“Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, not the jug of oil run dry, until the day the the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’”
1 Kings 17:13-14
Some philosophers feel that one of the most basic of human dispositions is anxiety. To live with an awareness that our own life and the life of all will end is inherently conflictual for us. We arrive into the world as helpless and needing to be totally cared for, and then we mature into a personality that lives the illusion of independence and autonomy. Yet, someplace in us, we know the truth of our vulnerability, and that intuition evokes anxiety in us.
We, therefore, imagine a time when human beings were not so schizoid. When we lived with a certain integrity and so did not know shame and death. In Eden we were at one with all of creation and the creator and so realized the truth that God would provide and that we had all we could and would ever need. We once walked with God and so lived continually in a state of faith, hope, and love.
As we read today from 1 Kings, we are told of the great drought and famine that has swept over the land. Where Elijah has been hiding, there is no water or food. So, he is told by the Lord to go and stay at Zarephath and to stay with a widow and her son who are there. When he arrives, however, she tells him that she has left only a handful of flour and a little oil. Her intention is to use it to make something for herself and her son, and then to await death to come and overtake them. Elijah tells her to go ahead and make the little cake, but to give it to him. Then he promises that the flour will not go empty nor the jug run dry.
This morning, I received an email quoting Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. “The only thing that lasts is what is shared with others.” As we see in the gospels when Jesus feeds the five thousand, when we share with others there is abundance where we perceive scarcity. It is our anxiety about our lives that leads us to misperceive the very reality of the earth from a selfish point of view. We tend to fear, as the disciples, that if we give what we have away there will not be enough for both ourselves and the others.
What exactly is our current obsession in the United States with the supposed threat that refugees fleeing persecution and want present to us? How are we so unable to see that their situation is largely the result of the greed of our country and its corporations and of the violence which we inflicted on those countries in service of that greed? What makes any of us human beings greedy and unwilling to share in the first place? It is our anxiety about our lives. It is the misperception caused by that anxiety that has us convinced that if we share there will not be enough for “them” and “ourselves.”
In the early 1960’s our then president, John F. Kennedy, although hardly a perfect person, had a vision of the young people of the United States being an army of service, who, by their presence throughout the world, especially in situations of great need, would foster peace by sharing their lives and their works with others. Today, close to a majority of the American population, by witness of their vote, has no wider vision than “America First.” We not only fear but grow increasingly aggressive in our refusal to even receive, let alone truly welcome, those in need who are fleeing for refuge.
For many years I suffered personally from a mild anxiety disorder, if there is any such thing as mild anxiety. As any such sufferer can attest, the more that one focuses on the anxiety and its effects, the worse one gets. The more self-obsessed and self-contained we become, the more fearful we feel and the more symptoms, including panic attacks, we suffer. So too with a people in general. The more we are driven by a fabricated sense of scarcity and victimization, the more inhospitable and violent we become. And those dispositions do not stop with their first victims, bur rather they begin to seek now ones. In today’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg writes a cautionary tale entitled “First They Came for the Migrants.” She reminds us that as fear and anxiety become the prevalent forces in a culture, their targets will continue to expand.
The deep truth embedded in the story of Elijah and the Widow is that hospitality is more than a “virtue” we are to superimpose on our lives. It is rather the only true response to our human condition. The truth is we are one among the many who together constitute the whole. So deeply structured in us is the truth that we are well to the degree we are all well and ill to the degree that any of us suffer, that the only way we are able to experience being cared for is by caring for others. The jar does not go empty nor the jug go dry because they hold it in common, because they are caring for each other.
It is our anxious form of life that gives rise to the illusion that others are a threat to us because there is not enough for both us and them. We have come to believe in our inalienable right to private property and so judge our well being and security on how much we possess that is ours alone. Yet, as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the man who builds more barns to store his grain, not only our property but our lives are not our own.
In his Message for the World Day of Migrants, Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict as pointing out that the personal safety of another must always be prioritized over so-called “national security.” In her New York Times piece, Michelle Goldberg relates that “Just last week, we learned that a teenager from Iowa who had lived in America since he was 3 was killed shortly after his forced return to Mexico.” Certain news outlets in the United States continue to bombard their listeners and viewers with the government propaganda that somehow the “national security” of the country is endangered by the presence of young people such as this teenager. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict make clear, however, that even were there a glimmer of truth in such a position, the values are not equal. The personal safety of a single person always has priority over the vague concept of “national security.” The reason for this is based on the “seamless garment” of the Church’s value of human life over all other values. For the Christian the young teenager’s life is of ultimate value, unable, as with the unborn, the sick, or the elderly, to be compromised for the sake of other “social” values.
As when we are individually driven by anxiety and so close in ever more upon ourselves our anxiety and fear only increases, so too with us as communities and nations. It seems that the more we as Americans spend on arms and defense, the more insecure we become. The more that insecurity, possessiveness and greed become the source of our actions, the more anxious we feel. The call to hospitality and the reverence of the life of every human person is an extraordinary challenge to American Christians at this time. It may be fair to say that the Church is in particular crisis in our time. Having become fully integrated into American society, we now are faced with a crisis of values. Has the gospel been, to a far too significant degree, superseded in us by the values of our culture? It can seem that we devote more energy to asserting our right to our own so-called religious freedom (which seems at times more to mean religious dominance) than to countering the cruelty and sinfulness of our government’s policies. Are we more concerned with preserving our place and our institutional status at the societal center than being on the margins where we are called to be?
There was, perhaps, a deep spiritual vision in the creation of the Peace Corps, whatever its structural failings. In its appeal to individual Americans to offer their lives and their time for the good of others around the world, it echoed the call of the Scriptures and of the wisdom traditions throughout the ages to each of us. “The only thing that lasts is what is shared with others.”
Considering the current situation, welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally. This calls for a concrete commitment to increase and simplify the process for granting humanitarian visas and for reunifying families. At the same time, I hope that a greater number of countries will adopt private and community sponsorship programmes, and open humanitarian corridors for particularly vulnerable refugees. Furthermore, special temporary visas should be granted to people fleeing conflicts in neighbouring countries. Collective and arbitrary expulsions of migrants and refugees are not suitable solutions, particularly where people are returned to countries which cannot guarantee respect for human dignity and fundamental rights. Once again, I want to emphasise the importance of offering migrants and refugees adequate and dignified initial accommodation. “More widespread programmes of welcome, already initiated in different places, seem to favour a personal encounter and allow for greater quality of service and increased guarantees of success”. The principle of the centrality of the human person, firmly stated by my beloved Predecessor, Benedict XVI, obliges us to always prioritise personal safety over national security. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure that agents in charge of border control are properly trained. The situation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees requires that they be guaranteed personal safety and access to basic services. For the sake of the fundamental dignity of every human person, we must strive to find alternative solutions to detention for those who enter a country without authorisation.
Pope Francis, Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018