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Frontiers Against the Poor, Frontiers Against Christ

by | Aug 31, 2017 | Formation

This text that follows is a transcript of a lecture given by Mons. Santiago Agrelo, Franciscan missionary and archbishop of Tangier, at the opening ceremony of the 2015-2016 course in “Cristianisme i Justícia” (Barcelona).

Monsignor speaks of frontiers, in particular of those that exist in his diocese, those that separate Africa from Spain. But the message is universal and very convenient for the reflections that we Vincentians are doing during this year on welcoming the stranger. We strongly invite you to reflect on it.

I have been asked a reflection “to help open our eyes to the injustice of the frontiers and encourage the commitment and struggle for the cause of our emigrant brothers.” Behind this request there was a statement: There are many men, women and children who die on the borders of nations: Borders kill!

And I was asked to answer some questions: What do you do as Christians in the presence of frontiers that are supposed to be necessary to control entrances and exits in a sovereign state, but which actually function as barriers that are impassable in the way of a impoverished humanity looking for a better future? What do we do as Christians in the presence of boundaries designed so that, in them, the poor are trapped, mutilated or dead? (I know the law will never call them poor: for them they are irregular, men and women without papers, without a legal title to enter a sovereign country. And the media, and also those of the Church in Spain, will play the game of power, hiding behind words that justify violence against the poor). What to do?

We are talking about frontiers

The frontiers of States are not my business. They annoy me. I have always found them vexatious. All of them. I guess they are an evil that is justified as necessary to protect us. I suppose they are a way of marking territory.

However, the fact I do not like boundaries would not be reason to speak about them from this seat. If I have been asked to do so, it is because I am seen as a witness to the violence that is being done to the poor on concrete frontiers, because countless victims of these frontiers have crossed them in my life: men, women and children whom we welcome, to whom we listen, whom we serve in the hope that they will find their way to the future. At the same time, there is always the fear that, no later than tomorrow, that their road will end in death.

If I speak here of borders it is because in our churches, when an emigrant asks for the blessing “to make the trip”, we bless her or him as if we were giving the last anointing to face death.

We speak of frontiers in which men and women move that we must heal, because, wounded in body and soul, they have been bleeding away their health and sanity for years, caught in the sharp wires of our rights, our privileges, our abundance; men and women forced to beg with humiliation for bread, in cities and on roads, that they could gain but for lack of dignified work.

These frontiers that exploit, mistreat and kill the children that God has entrusted me; (it is not my mission to enter into debates on politics, philosophy, anthropology, or even theology. I am asked, “with the word and the example,” to lead the people entrusted to me, I have been asked to “live for the faithful,” to be among them as the least and as one who serves, to proclaim the word in time and out of time of Him is the command I have received: “Love with the love of a father and a brother to all those whom God puts under your care, especially the presbyters and deacons, the poor, the weak, the homeless and the immigrants,” Circular letter to the Church of Tangier, February 18, 2014) these are my concern and that is why I speak of them (which is to say that my concern is the political options taken that make thousands and thousands of people victims at the borders. Some politicians invoke the ghost of the national catholicism to silence words that are demanding justice. A Catholic minister can not leave the Gospel at the door of the Council of Ministers, as he does not leave his secularity at the door of the church where he celebrates the Eucharist.

We are talking about emigrants

We speak of men, women and children evicted from their land, and not called by a divine vocation like Abraham (Gen 12:1), but by hunger as Elimélec (Ruth 1:1-2), or by the violence of the powerful as deportees: exiled and enslaved. We are talking about men, women and children taken from their homes, separated from their culture, displaced from their world, named as irregular, clandestine and illegal, identified as a threat, controlled as a disease, punished as criminals.

Those who invented fences with blades for prison walls and concentration camps, have spread them to the borders to make them impermeable. No one would accept the assertion that they were for the poor. That is why it is said that we want them impermeable to problems, diseases, fear — although we all know that they will only be for the beloved of God. We want them closed around our abundance, and we provide them with fences, moats, detectors of movement, of heat, of life, lest we be disturbed by the clamor of those who live in misery.

At the edge of this privileged world, with the arrogance and prepotency of the owners, we have put the sign “No tresspassing.” Ignored and invisible, Lazarus and his wounds, the emigrant and his sufferings, are to remain outside the banquet hall.

