The Support of Faith for the Displaced and Those Who Aid Them

By: David Hollenbach

January 17, 2023

Religious belief can help sustain those who are suffering from the effects of displacement. It also energizes the work of those who seek to assist the displaced. Here we will briefly sketch some of these contributions.

Sustaining Meaning

A key role of religious faith is its power to sustain meaning in the face of loss and even tragedy. For example, the Christian tradition invites the displaced to trust that God’s love for them is present in the midst of their struggles. This can enable them to carry on and actively work to rebuild their lives for a better future. It also invites other believers to undertake compassionate efforts to alleviate the suffering of those who have been displaced. For Christians, meaning and hope can rise from their belief that the cross of Jesus manifests the presence of God’s love even in the midst of human suffering. For Buddhists, such meaning can arise from the belief that the compassion exemplified by the Buddha goes deeper than the routines fractured by displacement. Several recent empirical studies have shown that faith helps people cope with being driven from their homes and can also sustain humanitarian workers themselves.

Communal Support

Faith communities also provide communal support that helps strengthen the resilience of people facing emergencies. Data on the way communal support helps keep hope alive suggests the importance of the commitment by some faith-based agencies to “accompany” the victims of a crisis. For example, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) sees being actively engaged side-by-side with those suffering from a crisis as central to its mission. The JRS mission has three dimensions: accompaniment, service, and advocacy. For JRS, accompaniment means that staff should stay in respectful contact with the refugees they seek to assist, listen to their stories, and show them through personal presence that they are not forgotten. Personal relationships with those driven from their homes can affirm the displaced as persons, sustaining their hope and enabling them to continue the struggle.

Accompaniment also has a positive impact on those assisting the displaced. Listening to the stories told by refugees stimulates commitment to action and shapes understanding of the action that is needed. In this way, accompaniment guides service. Without this communal interaction, assisting agencies can too easily become shaped by bureaucratic requirements. Keeping the focus on the actual needs of those who are suffering requires some personal relationship with them. This relational presence lets those being served know that they still count as persons and helps keep meaning and hope alive (see Joseph Hampson’s JRS Asia Pacific report on a new way of being present). Barbara E. Harrell-Bond offers a somber warning about how bureaucratic contexts can sometimes distort assistance to displaced people.

This leads to the question of whether agencies acting on the basis of a specific religious tradition can do so with full respect for the beliefs of those from other traditions. Fear that faith-based organizations may seek to proselytize the vulnerable people they work with has been a source of the suspicion the organizations sometimes face. The avoidance of proselytizing by faith-based organizations will therefore be essential. However, most religious organizations have much in common with secular humanitarian organizations, chiefly because their beliefs enable them to affirm the dignity of every person independent of the person’s religion. Respect for this dignity requires not discriminating among people based on their religion when support and services are being provided. For example, Islamic Relief and the Lutheran World Federation worked together to create a manual on faith sensitivity for both faith-based and secular organizations working with refugees. The partnership also included insight from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the Church of Sweden, HIAS, and World Vision.

Combining commitment to one’s faith with non-discrimination is, of course, a very delicate undertaking. An important way to deal with this tension is through a strong commitment to interreligious understanding and collaboration. Such interreligious understanding requires humility. One needs to be convinced that one can actually learn something by listening to someone with a faith different from one’s own. Second, interreligious understanding also requires commitment. A person on the staff of a Christian or Muslim agency should not be afraid to speak with those being served about how her faith supports her efforts to assist. Expressing this commitment in a humble way can create bonds between agency staff and those they aid that will help sustain both in their efforts. Third, interreligious understanding depends on seeing that the different faiths of those struggling together share an interconnection in their diverse ways of responding to the suffering caused by conflict or disaster. Finally, cooperation across faith traditions requires a concrete, experiential empathy for the role of specific beliefs in the life of a person who is a member of another community (these requirements of interreligious dialogue are drawn from Catherine Cornille’s The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue and her chapter in the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Interreligious Dialogue).

For example, staff of Christian agencies assisting those displaced from and within Syria are working largely with Muslims, many of whom have been displaced because of intra-Muslim conflict. Christian staff will thus benefit from having at least a rudimentary appreciation of the Muslim beliefs of those they are helping and of some of the tensions among diverse Islamic communities that are party to the Syrian conflict. When the staff of Christian agencies are able to talk humbly with the Muslims they are serving about what the conflict means to Muslims, and about why they as Christians are seeking to help, this will help strengthen the communal support that sustains hope. Interreligious understanding will be similarly valuable for the Christians and Buddhists collaborating on the staffs of agencies who are aiding Buddhists displaced from Myanmar into Thailand and for Bangladeshi Muslims who are assisting the Buddhist Rohingya displaced to their country. Humble interreligious exchanges among staff and those they serve will make it possible to accompany those facing emergencies in a fuller way than will remaining silent about religion because of a desire to treat all faiths equally. Equal treatment and non-discrimination call for respectful listening to those who are different, not efforts to overlook differences and to keep quiet about them.

Long-term Response

A religious response to the displaced is sometimes regarded as a form of philanthropy. It can be seen as optional rather than as genuinely required by the human dignity of the displaced. There is also a risk that it will slide into a form of paternalism, in which the strong and capable provide aid to the weak and vulnerable. And there is a danger that a compassionate response can overlook the institutional sources of displacement. If this happens, assistance will address only the symptoms rather than the causes of forced migration. Thus, emphasis not only on love and compassion but also on justice and rights will be important. Justice and rights, according to Hugo Slim, call for long-term commitment to the dignity of the displaced and for efforts to overcome the structural causes of their displacement.

Integrating Love and Justice

Recent reflection in religious ethics indicates that compassion and structural response to injustice are not opposed but can be mutually supportive. In Christian ethics, for example, love can be seen as requiring justice, not as an alternative to justice. The biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself affirms that self and neighbor should be cared for equally. Thus, Christian love calls for equal regard for one’s neighbors. The work of Gene Outka explores the ethical requirements of this love of neighbor, showcased in his proposal in Agape: An Ethical Analysis that the duty to love one’s neighbor as oneself has a significant overlap with the idea of egalitarian justice. Understood this way, love requires working to secure the treatment of all persons in ways that respect their equal human dignity. In addition, it implies that there are particularly stringent obligations toward persons who have been deprived of the basic requirements of their human well-being by being driven from their homes. The commandment to love one’s neighbor, therefore, should lead faith-based humanitarian agencies whose identity is based on this commandment to a vigorous pursuit of justice for displaced people.

This implies that humanitarian action based on justice and human rights is not an alternative to action-based love, but rather an expression of love. This has been much stressed by Christian agencies who provide humanitarian protection and assistance, such as Catholic Relief Services. The development of engaged Buddhism, with its move from compassion to the pursuit of institutional change, suggests that justice can be an expression of Buddhist compassion as well. When love is understood as equal regard for all of one’s neighbors, as the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself suggests it should be, love will be seen as requiring both justice and institutional change. Faith-based agencies whose work is shaped by such an understanding of compassion should be at least as committed as are secular agencies to shaping institutions to secure justice and human rights. Indeed, it is possible that the depth of commitment arising from faith-inspired love for the displaced may lead some faith-based agencies to become more engaged in efforts for institutional change than are secular agencies that fear they may violate humanitarian neutrality by coming too close to politics.

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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