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Welcoming the stranger — a counterpoint to violence

AS THE NUMBERS of people fleeing violence and war in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East swell beyond what may have been imagined even six weeks ago, Pope Francis has asked every parish and religious house in Europe to adopt a refugee family.

He has also led the way by inviting one family from Syria to settle in the Vatican.

While in terms of the sheer numbers, the pope’s gesture is symbolic, it is an important gesture in heightening the awareness among both European people and communities throughout the world of the desperate need, as well as of the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger in need.

But over and above that, as nations scurry to congratulate themselves on bombs dropped on the Islamic State, mostly it seems to little effect, it is a papal reminder that hospitality to the stranger is a far stronger challenge to the forces of violence than even a few well-placed explosives.

As Reverend Bruce Kaye noted in his parish in Sydney’s upmarket Vaucluse, “Our ability to show love and mercy and provide a warm welcome to anyone in distress, regardless of their faith, ethnic origin or colour, must serve as a counterpoint to the Islamic State. Our response needs to be immediate, generous and unquestioning.”

The act of Christian hospitality has its roots in the Old Testament, spelled out in Deuteronomy. The host was obliged to provide food and protection and could not openly question a stranger asking for shelter.

Symbolically, the host welcomed the stranger by washing their feet.

In 24:17-18, Deuteronomy says, “You shall not deprive an alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”

Jesus crystalised this message in his parable of the Good Samaritan, where a complacency that trumps moral fibre is condemned and indiscriminate compassion lauded.

This is one of the hard messages of Jesus. One that is not oblique, but abundantly clear.

The only Christian choice in the current crisis lies at one end of these two extremes and the simple gesture of the pope is pointing to the only option open to the Christian.

But this is not a limit on hospitality, nor an indication that adopting one family may satiate obligation. However, what Pope Francis is saying is that every Christian and every Christian community needs to look at what can be contributed and search for concrete ways to do it to the full.

The centrally defining liturgy of what it means to be Christian occurs each year on Holy Thursday with the washing of the feet. During this celebration, Christians re-enact the concrete example of Jesus. It is a prelude to Eucharist, the only way to approach the table of the Lord.

In the Old Testament, this was the first act of welcoming a stranger. The papal gesture is also the first act of welcome, but not the last, and it embraces the challenge of the Good Samaritan as a counterpoint to the violence of the Islamic State. JiM