God is een Pelgrim

God zelf is een Pelgrim. Hij reist ons voor dag en nacht. God is geen God vóór pelgrims, maar een God die zelf een Pelgrim ís. Als we vertrouwen op onze Pelgrim God, is er geen reden om als mens bang te zijn onderweg?

Dat is één van de punten die dr. Fred van Iersel dinsdag 18 juli inbrengt bij een workshop in het oecumenische Taizé, tijdens een week over solidariteit met vluchtelingen en migranten. Zijn startpunt is één van de spannende onderdelen in zijn verhaal. Hij begint zijn pleidooi bij het Godsbeeld. Hij ziet God als een pelgrimerende God en een God van liefde. Als Van Iersel een beeld van God heeft geschetst, gaat hij in op de consequenties van dat Godsbeeld voor het geloof in precies deze God die Pelgrim is.

Van Iersel, voorzitter van de beraadgroep Samenlevingsvragen, sluit daarmee aan bij het kernthema van het beleidsplan van de Raad van Kerken. Daarin staat de pelgrimage van gerechtigheid en vrede centraal. Het feit dat God Pelgrim is, is basis voor een open houding naar mensen. ‘Wees niet bang’, zei Jezus al. ‘Zou het niet helpen als we vragen hoe onze God voor pelgrims uit reist, hen uit oorlog en conflict bevrijdt, en uit de onderdanigheid en slavernij van dictaturen leidt? Is niet God de God die zichzelf voor de ballingschap manifesteert, die van de onderdrukte en vervolgde mensen houdt?’, stelt Van Iersel.

‘Het is onze Pelgrim God zelf, die vertrouwen geeft aan kwetsbare mensen in ballingschap. Hij onderhoudt deze kleine vlam van vertrouwen als de bron van menselijke waardigheid. Geloven, en blijven geloven, ondanks de ellende, lijkt misschien moeilijk. Maar het is een cadeau. Het is een simpel geschenk: om de goede boodschap van Christus te horen en inderdaad hierop te reageren: met ons hart en ziel en geest te bevestigen’.

Om te beseffen dat God zelf een Pelgrim is, moet men accepteren dat elke mens persoonlijk een pelgrim in de wereldgeschiedenis is, een persoon die zijn oorspronkelijke huis moet verlaten en die nog niet is aangekomen, zegt Van Iersel.

‘Het Evangelie vertelt ons over God op zijn bedevaart, die een spiritualiteit van geloof, hoop en liefde biedt aan de mensen die leven in ballingschap. In de praktijk moet de rechtvaardigheid die hierop geënt is, een ‘integrale rechtvaardigheid’ zijn die de armste en zwakste mensen omvat’.

Hieronder volgt het integrale verhaal van Van Iersel, zoals hij dat houdt in Taizé.

Christian Ethics regarding the Refugee and Migration Crisis. On the Consequences of a Faith in a Pilgrim God’s Generosity.

By Fred van Iersel

Contribution to the week of solidarity in Taize, France, July, 16-23th 2017

Dear friends, brothers and sisters

Thank you for attending this workshop. I am happy to contribute today after having visited this community for years during the seventies. I owe a lot to the community of Taize, and I am happy to be able to contribute today, so many years later. I am a Catholic theologian from the Netherlands specialised in theology and ethics of war and peace, and in pastoral care related to this, and I am happy to share some thoughts with you this afternoon, and discuss them with you.

1. Introduction

This week of solidarity in Taize is very important both to show the willingness to practice solidarity with refugees and other migrants to prepare for it in terms of a Christian response. It is obvious that migration is a major phenomenon in our time, in terms of the Bible it is a ‘ sign of our times’, with complex causes and reasons for seeking refuge, and complex multiple responses to it on the side of the receiving population. Therefore it is important to have dialogues firstly to understand what actu-ally is happening in terms of seeking refuge and receiving refugees and other migrants , secondly to find a common ground in terms of our normative ethics, and thirdly to search for common practice and solutions.
This afternoon I’d like to focus on one specific aspect of the challenges we are experiencing, being an approach on the basis of Christian theology and ethics.

