Coming to terms with the reality of a world of refugees
There’s definitely a survivalist streak building in the environmental movement. Mainstream newspapers are starting to run stories about survivalism.
There are quite a few people who hear that the energy peak or climate change is coming and believe that building up their stocks of ammo and heading for the hills is the way to go. I recognize, even if I do not share, that impulse: It is the impulse to protect your own, the panic you feel when you realize that your society, which on some level is supposed to protect you, hasn’t planned ahead for this one. And so there’s a tendency of people to get into discussions about what happens when refugees or hungry folk come around, and a lot of times the answer is that you have to protect your own again. Protect your own means “shoot people,” in many cases.
And there are clearly some times that protecting your own will be necessary, as there are today. But I also think that sometimes this is a product of reading too many science fiction novels. You know the kind: the end of the world comes suddenly, either because alien space bats change the laws of physics, or the giant asteroid hits the earth, or whatever, and all of a sudden, 99 percent of the population of the earth conveniently dies off, and then it is left to the survivors to recreate the world with their new religion (à la Octavia Butler), their coincidentally spared nuclear power plant, and handy astrophysicist (Niven and Pournelle), the SCA (Stirling) or something or other else. In these books, you always know somehow that if you don’t save every single crust of bread, your loved ones will starve to death, so it is a moral choice to say no to the wandering beggars. In fact, it is fairly moral, generally speaking, to do anything but eat them because, after all, every refugee is a threat. And in the books, they usually have swords and big guns.
Well, I can’t swear life will never be like this, but it is worth noting that in many hungry places in the world, including New Orleans in 2005, refugees were actually much more vulnerable to violence than they were aggressive. Despite the stories of rape and murder and mayhem (which turned out to be mostly nonsense), and the people standing by their doors with big guns, most of the most desperately needy people did nothing more than wait politely, weep, beg for help, and maybe sing a little. And that’s true of most refugees in the world — these desperate people race across borders, trying to escape disaster or terrible violence, and they don’t attack those around them — they wait and pray for a little food. And yet we’re terrified of them.
During the Great Depression, thousands of young men and women took to the rails because they were hungry and had no jobs. While they did occasionally commit acts of violence and fairly often stole small amounts of food, generally speaking these young people were much more likely to be abused than to do serious harm. They were thrown out of towns into the cold with no food, because the law said no one who didn’t live there could have the sun go down on them. They were raped and beaten up by other refugees and by locals. They were thrown in jail and set on chain gangs for the offense of being homeless. Writing about it later, many of them told stories of going to soup lines and being cast out hungry because the town said that there was nothing for anyone but their own. A young man tells a story in David Shannon’s The Great Depression of traveling through the Midwest all winter without a coat of any kind, visiting relief services and asking if anyone could give him a coat. He never got one.
Now, it is possible that none of these places had a coat to give. It is possible that adding one more bone and two more potatoes to the soup pot would mean someone’s child died of hunger — I don’t know. But I think it’s more likely that when things get hard for us, we often panic — we look at what we have and we see all the terrible things that could happen — and so we hold on hard to what we have, regardless of the consequences to others.
These issues are about to gain a new currency with us. The estimates for climate change-induced refugees rise between the hundreds of millions and the billions. The truth is that even if we act now, the world is going to be newly full of people moving about, and their survival is going to depend on our relationship to those groups.
Unlike the novels, though, we’ll probably never know for sure that we’ll always have enough — there isn’t any way to be sure, sometimes, whether there will be more tomorrow. So how do we know whether to share, whether to greet the stranger with a gun or a plate? How do we know, if things change and the world seems uncertain, how to respond to one another?
Well, the world was once much poorer than we are, and there was a fairly universal set of rules for this: the exact opposite one from the ones we tend to assume may pertain. Right now, when we in America are richer than most kings of old, we assume that our job is to hold on tightly to what we have.
But in my faith (I’m a Jew), and every single other religion and in secular stories, we hear the tale of the stranger in disguise. The stranger who appears in the form of someone desperately poor and in need, and who turns out to be a god, or an angel in disguise. Those who turn the stranger away are punished. Those who welcome them are rewarded.
In Judaism, it is Elijah who walks the world in the form of a stranger. Each year, at Pesach, just as the first new foods are coming but before we are overwhelmed with plenty, we are to open our doors and call out that all who are hungry should come and eat. A few years ago, I was teaching Hebrew school to fourth and fifth graders, and I asked them what they would do if, in their comfortable suburb, someone were to come through the door and ask to join them. Almost universally, they were horrified at the thought of sitting down at the table with someone strange who actually needed food badly enough to come in off the streets. They felt that such a person would inevitably be dangerous. Most of the children said that their families don’t really call out and don’t really leave the door open.
That, I think, is where we are at in our society. I’m not arguing against prudence and care or saying that we will always have enough to give away without thought. But we are very rich now, and I think it is worth remembering that in every society and faith, the obligation to welcome the stranger and offer them something even in the face of our own hardship is central to our beliefs. We need to be wary of a false senses of scarcity — yes, plan for the future, store food, create a reserve. But recognize that in many cases, that reserve is for sharing, not for holding close.
The stories aren’t always religious: Sometimes it is the good king or another of power who travels in the guise of the poor. It doesn’t really matter. They are designed to teach us that nothing is ever certain, that we can never have enough for everything we need. We are supposed, in our vulnerability, to be willing to risk something for another both because it is right and also because we too have been strangers.
Jews are frequently reminded we have been strangers many, many times, but I think even in our minority culture we have forgotten what that strangeness means. And the future, with all its difficulties, means that none of us can be certain that we will remain privileged and comfortable. You can prepare perfectly and still lose your home to rising sea levels or lack of water; you can do everything right and have bad things befall you. There are things we cannot control.
So each of us must live in the world as though we will someday be the stranger who turns to another for a hand. And each of us must be willing to offer one, if we expect to receive it. This is much more risky than greeting the hungry with violence or indifference. It is more difficult than talking about “them” the nameless hordes we fear. It is frightening. It is hard. What if the stranger who comes in to the door is angry, or smelly, or frightening? What if, despite our best rational precautions, harm is done? But then again, what if we do harm to an innocent other by allowing our fear to shape our thinking too much? And what if the stranger at our doorstep is Elijah, to see if we have the courage of those who came before us?
Originally published at www.sharonastyk.com.