Norms in Religious Traditions for Response to the Displaced

By: David Hollenbach

January 11, 2023

The major religious traditions make normative claims upon their adherents to assist refugees. Understanding the role of religion in relation to forced migration thus calls us to appreciate these claims. It is certainly true that religious communities do not always respond adequately to the normative requirements of their traditions and that these traditions contain some stances that we see as unacceptable today. However, a 2012 UNHCR consultation with faith leaders concluded that faith communities play important roles in protecting asylum seekers, refugees, the internally displaced, and stateless people. The high commissioner called for the deepening of what he called “faith literacy” among all those engaged in work with the displaced. Therefore, it is useful to highlight some of the normative stances toward the displaced contained in religious traditions (see Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees for more on this topic).

​Common Creation and Common Dignity

Christianity and Judaism proclaim that every person has been created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). This doctrine of common creation affirms the dignity of every person, which reaches across all man-made boundaries, including those of nation-states. Such boundaries should never override the respect due to a human being. The Quran similarly affirms that the human race was created by Allah as ummah wahida, “one community” (2:213). Muslims therefore have the responsibility to work to maintain this human unity. For Hindus, dharma—justice or the moral order of the cosmos—extends to all people. Buddhists also affirm the preciousness of all human life, and the human capacity for enlightenment expresses the inherent dignity of the human person.

Roots of Responses to Migration in Monotheistic Religions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the Abrahamic faiths because they each trace their origin back to the Patriarch Abraham who was himself a migrant. In fact, migration across borders is central to the founding experience of these three monotheistic faiths. Abraham migrated from Ur of Babylonia, traveling first to Harran before finally arriving in Jerusalem, concluding an almost 1,000-mile migration. The migration of the Exodus is foundational to Jewish identity. In the Exodus, Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in God’s promised land. Jews, therefore, are taught to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The command to “love the stranger” appears 36 times in the Hebrew Bible.

In an analogous way, migration marks the beginning of the Christian tradition. Shortly after his birth, Jesus was compelled to flee Roman persecution, moving with Mary and Joseph to Egypt. Anachronistically, therefore, Jesus could be seen as a refugee. Jesus’s proclamation that during his ministry he had no place to rest his head makes the plight of the displaced vivid to Christians (cf. Matthew 2:13-23, 8:20). And in his teaching on the final judgment, Jesus teaches that people’s salvation will depend in part on whether they have extended hospitality to strangers (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 10:25-37).

Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina, called the hijra, is the traditional start of the Islamic measure of time. Muhammad’s flight was from persecution by the polytheistic Quraysh clan. Thus, Muhammad himself was a forced migrant. This founding experience is reflected in verses of the Quran that urge Muslims to assist the “needy traveler.” Quran 9:6 declares it a Muslim duty to protect the displaced and to “escort him to where he will be secure.” Quran 9:100 states that Allah extends special concern to migrants, including Abraham and Muhammad. Indeed, Muslims are obliged, by one of the five pillars of Islam, to perform a symbolic migration, that is, the pilgrimage (hajj), to Mecca at least once in their lives.

Hospitality, Compassion, and Togetherness in Other World Religions

Hinduism, too, supports a moral duty that reaches across borders and, therefore, a duty to the displaced. The Rig Veda, composed around 1500 BCE, emphasizes hospitality and contains a hymn praising those who strive to alleviate suffering (Rig Veda 1.41.8-9). The Upanishads promote an important connection between peace and living nonviolently. This duty of nonviolence extends not only to one’s political community but to all living creatures. Thus, wronging a stranger is codified as sin.

Buddhism is sometimes regarded as withdrawn from social and political strife to a life of meditation, but in fact, all stripes of Buddhism have resources that underscore the obligation to aid those who are suffering, including the displaced. The first noble truth pronounced by the Buddha states that there is suffering (dukkha) in the world, and the Buddha’s followers are called to actively cultivate compassion in the face of the suffering of all sentient beings. The path of the Bodhisattva is based on such deep compassion that she commits herself to delaying her own enlightenment until she has helped all sentient beings attain Buddhahood. Thich Nhat Hanh, a contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist monk, coined the term “engaged Buddhist” to refer to the path of those Buddhists who actively work to alleviate suffering and injustice in society. Maha Ghosananda organized a series of mass marches called the “pilgrimages of truth” in Cambodia to protest the atrocities by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that murdered more than one million people and displaced millions more.

African religions also teach that there are duties to the displaced. Bantu concepts such as bumuntu (humanness) or umoja (unity) are central to the African norms of ethical conduct. These ideas express the interconnectedness of all persons. Human beings are all God’s children; therefore, all persons are due the basic respect owed to them in virtue of our common ultimate origin. Umoja is the practice of principled, harmonious togetherness for the benefit of all. Although it connotes the unity of families and neighbors, the unity with those nearer to us is embedded in the common unity of all humanity. It expresses the ideal of harmonious living together, a vision of morality based on justice and solidarity, including with the displaced.

The Golden Rule

All world religions thus affirm that we ought to treat others as we wish to be treated. This Golden Rule is found in virtually all religious traditions, as Hans Küng pointed out in A Global Ethic. It stresses the importance of concern for strangers, refugees, and migrants. For example, in Judaism, Leviticus 19:33-34 teaches that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Christianity, Luke’s gospel expands the Golden Rule in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, a Samaritan, who is a foreigner from a different religious community, comes to the aid of a Jew in great need, showing that authentic love reaches across borders when people are in need. A Muslim hadith tells us that Muhammad taught: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them.” This Golden Rule is surely relevant to the response to refugees by the religious communities that teach it as a central norm.

Thus there is solid evidence that religious traditions all assert normative duties to assist displaced people who are facing grave threats to their well-being. These traditions, when rightly interpreted, can make important contributions to the protection of displaced persons.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges.

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