In the final section of the Mahabharata, the epic whose centrepiece is the Great War between the forces of good and evil, the virtuous Pandava prince, Yudhisthira, is tested on his way to heaven.
Having renounced earthly life, he sets out for the Himalayas (where the gods of the Hindu universe resided) with his four brothers and their common wife Draupadi. A stray dog begins to follow them, but Yudhisthira refuses to allow anyone to shoo the dog away, even though his siblings shuddered at the proximity of this impure animal. Along the way all four of the brothers and the wife die, each is guilty of a particular sin and therefore unfit to enter heaven.
Finally, when Yudhisthira reaches the gate of heaven, Indra, king of the gods, welcomes him at the gate, but says he can’t come in with a dirty animal like the dog. Yudhisthira immediately turns his back on heaven, for he cannot possibly abandon a creature that has sought his company and protection. At this point the dog is transformed into Dharma, the god of Virtue, who says that Yudhisthira was being tested to determine if his virtuous reputation was deserved and true.
Even in the Aryan canon, protecting the asylum seeker, even if it was a dog, transcended the value of being immaculately pure.
Given the current context and debate raging in Australia, this story seems apt to begin this brief reflection.
I come from a country that is not party to the Refugee Convention and, though it has no international obligation to recognise or resettle refugees, it hosts over 456,000 of them, primarily from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, China (Tibet), Pakistan and Myanmar.
The facilities that India offers are not adequate and the conditions are far from ideal. Yet, refugees keep coming and find a home despite the challenges.
“As long as we are safe and have the freedom to follow our faith we don’t mind these living conditions. We are hard-working people and can earn our living to make things better in the future. But self-respect and safety are paramount” – Dharamvir Bagri, a refugee from Pakistan.
India has not seen a public debate on the issue – at least not the likes of the one currently occupying the thinking and the politics of Australian society.
A recent migrant myself – one who did not have to flee from anything in particular – I am not able to fully appreciate the trials and dangers of those coming by boat. The desire and thirst for life, for safety and freedom is, I guess, so great, that it is the driving force that stirs these people – victims of war and oppressive regimes, at the mercy of smugglers to embark on such a hazardous journey. I too, like many others, migrants and non-migrants, am caught in the moral and ethical quandary surrounding the issue, and I question my vocation in this matter both as a Christian and as a member in the Body of Christ.
The Old Testament story is one of a people who time and again survived because of the hospitality and refuge offered by foreign nations. The children of Israel had always known what it meant to be peripatetic pilgrims, sojourners, strangers in strange lands. Hence, Deuteronomy calls for the hospitality towards and the protection of the alien/stranger, the uprooted peoples: “…you shall also love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). This implies that the memory of God’s love for Israel in the past should colour the Israelites’ life in the present and the future.
This love requires that one offers both protection and material help to the most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan and the alien. The God of Israel is identified as the God who cares for the exiled and the stranger – one who “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (10:18).
Three parallel passages within the Old Testament come to mind in the context of the current debate. In Numbers chapter 35:9-34, God commands Moses to designate cities of refuge; in Deuteronomy 19:1-3, Moses conveys the same to the people of Israel and in Joshua 20 the command is fulfilled. The cities were strategically located on both sides of the Jordan, ensuring accessibility throughout the land; providing asylum, safety, and security.
The command primarily addresses the situation of negligent homicide or manslaughter, the accidental killer who in the Israelite mind required a place of refuge and expiation. The fugitive is to be given ‘a place’, which the Jewish rabbis interpreted as provision of shelter and a profession in the designated cities. They were to protect him/her from blood vengeance until she or he had a fair trial. The city’s elders were responsible for the preliminary hearing and the legal decisions which were made at the gate.
Joshua 20:4 states that once the individual has explained his/her case, the elders of the city, shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them (KJV); and they shall take him into the city unto them (JPS). The Hebrew phrase literally reads, they shall gather him into the city to themselves. The city and its inhabitants are seemingly pictured as caringly, protectively surrounding the asylum seeker, providing for the continuation and preservation of his/her life. As in Numbers 35:15, the instruction for protection and safety is extended to include aliens residing among them (vs 9) – articulating an inclusivity that deems aliens as part of Israel’s covenant community.
The tribes were therefore instructed to use some of their God-gifted land for the sake of justice; to provide safety to a group of desperate, defenceless marginalised people and ensure due process, for Israelites and aliens alike. The cities were therefore a visible and tangible expression of God’s commitment to the created order and to the preservation and maintenance of life.
To what extent these cities of refuge were successful in doing this is not sure. To live life as people of God is not an easy task (cf. 2 Samuel 20). What and where are our cities of refuge today, whether for the asylum seeker or the victim of violence or abuse? Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing us and those seeking help would be our passivity and complacency, indifference, which to some extent arise out of our abundance.
Brueggemann is right when he says, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighbourly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity. (The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.)
We should not be fending off defensively the likely consequences of what might happen to us, to this country, were we to allow these uprooted people into our cities. We as a church are called to contend with human wellbeing. Human need must set the agenda.
Our lives, our commitments, our worship, our doctrines must arise as reflectors of this Christian commitment to human life.
Joshua 20 reminds us that the memory of God’s love in our own lives, the recognition of this land as God given, and our trust in God’s generosity should give us the faith, the courage and the impetus to welcome the stranger and the one in search of protection and freedom and life.
We need to also remember the sacrifices and the hospitality of the traditional owners of this land as we struggle to articulate a stance.
What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for. (Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.)
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Associate Professor, Old Testament
Uniting Church Theological College