Words differ globally. The U.S. uses the language of immigrants. Europeans use the word migrant. South Africans say foreign workers. Australians speak of asylum-seekers.
Different words represent corresponding realities. Those who are often poor and victims of violence are fleeing their home countries to developed countries seeking a better life.
They depend on smugglers, endure risky journeys and face hostility in their country of destination.
Just two weeks ago, as many as 800 African migrants drowned off the coast of Libya – perhaps the worst migrant smuggling disaster in recent memory.
Some Africans, who have survived the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, were met by Italian youth who reportedly shouted, “Go home! Go! Go! Go!”
In South Africa, mobs have attacked foreign workers – Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and others – and looted their shops. Some South Africans accuse migrants of “stealing their jobs.”
Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini called for calm last week and said his earlier remarks that foreigners “must pack up and leave the country” were distorted.
The term used in the South African press for these attacks is xenophobia. Those condemning the violence on social media use the hashtag #XenophobicSA. More than 800,000 tweets used that hashtag during one week in mid-April.
In Australia, the government forced a boatload of Vietnamese refugees to return to Vietnam, causing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to voice concern.
Australia has been criticized for turning back boats of refugees. Yet a sizeable portion of the Australian public favors a hard-line stance against asylum-seekers.
Anti-immigrant marches were held earlier this year in Dresden, Germany. An arson attack in April in eastern Germany destroyed a facility for housing foreign refugees.
Comprehensive immigration reform remains stalled in the U.S. Congress – bottled up in the courts.
Immigrants, migrants, foreign workers and asylum-seekers face their own fears to escape hardships of their countries of origin only to meet the fears of the residents in their destination countries.
These fears are real – economic fear, religious fear, cultural fear, linguistic fear.
Confronting the fear of the other – the stranger, the outsider – is the Christian tradition that calls for the just and kind treatment of the foreigner.
That confrontation found visible expression on a poster at a Methodist-sponsored march against xenophobia in South Africa: “Do not ill-treat foreigners in your land. You were once foreigners, says the Lord. Leviticus 19:33.”
While some Methodists took to the streets, the president bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Bishop Zipho Siwa, called for a unanimous rejection of violence.
“We appeal to all people in leadership and influence to refrain from using inflammatory language in a volatile situation. Our country is burning and all hands need to be on deck in putting out the fire,” he said. “Ending xenophobia must take precedence. The violence and bloodshed must stop!”
South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has called for “a million march against xenophobic attacks” in Pretoria.
“Let us look at sustainable ways of removing the conditions which cause these attacks, and each commit ourselves to one act of witness to change the situation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis addressed the drownings off the coast of Libya.
“They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” he said. “Europe cannot look the other way while thousands die on our shores.”
One of the clear Christian voices in Australia on asylum-seekers has been the Baptists. The Baptist Union of Victoria even has a resource page related to biblical hospitality and asylum-seekers.
In February, Australian Baptists Rod Benson and Kristine Morrison posted a column on EthicsDaily.com titled “Responding to Asylum Seekers With Hospitality.”
The global church is addressing the plight of the immigrants, migrants, foreign workers, asylum-seekers in a variety of ways, remaining faithful to the biblical witness.
Global Baptists will have opportunities at the Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, in July to focus on the issue.
A 20-minute version of EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Gospel Without Borders,” will be shown from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday and Friday, July 23-24, with panelists from around the world.
Another opportunity is from 4 to 5:30 p.m.Thursday, July 23, when a focus group will explore “how to integrate migrant populations into a local Baptist union/convention.”
In a time when the church faces many disagreements over social issues, worship, theology and structure, one area of agreement appears to be the need to treat the stranger with kindness and justice.
Let’s remain faithful to that biblical mandate and double up on our efforts this year. The movement of people across borders is increasing. And we need now to be more pro-active than ever before.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.