Thursday, March 24, 2016

Michael Nausner: The Need of a New Cultural Imagination in Times of Migration

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Michael Nausner, Professor of Theology, Prorektor, and Dean of International Affairs at the Reutlingen School of Theology.

Changing Conditions

We live in times of global migration. Migration of course has always been a basic human condition, but the visibility of migrating and fleeing people has increased dramatically since the summer of 2015 in Germany and in many other places in Europe. By the end of the year roughly a million refugees had made their way into Germany alone. I interpret this situation not so much as a sudden crisis that has erupted due to a war, but as an expression of years, decades, and centuries of colonial rule, unjust economic relations, and cultural imperialism.

Whatever our analysis of the reasons of this sudden presence of many refugees may be, we have now reached a stage in which not only the media is full of reports and stories about refugees all over Europe, but we are encountering them on a daily basis on the streets, in the supermarkets, and in public buildings. This means that we are now experiencing with new intensity the inequalities in our global community that have been a reality for a long time.

My hope is that this new visibility eventually turns into a realization that a change of lifestyle in the global west is needed, and into an awareness that we more than ever live in a global and planetary community in which we are mutually dependent of each other. At certain instances such a change of mindset can be noticed already, not least in Methodist congregations in Austria and Germany. Also students and faculty at Reutlingen School of Theology – a United Methodist related institution – are actively involved in having table fellowship with and teaching German to refugees from Eritrea and Syria. Regular eye contact is an effective medicine against stereotypical imagination of the others.

As time is passing I also notice in media and in everyday life an increasing anxiety and aggressiveness aimed at refugees. The horrors at the borders of Macedonia are only one symptom of such anxiety. They are signs of toughening attitudes that win out over human dignity and human rights. But crimes against refugees exceed the crimes committed by refugees both in terms of numbers and severity. Nevertheless the terminology used in the media to describe such large numbers of human beings on the move has been increasingly inflammatory.  Downfall of the occident is just one of these allegedly descriptive terms. The result in the imagination of the general public often is a generalization of “the refugees” and what they are about as well as a tendency toward polarizing asylum seekers and the sedentary population, or even worse: asylum seekers and disadvantaged citizens as necessarily in competition with each other.

Under such conditions I believe that the Christian community is called to contribute to a re-imagination of cultural identity. And the global Methodist connection can play a pivotal role in such a re-imagination. Standing in the Jewish-Christian tradition, it has decisive resources to offer in situations of quickly changing cultural conditions. It can help in the struggle for new narratives in order to develop new strategies of encountering our new “others” with dignity.

The Need of New Narratives

Europe in the last decade or so has developed a very worrisome re-nationalization, in part due to the steady influx of refugees (both inner- and outer-European) and the increasing number of asylum seekers. Old stereotypes about “pure heritage” and the possibility (and alleged necessity) of clear cut distinction lines between cultural spheres are en vogue again. The symbolism we surround ourselves with in the European countries (and in a kind of mutual mirror effect in neighboring countries as well) oftentimes is one of old dreams of superiority. Such symbolism triggers narratives in Europe that are detrimental to a constructive view of current social and cultural conditions.

The warrior on the horse is a case in point. Especially since the sudden rise of Muslim refugees coming to the EU in late 2015 the message of the old visual representations becomes problematic. When a new Europe tries to emerge, falling back on old imaginations is counterproductive. In times of rising tensions between Turkey and the EU the prominence of equestrian statues such as the one of pasha Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, and king Ian Sobieski III, the “liberator of Europe” from the Turks in 1683, becomes increasingly problematic. They mirror each other in terms of exclusive territorial and cultural claims in times when the cultural realms are as intimately intertwined as never before.

The constructed nature of such imaginations is easily forgotten when conflicts arise. Do we not risk these days to fall back into the simplifying narratives of the past in which one cultural sphere militantly opposes another one?

Instead a theologically rooted conviction that belonging to different cultures/worlds is part of what it means to be human may be one of the ways in which Methodists around the world could contribute to a more constructive view of the coexistence between human beings on the move and human beings in sheltered conditions. After all a rapidly increasing number of people know themselves to belong to different worlds. But do we have the imagination; do we have good narratives to accommodate such double or multiple belonging?

Belonging to Different Worlds

A theological view of the human being and of human community shows a certain analogy to cultural multiple belonging in as much as Christians through the ages have understood themselves not only to belong to the societal community of everyday life but simultaneously also to a spiritual community that exceeds tangible social connections. There is in other words a certain metaphorical doubleness of Christian existence. Christians are not only members of a certain social group, but always also members of the household of God. Christians are not only citizens of a certain nation, but always also citizens of God’s kingdom. A rethinking of Christian identity as a double identity in the deepest existential sense may help toward a re-imagination of our migratory situation, and it may facilitate new forms of participation with migrants who painfully experience a certain doubleness on a daily basis.

The Second Century Letter to Diognetus is an early Christian document describing such existential double belonging of Christians in very concrete terms: “They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. […] They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”

The tension between being citizen and foreigner simultaneously – metaphorically speaking – needs to be maintained in the life of Christians. I believe a rethinking of such theological understanding of belonging to two worlds can stir our imagination in positive ways in a social situation in which migrants are denied a double belonging.

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