We are talking about indifference

It is a paradox: in the frontiers we live a drama that again and again leads to tragedy, but everything happens before the eyes of the indifference of society, without altering the routine of our day to day living. That permanent indifference, that immunity to inner turmoil, is only possible if one does not see what happens, or if one justifies what one sees. Hence the need to break the silence, to shed light on the scene, to put before the eyes the pain of the little ones of the earth, to denounce violence, injustice and immoral politics, not only for the love of those who suffer and die at the door of our house, but also out of love for the blind, who, within it, do not realize that, in wanting to save their life, they are losing it.

If we do not see, if we do not hear, if we are not aware of our responsibility for what happens, we will not give justice a chance, there will be no place in us for compassion and hospitality will not be possible.

This reflection seeks to illuminate from the faith the drama of a frontier, that of Spain with Morocco, and hopes that, seeing and hearing, unmasking justifications and confronting the Gospel, we can shock the heart, and transform into a place of meeting that geographic and political space that today is a place of repression and torture for the poor.

Seeing and hearing

In the fences of Ceuta and Melilla everything is designed to see and hear: “Three-dimensional detection cables, surveillance, sound and motion cameras, and thermal sensors; and, on both sides of the border, two armies of eyes and ears attentive to a small world of men, women and children in search of bread (“With the occasion of the massive assaults on security fences in September 2005, second fences were installed and their height increased from three to six meters, with tear gas sprinklers and three-dimensional detection cables in the intervening space, surveillance cameras and sound, motion and thermal sensors.These technological fences can be controlled by the Spanish border patrols from a central surveillance room, while on the other side of the border, and with EU funding, the Moroccan army has established numerous military checkpoints and military camps in the old fashioned way, like besieging their own country, to monitor the approach from the south to borders that they do not even recognize as legitimate, but consider as a residue of colonial impositions”: Xavier Ri Bas, The border fences of Ceuta and Melilla. A landscape for the future?, 2011).

What is surprising, astonishing, scandalous on this expenditure in technical and human resources to see and hear, is that it is not oriented to encounter but to rejection, not to hospitality but to cruelty, not to solidarity but to xenophobia, not to compassion but to repression.

To see and hear, Christians do not need surveillance cameras but eyes of mercy, we do not need sound sensors but ears attentive to the cry of the poor, we do not need technique but heart, we do not need reasons but faith. In order to see and hear, we need to have the look and hear, heart and faith of Jesus of Nazareth. Read these sections of the Gospel of Mark (1:29-34; 1,40-42; 2,1-5).

Christians can not gaze with the eyes of Jesus on the poor from our homes; we can not but be, like Jesus, a living gospel to the poor; we can not fail to go, like Jesus, with the gospel to the poor, even knowing that this way does not benefits i bank or pocket.

Christians can not separate political action and professed faith, as we can not and do not want to separate politics and freedom, politics and justice, politics and humanity.

Jesus looked with anger on those who were ignorant of man’s needs (Mk 3:5), and looked with compassion upon the needy. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10,33-34); the son of a widowed mother (Lk 7:12-15); the multitude that walked like sheep that have no shepherd (Mark 6:34) are examples of that attitude.

Politics would want us mute, blind and deaf, before the pain of the poor. The gospel wants us so close to them that we find it impossible not to see them, impossible for us not to hear them.

Even more: something tells me that we will never see the poor if we do not see ourselves in them; we will never welcome them if we do not welcome ourselves in them.

The prophet insinuated this when he said, “share your food with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, clothe him, and not to turn away from your own kin” (Is 58,7).

The Sufi mystic poet expressed it this way:

Once, someone knocked at the door of his friend.

—Who is it? — Asked a voice from within.

—It’s me!

—You can not get in. It is still too early and in this house there is no place for impurity.

That man left the place, saddened, and for a long time was consumed in the flames of separation. But in the end he returned. He began to circle the door of the friend, between doubts and fears. He finally decided to call.

—Who is it?

—It’s You!

—Come on in, my friend, now that you are me. Because at home there is no place for two selfs.

(Yâlâl al-Dîn Rûmî (1207-1273): Persian poet, taken from a few notes by Javier)

The strategy of exclusionary power is to point to the other as the one who comes to occupy your place, to take over a job that will no longer be available to you, to diminish the always limited resources of your well-being.

