The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
PMI Director Zaza Lima analyses the refugee crisis from a biblical perspective. “We run the risk of having a theology of consumption, which avoids pain”.
From Brazil to Tunisia, through Asia, Morocco, Uganda, or Germany. The passport of Zaza Lima has many pictures, but the most beautiful memories have to with people she has met in all these countries.
Clinical psychologist, theologian and international Director of PMI International - a ministry which works with Muslims - she has spent 17 years in North Africa, where she was in touch with people in vulnerable situations, far from their homes and in need of refuge.
Lima confesses that the turnaround in Europe regarding the management of its borders scares her, but she believes there are still opportunities to reverse the situation.
We experience “a crisis of humanity”, she says. “Perhaps we have much to learn from a theology in which the church does not victimize itself in its suffering but welcomes it as part of its nature”.
Question. In the last years, much has been said about refugees and migratory movements. Where are we now?
Answer. Although all cultures have been formed through immigration, and that is something we cannot forget, today there is a very large polarization. We reject what is different.
That is painful. There is much fear among cultures, and there is a policy of rejection of immigrants and refugees. There are even many prejudices only in language.
When someone leaves their country, some call them 'expatriates', while others call them 'refugees'. Being a refugee is not an identity of the person, but a moment in life. It is a person in a situation of need of refuge. You have to define the person based on their identity as a person, based on their humanity, and not grant them temporality. That is what we share, humanity.
The crisis we are experiencing today is not a crisis here or there, but a crisis of humanity, and we must face it from our shared humanity, from our shared dignity.
I speak as a disciple of Christ, based on the conviction that we all carry the imago Dei, the image of God in our identity.
I think that in Europe, we could have made more progress in the way we welcome and receive people from other countries which today go through a very difficult and complex historical moment.
Many Europeans left more than 500 years ago to other places to build civilizations (many at the price of blood) and this should lead us to reflect more humblly.
There have been some governments and communities with a welcoming attitude, that have participated in what is happening in the world, its wars and its genocides. But many times we keep silent on the pain, even though there is hope. We take steps forward and then back off.
Italy used to host and launch pilot projects, and suddenly it moves to an aggressive attitude, closing borders. The European governmental and political forces, as well as the citizens, need to have more humility and sensitivity towards the reality of the nations that are suffering today.
Q. Talinkg about Italy. What happens when a government denies permission to an NGO to land hundreds of people who have been rescued?
A. We should not propose that there is no need to order receptions well. And we must not be naive when it comes to welcoming people, thinking that something like this has no complexity. It is a complex issue. We do not want to make it look simple. But I think there are ways to welcome people without closing the ports.
We are first affected in our identity, because we have an identity in the image of God shared with each person, which must be respected, protected and loved. One's dignity needs to be reaffirmed. Therefore, based on our identity, our values, we are already affected.
In a more practical way, we are also affected because the people we meet are suffering. They tell us their stories and also listen to ours. I'm not talking about a welfare look, but a dignifying one.
It also affects us, because, althought there has been progress in Human Rights, in some civil liberties, in some laws, we are still constantly confronted with realities of cruelty.
It affects us because they are friends, people we appreciate. There are many myths that need to be deconstructed. We have to have a more human and dignified look.
Q. How do we solve all that?
A. I have no answers, but I know that rejection is not the answer. Many people come from other countries with their own proffesion, and we must learn how to include them.
Create spaces, not only for a welfare assistance, but also to develop their gifts, so that they can contribute to society. We can also get involved in the reconstruction of the countries of origin, for example Syria. We must remember that many people leave their homes forced.
Everything we have, as nations and countries, is the fruit of God's love and generosity and, therefore, we must share it.
I believe that the wealth of a nation is knowing how to share. Its diversity. We must find ways to achieve that beauty of diversity, as well as dealing with the fears that we have.
Q. But do not you have a sense of helplessness knowing that there are external factors?
A. Yes, that feeling exists. But you have to have a prophetic voice, and that voice is of resistance. In the Bible, prophetic voices often emerge from marginalization.
It is interesting to see how the Spirit of God leaves the temple and goes to the captives, to the refugees. That prophetic voice needs to be heard, even when it is as weak as it so often happens.
Additionally, all of this must be put in the perspective of God's sovereignty. A God who loves refugees and immigrants. The biblical journey shows us a compassionate God who is always inviting us to love the foreigner who is among us.
Identified with Jesus, who resisted until the end, we are also invited to resist. A peaceful resistance, but one that does not let itself be overcome by circumstances.
And also a hope, because there are many people who want to do the right. A remnant that embodies that prophetic voice and has to keep making noise, in spite of everything.
Q. We frequently base our opinions about people on stereotypes. How can we avoid generalizations?
A. I remember that Tunisia showed enormous solidarity after its last revolution, in 2011, welcoming many people who came from the war in Libya. I was in the south of the country and every day a line of 15,000 people arrived.
Food and tea were prepared and shared. There was no 'them' and 'us', but our humanity, each with their stories and dilemmas.
Everything was shared, understanding that people were leaving because of a circumstance and that they were not just refugees, but above all, people with dignity and worth.
Therefore, I think we have to change our look and walk towards the encounter that will help us not to put all the people in a small box, but give them the opportunity to get out of there and show a beauty, such a great humanity.
The question that arises is who are they, but perhaps the question should be who are we. Or what we do. What answers we seek, what values we express.
This is what will speak about us and our willingness to identify with Jesus in both the death and resurrection.
I have learned a lot from people in need. I have seen a great capacity for forgiveness in people who have lost their families and their belongings. That is why I believe that we must open the borders and discover more worthy ways of welcoming people to change this reality.
Q. Why do you think that not the whole church sees it in the same way?
A. In part, because of our theology. We have a protectionist, maintenance theology. I believe that it is more necessary to read the gospels and identify ourselves with Jesus. The church of Christ is not inward, but outward.
The vision that has been created of being an inward church, has brought us the perspective of closing ourselves, of taking care of ourselves, of protecting ourselves, when in reality Jesus calls us to go out, to look at the stars, to bless the nations. It is the call to Abraham. It is the call to look at the stars, and the stars do not look better here than in the refugee camps, what's more, there the sky is clearer there.
Jesus has always invited us to take risks but today we think about protecting ourselves and keeping our borders. Our communities must be transformative, involving, embracing, welcoming. Churches that are therapeutic, health and celebration communities.
We must look to Christ and not settle for a theology that puts us in a protected place, as an institution empty of life and love. It is a call to revisit the gospel and look at it from the perspective of Jesus.
Our way of reading the Bible needs to be challenged with humility in our meeting places. The gospel always invites us to take another step towards the cross and not towards our comfort zone. We have to review that perspective.
Q. I had never heard before about a theological dimension of the migration crisis.
A. We run the risk of having a theology of consumption, which avoids pain. Perhaps we have much to learn from a theology in which the church does not victimize itself in its suffering but welcomes it as part of its nature.
Suffering is part of the way to the cross. Jesus has called us to be part of his suffering.
We have to start with that prophetic voice, here and there, a deeper reflection. We want to protect God, but He does not need it, because He exposed himself to death.