An inflatable boat slips into a cove near Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos. It is packed with Syrian asylum seekers wearing orange lifejackets. They have just crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
One of them waves a lifebuoy triumphantly to the man wading into the water to greet them.
The sun is setting. The last rays of hope are receding behind the horizon. In a few moments it will be dark, and no one wants to spend a perilous night at sea in a small craft.
The UN worker or government official holds his hands high to greet them.
They’ve made it! They are safe.
This poignant photo was taken by Aris Messinis in February, 2016, nearly a full year ago.
Since that time we have heard countless reports of how miserable life is for thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe. Countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden have been remarkably generous, but many asylum seekers, including quite possibly those in this very photo, are still stuck in limbo.
This week’s cold snap across Europe has only made matters worse.
In Lesbos, snow blanketed the Moria refugee camp, home to more than 4,000 people, most of whom subsist in small tents. Some of those tents have collapsed under the weight of the snow. The UN has tried to find hotels for the most vulnerable refugees, but could only find rooms for 120 of them.
An Amnesty International report said of conditions in Lesbos, “Asylum-seekers on the Greek islands face overcrowding, freezing temperatures, lack of hot water, violence and hate-motivated attacks.”
All the relief and hope expressed in Aris Messinis’ touching photo has been dashed. The joyous orange-clad seafarers in that inflatable craft are now among the world’s poorest and most desperate people.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal practice dedicated to defending those most marginalized by our society, describes poverty this way:
“I believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”
The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson argues that improving access to courts, lawyers, and legal information for the poor and marginalized fundamentally reduces poverty. Where we prevent the poor from accessing justice we also entrench and exacerbate their deprivation.
Refugees in the Moria refugee camp are trapped from entering the European mainland by a deal done between Turkey and the EU. They have no access to the courts to challenge that ruling.
Similarly, refugees applying for asylum in Australia have been incarcerated on Pacific islands with no access any legal avenues for improving their lot.
We are consigning whole generations of vulnerable people to entrenched poverty.
It’s one thing if the governments of Turkey and Australia or the EU are doing this. But it continues to astonish me that Christians, followers of Jesus, who was himself a refugee infant, are unmoved by the plight of asylum seekers.
We live in a xenophobic age of open vilification toward outsiders, but surely the church ought to be expressing the opposite – welcome, hospitality, generosity, justice!
God often comes to us as the naked, the hungry, the incarcerated. Xenophobia is not only irrational, it is sinful. Bryan Stevenson says when we’re confronted by such injustice we “begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”
So, who are we?
God’s concern is for the least, the lost, and the left out, and so should ours.
4 thoughts on “The Opposite of Poverty is not Wealth, it’s Justice”
I recently picked up a copy of “Notes on an Exodus” from the Art Gallery of NSW – an essay by Richard Flanagan with illustrations by Ben Quilty from their travels to Lesbos, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece in early 2016 (https://penguin.com.au/books/notes-on-an-exodus-9780143782353).
The excerpt reads: “Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family.”
Such sombre and heart breaking reading, made moreso by the accompanying note comparing how much the Australian government has spent in aggressive military responses in Syria with what we have given in aid (not to mention our treatment of them if they ever get near our shores). It really is pitiful and Christians should be amongst the most vocal about it in our society.
It’s an interesting and worthy view up until God is brought into it. It concludes with quoting xenophobia is a sin, but are homophobia, gender phobias and misogyny not ‘sinful’ too?
Most ‘branches’ of Christianity outwardly practise many ‘phobia’s’ because their interpretation of the bible ‘allows’ them to do so.
In the real world an atheist would be charged with an offence without the backdrop of their ‘faith’.
Don’t get me wrong, I read these blogs with interest and in the main agree with the moral and ethical message they look to perpetuate; do unto others as you would have done to yourself (forgive any misquote).
I suppose my point is you call someone a sinner who may just be (on a basic level), patriotic and be worrying about jobs and security of their family and yet you sit drinking tea with other faith liberals and academics who openly treat other areas of society as second class citizens. Life’s views are subjective as are interpretations on all religious scripture, which in the main are violent, murderous, racist and threatening. Unless of course you give yourself absolutely to God who loves you unconditionally, but if you don’t he’ll burn you in hell….
Simon, you address some relevant issues in a non aggressive way, thanks. I hope someone more able can give you a worthy response, because as Christians, we need to love and be aware of reality. and labelling doesn’t help the discussion I agree.
Mike, thank you for your posts that continue to challenge and inspire me. They are of the few emails I read almost immediately as I know they will be succinct and worthwhile! As a follower of Jesus, I strive to respond to the plight of refugees but it can be difficult to keep attending rallies and supporting sit-ins etc when nothing seems to change. Still, I know that faithfulness and perseverance are part of the journey. Thank you again for all that you contribute to contemporary discussions around faith, life and justice. You (and Hirsch) have had quite an impact on my life!