There are many Christians — lau people, religious, priests and bishops — who have and propagate that exclusionary view of the emigrant. In charity, to these Christians and myself, I would like to spare ourselves that last and terrible surprise of discovering that when we exclude the emigrant from our compassion, we were leaving Christ Jesus out of our lives.

Unmasking Justifications

I think the most common justifications for rejecting the emigrant are well summarized in a letter I received from a Moroccan friend living in Paris. He summed them up like this:

Economic and social problems

The emigrant makes it possible competition for wages, and this possibility stresses the social climate and exacerbates the economic crisis. Employers use immigration to press down on wages. Emigrants are the slaves of the 21st century. Emigration is indeed the reserve army of capitalism. What jobs will these migrants occupy if the country experiences a massive unemployment? Where to stay? How to take care of them if there are no resources to take care of ourselves? If Spain continues to embrace all the misery of the world, its social protection system will disappear.

Security issues

By not having a job, much of this African immigration does not integrate and is destined to delinquency or organized crime (mainly drug trafficking). Expansion of insecurity: robberies, aggressions. There is a link between massive immigration and the return of European societies to savagery. Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism that derives from it develops in Europe, and it is there where it finds its best recruits.

Demographic problem

The phenomenon of demographic substitution is visible in the cities of the metropolitan area of ​​Paris. The native population is forced to leave urban areas where the rate of immigration of non-native populations has grown significantly, what has been called the “White Flight” phenomenon.

Identity and Cultural Issues

The massive influx of immigrants who do not speak the language of the host country makes the level of the public school drop. Frequent opposition to matters of school teaching: history courses, philosophy courses, etc. Thus it is heard to say: “Voltaire is contrary to my religion”, “Madame Bovary is an excessively licentious work, it is haram — ilegal, illicit, forbidden—.” Philosophy teachers are accused of Islamophobia and suffer unbearable pressures in the exercise of their mission. The fascination for gangsterism, the subculture of Rap is seen…. Customs, behaviors, cultural codes are imported and collide with the autochthonous. Examples: segregation of the sexes, veiling of women, assumed machismo, crimes of honor, forced marriages, polygamy, humiliating and stifling control of the sexuality of children (obsession for virginity, persecution of homosexuality). A minority of this category of migrants manages to integrate perfectly into the host society; which shows that the obstacle to integration is certainly not ethnic but cultural, only cultural.

In the same message, my friend, who seems to be less Moroccan and Muslim, but who is both, added a section on measures that in this matter he considered necessary to adopt:

To those who emigrate for economic reasons: to help them with appropriate development policies, to establish their residence in the country of origin; to curb the demographic explosion in Africa (accessibility to contraception and fight against popular prejudices that concern it). In this matter, my friend considers that “the Church has a special role to play, especially using its influence and moral authority over African populations in favor of contraception or abstinence.” Fight against corruption and undemocratic forms of government, which neutralize the national development effort, and constitute a black hole for all international aid. In addition, there is an urgent need to protect the rights of children as recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child of November 20, 1989. This Convention requires compulsory schooling for children up to 15 years of age.

You will have noticed that, reading the message of my friend, we are no longer talking about emigrants and their needs, but about immigration and the problems that immigration causes us.

But he himself brought me back to the personal field with a devastating postscript:

As far as I am concerned, my parents decided to bring me into the world only when they had the certainty of having the necessary means to meet my needs. The poor who do not have these means, please, do not have children. There is no right to having children; this is an immense and sacred responsibility… the child has the right to a healthy and balanced family — materially, morally and spiritually —. Natural selection wants misery in all its forms to stop reproducing.

To this long message of my friend I responded with ultra-short e-mails, born of my intuition, of the inspiration of the moment.

The first one said: “My brother: you are speaking like the rich who has solved their problems or does not want to have problems. Imagine now that it is not me who reads your speech, but one of the inhabitants of the hill of Beliones. I would have read it as an opinion on clandestine emigrants; he would have understood it as a death sentence. You would have condemned him in the name of your rights, your privileges, your world … Think about it.”

The second said: “If the poor had no right to have children, I would never have been born … Think about it.”

And the third added, “If the poor had no right to have children, humanity would never have existed … Think about it.”

Now, just for you, I would add: observe how, before the recognized need of some people, reason chooses not to seek a remedy to need, but to eliminate the subject who suffers… Think about it. I have said “reason”. I could say, with Eduardo Galeano, “the system”: “This murderous system kills hunger people instead of killing hunger, and is at war against the poor, but not against poverty”… Think about it.

