At some point, they or their parents came to this part of France from a world that lay on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean. Most of them were men, although there were a few women too, dressed in the appropriate Muslim fashion. Every day they filled the little square a few blocks up the hill from my apartment in Marseilles, a city I had the chance to visit again recently for the first time in 20 years. If I had closed my eyes and simply listened to the harsh guttural sounds of their Arabic, it would have been easy to imagine myself in Tunis, Algiers or Casablanca.
Some of them were only incidental street vendors forced by desperate circumstance to sell off their personal belongings item by item, in the hope that some day soon things will turn around. The vast majority, however, just came to meet up with friends and acquaintances, people with whom they share the same faith, cultural values and traditions. One can only wonder how dire things must be in their home country that they would still prefer the hand-to-mouth existence many of them are now leading in France, where forever they seem to behave and are regarded as outsiders.
But take a stroll just a few blocks from the little square to the harbour front with its sleek yachts, glitzy sidewalk cafés, chic boutiques and super expensive restaurants where a bowl of bouillabaisse ($30 fish soup) and you might as well be on another planet. From the bus that took me to the airport, I caught a glimpse on the very outskirts of the city of a small circle of very run-down trailers, in the middle of which a group of what looked like migrants or gypsies were huddled around a fire, warming themselves against the morning cold. A more depressing sight was hard to imagine.
History of international trade
Of course, it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that these contrasts between (mostly Western European) haves and (mostly developing world) immigrant or refugee have-nots are unique to France, or that it’s only a relatively recent phenomenon. What is undeniable, however, is that Western Europe and especially France, a country that prides itself on liberty, freedom and equality, appear to have given up on dealing with the problem. In all fairness, it must be said that in some cases it’s the immigrants themselves who refuse to be integrated, hence the French term intégrisme to refer to the spirit of religious intransigence that inspires some believers to resist social evolution or accommodation.
Yet particularly ironic is that as far back as the days of the ancient Greeks who settled the area around 600 B.C., Marseilles, or Massalia, as it was known then, has been a hub of intercultural contact and coexistence in the Mediterranean. This was again brought home to me one morning in the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille. Adjacent to the ancient harbour, it boasts an impressive collection of exhibits, including a few Roman shipwrecks, all of which testify to the vast international trade network that once brought merchants and their wares to the city from almost every corner of the ancient world.
Admittedly the threat of terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism has in just the past few years become a harsh and terrifying reality in Europe and France in particular, which partly explains the growing popularity of Marie Le Pen’s Front National. Even my old thesis advisor surprised me somewhat by expressing serious reservations about pursuing an unrestricted migrant policy, when I met with him in his office on the campus of what was in my day considered to be one of the most leftwing universities in the country. And, judging by statements about immigration and illegal immigrants that we’ve also been hearing from south of the border recently, this side of the Atlantic too seems to be in urgent need of a cogent policy.
In a very timely book of essays, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely and Vote with Integrity, authors Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz argued convincingly that the primary values that should shape a Christian public engagement with migration are “welcoming embrace and justice” rather than “economic interests and cultural integrity,” with the caveat however, that such an engagement should not neglect the very genuine concerns of security and the preservation of a society’s way of life. Yet they also remind us that not only was Christ himself a migrant, but God also made us who were once aliens and strangers, members of his household (Eph. 2:19), and that “[w]hen we do for others what God has done for us, we don’t just do as God commands and act as God exemplifies.
“We also become who we are made to be. When encounters with others go well, we become more ourselves” (127). One can only hope that in the end this wisdom will prevail.
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