organisation was established in the early 1990s, around the same time as the right to asylum in Germany became significantly reduced.9 The movement has continued to grow and expand, with a now European-wide sanctuary movement.10

There are two key theological arguments that often underpin the work of organisations offering hospitality to asylum seekers. The first of these is God’s love for the whole of humanity. Timothy Keller has argued that it is the transformative power of God’s grace that inspires (or should inspire) Christians to pursue justice on behalf of the poor, oppressed and vulnerable.11 The second argument is the sacredness of the human being.12 Every human being is believed to be marked with the image of God, establishing ‘a fundamental dignity and value that cannot be undermined’.13 Elie Wiesel emphasises the same belief within the Jewish tradition – ‘Any human being is a sanctuary. Every human being is the dwelling of God – man or woman or child, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist. Any person, by virtue of being a son or daughter of humanity, is a living sanctuary whom nobody has the right to invade’.14 These views provide grounding for the universality of human rights that goes beyond the immanent frame of nation-states and is embedded in more transcendental, eternal perspectives. Yet also, they offer additional reasons why religious believers should agree to accord one another dignity and equality – because of their belief in the eternal consequences of such actions, that the lives we live now matter for the future, in both the immanent and the transcendent realms.

While we must remember that Christianity, along with other world religions, has often been used as a tool to justify the persecution and exclusion of certain groups of people, Christianity also contains powerful conceptions of what it means to be human, the value that is inherent in every human life as a result of its connection with the divine, not simply because it is legally attached to a particular group or territory governed by a particular authority. Christianity reminds us that every human life has value, regardless of where it is and whether we can see it or not. The rich traditions of hospitality to the stranger and alternative modes of belonging in the world’s religions have much to contribute to the urgent task of rethinking global governance structures of asylum and protection and the value of life inherent in those structures.

Erin Wilson is a CPX Fellow and the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.

1. H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1958), pp268-9
2. H. Arendt, Origins, p301
3. E.K. Wilson, “Be Welcome: Religion, Hospitality and Statelessness in International Politics” in G. Baker (ed). Hospitality and World Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp145-171
4. I recognise that not all religious authorities or organisations are independent from state authorities, particularly in many Islamic countries where the two are essentially the one entity. I am particularly focused here on the resettlement context of Western/developed states in global politics, where the separation of church and state is largely accepted and part of broader social structures. How neat that separation may be is open to question, but for now, I assume that religious institutions and organisations possess a level of independence and autonomy from state authorities.
5. City of Sanctuary, ‘Who is involved?’ City of Sanctuary Accessed 30 June, 2010
6. C. B. Ecoffey. ‘Asylum in Switzerland: A Challenge for the Churches’, University of Manchester Masters Dissertation. Available at Accessed 16 June 2010.
7. Hallie, ‘From cruelty to goodness’, 26
8. I. I. Koop. ‘Refugees in Church Asylum: Intervention Between Political Conflict and Individual Suffering’, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology vol. 11, no. 3 (2005), 355-6; Mittermaier, ‘Church Asylum in Germany’, 3-4
9. Mittermaier, ‘Church Asylum in Germany’, 4
10. Conference of European Churches, ‘European Churches Responding to Migratio’, (2010) Accessed 30 June 2010.
11. T. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, New York: Hodder and Stoughton (2010)
12. Pohl, ‘Responding to Strangers’, 86
13. Pohl, ‘Responding to Strangers’, 86; See also J. D. Carlson, ‘Trials, Tribunals and Tribulations of Sovereignty: Crimes Against Humanity and the imago Dei’, in J. D. Carlson and E. C. Owens (eds). The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press (2003), pp199-200; M. J. Erickson, Christian Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books (1998), p518.
14. Wiesel, ‘The Refugee’, p9