And a last observation in this section of ‘justifications’: the more or less unconscious step we take from the consideration of the person and their needs to the consideration of the problems that immigration brings us, implies a reduction, also more or less unconscious, from people to objects; we naturally convert the human being into a commodity. So, in the midst of my worries, once again remains, not mankind, but interests, benefits, it remains “me”, not “you”… Think about it.

Confronting us with the Gospel

Let us return to the frontiers and the excluded who are trapped in them.

Revelation places man, the poor, in the heart of God’s saving plan. Jesus of Nazareth suggested it with words that fills of light the enigma of the universe:

As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14-16)

The Apostle presupposes that centrality of man in the design of God whenever he entrusts to words the mysteries of faith:

Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. In whom, through his blood, we gain our freedomin him we have received our heritage, marked out beforehand as we were, under the plan of the One who guides all things as he decides by his own will (Eph 1,3-5.7.11).

The Word of God became man and the Son of God became Son of man so that man, intimately united to the Word of God, became the son of God by adoption (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 3, 19, 1).

Trully, the glory of God consists in the human person fully alive (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 4, 20, 7). Truly, God has opted for the human person, for the poor, and in doing so, has turned against himself: “God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming a man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love”: Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est, 10.

There are many, however, in the Church who, acknowledging this theological evidence, mark it at the same time as forgotten, as if it were something dispensable in the whole of the gospel. They forget that God has anointed Jesus of Nazareth with his Spirit for the poor, and has made him good news on the road of the poor:

The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted [with a gospel for the poor, as a gospel for the poor]. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord (Lk 4:18-19).

And they forget that the same Spirit — the Spirit of the risen Christ — is the one who anoints and puts the body of Christ, the Church, on the road of the poor (Jn 20:21-23).

As much as we, even ecclesiastics, persist in “putting in the midst” our reasons, our interests, our knowledge, even the law of God, God has been determined to “put in the midst” the people with their needs. And where we choose our own, God, passing even on himself (as Pope Benedict XVI would say, against himself), opts for the the human person and liberation.

The Messiah Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of God for the poor, always opts for the human perosn and against evil. He does this with the crippled man who was in the synagogue and Jesus himself “puts in the midst” that Sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6): the welfare of that man is above the sacredness of the Sabbath and above His own life.

He does so with the woman caught in flagrant adultery whom Scribes and Pharisees “put in the midst” that morning in the temple of Jerusalem (Jn 8:3-11): that woman’s life is above the requirements of the law of Moses.

He does it with you, for he, “being rich, became poor for you, that you might become rich with his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).

The Messiah Jesus can truly say: “Go and tell John what you are seeing and hearing: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are clean and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor are preached” (Mt 11:4-5).

There are many men and women, who consider themselves Christians, and who would be willing to fight to offend, even to persecute, may even hate, for the precision in the formulation of a doctrine, and yet they look with indifference and pass by before the brother who lies half dead on the road where they go.

Jesus did not come to teach the half-dead a new theology, but he approached that man — he approached us —, bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, and, riding him on his own horse, took him to an inn and took care of him (Lk 10:30-37).

On the frontier, in the light of faith, one can only be as one who serves, as one who loves, as one sent by God with his gospel to the poor.


I hope that on the frontier, in the light of faith, we learn to see ourselves and not close ourselves to our own flesh.

Let us learn to see Christ, and live by his need to remedy it, let us learn the trembling of the heart for our wounds, for the wounds of Christ, open in the body of the poor. I hope that, on the border, in the light of faith, we will be always found so close to the poor that we are confused with them, that we may be one with them.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God has revealed Himself to us without frontiers, a God who only dreams that the house will be filled with children. He made you, the Church, Body of Christ, love the poor with the same love that you love Jesus: Church without borders, Church mother of all, Church offered to everyone, wide and open as the heart of God.

Author: Monsignor Santiago Agrelo, Franciscan Missionary and Archbishop of Tangier.
Source: “Suplemento del Cuaderno n. 196 de CJ (n. 230)”, November 2015.
Transcript of the lecture given by Monsignor Santiago Agrelo, Bishop of Tangier, in “Cristianisme i Justícia” on the occasion of the inauguration of the 2015-2016 academic year.

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