This is a synopsis of the keynote address given by Professor Esther Reed [University of Exeter] at our “Faith and Frontiers” Conference on 05 November 2016.
It is important to recall, as Bonhoeffer undoubtedly did, that Jesus and his family crossed borders to seek refuge in Egypt from Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Since the time of the Roman Empire, the establishment of ‘nation-states’ has made border-crossing a much more complex and sensitive issue for all who seek refuge from persecution in our own day. On the one hand, there was the case for the authority of the state to govern – and on the other, the right of every human being to justice, peace and freedom to seek refuge abroad when faced with persecution and peril in the land of their birth.
From Augustine in the fifth century onwards, christians have struggled to reconcile the authority of the state with the rights of those fleeing persecution to seek and obtain sanctuary. That debate was there for Bonhoeffer when the Confessing Church faced the Jewish Question in Germany in the 1930s. However Bonhoeffer concluded that the church’s freedom in such matters could not be absolute. As he put it, writing on The Jewish Question:
‘The church cannot primarily take direct political action, since it does not presume to know how things should go historically. Even on the Jewish question today, the church cannot contradict the state directly and demand that it take any particular course of action’
So what should be our approach to the vexed question of frontiers today?
If some, like the philosopher Agamben, advocate a radically anarchical ‘no borders’ approach, yet others opt for the ‘difficult middle way’ between completely free movement and handing absolute freedom to governments to keep order and control. Such a middle way was adopted in the UN’s International Convention on Human Rights, signed in 1951, after a decade or more when millions trudged across Europe seeking asylum, so as to keep borders open to allow refugees to flee war and violence on the grounds that they are suffering human beings. Despite many questions for today of how such an agreement is to be monitored and managed – and underlying them, who should now be seen as refugees, it remains about as strong a working agreement as can be negotiated and broadly supported.
It was here that Bonhoeffer argued that the church must be responsible for holding the state to account where such basic human rights issues were concerned – and he strove to exercise that responsibility in Germany before and during WW2. However today an approach is needed that is local, international and transnational. In our modern world the church must be ready to carry out its responsibility on a global as well as local scale. Its message and mission must transcend religious and cultural differences, speaking out fearlessly for justice and peace, welcoming the persecuted strangers who seek food and shelter from conflict and famine – and sharing with them what it can to meet their needs.
In so doing, Christians proclaim the Lordship of Christ, He who was once Himself a refugee