2. Starting Point

The starting point of of a properly Christian ethics is not primarily what we should do, but who we are and meant to be in the eyes of God. This might sound very academic, but it is not. All genuinely Christian Ethics starts with faith, hope, and love. All of these three are gifts of God. We cannot simply decide to have faith, we cannot simply decide we are hopeful, we cannot even simply decide to love in accordance with God’s love for us. Faith, hope and love are the three so called ‘theological virtues’. That means they are three gifts which God has infused in our hearts and minds, without our own initiative, interference or practice. Now this is essential for Christian ethics, in all Christian denominations, also in the very practical subject matter we are considering today.

3. Faith

It makes a difference whether we put our faith, our trust, in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jakob, who according to Scripture is a pilgrim God traveling ahead of us. With this I do not mean a God for pilgrims, but a God who is a Pilgrim – capital P- Himself. If we trust this our pilgrim God, why would be afraid of people on the move? Do not fear, Jesus says. Should not we rather ask how our God travels ahead of pilgrims, leading them out of war and conflict, out of submission and slavery under dictatorships? Is not God the God that manifests Himself to those in exile, who loves the banned and persecuted people? It is this our pilgrim God, who Himself gives faith to the vulnerable people in exile, this little flame of trust in Him as the source of human dignity? To believe, and to keep on believing in spite of misery, may seem hard. But it is a gift. And basically it is a simple gift: to hear the good message of Christ, and to give in inner response to this: to affirm with our heart, and soul and mind: yes, the message of the pilgrim God I heard is true – God has taken care of our dignity, for good, and He always will. To realise that God Himself is a pilgrim God, implies that one has to accept that every human person basically is a pilgrim in world history, a person who has to leave his original home and who has not yet arrived.

Being a pilgrim is not so much about our original identity, I mean: it is not about our point of depar-ture in terms of ethnic or cultural identity. Because God has created us after His image, we are cal-led to be creative and get on the move to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. Our identity as believers is based on our vocation and mission to work creatively at the Kingdom of God.

May be we will not enter it during our lifetime and may be we will end our life standing before it, like Moses before the promised Land which he did not enter either. But God’s promise will be ful-filled once, and thus we are called to be pilgrims and strangers in world history.

4. Hope

Likewise, it makes a difference whether we hope or not, and what we hope for. What we hope for, is yet unseen. Christian Hope is unlike optimism about facts; it is also unlike calculated expectations about the results of our own human efforts. Christian hope is the hope for the Kingdom of God and its justice; it is the hope for the gift of the peace of Christ, our victimised and resurrected Mes-siah who does not choose for revenge and retaliation against His enemies or against the disciples who abandoned Him. Christ opted for forgiveness and reconciliation…. This our Christian hope is not completely dependent on factual progress. Have you ever noticed how many of us keep on ho-ping, even in situations which might as well lead to despair. But why? – Because their hope is a gift of God.We cannot do without.

5. Love

it makes a difference whether we love or do not love in accordance with the will of God. For God’s love is universal love and His will is that we at least try to practice universal love. Christian Love is not limited to loving your family or friends.

5.1. Loving the vulnerable

It includes loving ill people, the homeles, the poor, the prisoners, the strangers – and even our ene-mies. All of these are people who might interrupt a routine-based way of life. To meet them means to be challenged to be given a new challenge.

5.2. Loving strangers

To love a stranger, a refugee or a migrant, is to treat that person as a person with a human nature with all its common denominators, and exactly because of this human nature different from oursel-ves; a person who has been created after God’s image and likeness. For first of all, to love a stran-ger means to respect the other person’s human dignity, and pursue his human rights. The moral basis for this can be found in the book of Genesis, with Adam being born with a God-given dignity; in the New Testament, in the letter to the Galatians (3: 28-29), St. Paul adds to this that in Christ there is ‘ Jew nor Greek’, slave nor free, man nor woman’ . We all share our human nature as it is redee-med in Christ Jesus. This provides a double foundation for the Christian type of ethical universa-lism. Because we share the same human nature, and all are equally redeemed by Christ, all people should be treated equally.

5.3. Loving your enemies

On top of this, God’s love is even more universal in that it points the way to love our enemies. God’s love is all-inclusive. To love one’s enemies does not mean one has no enemies. It means treating them with respect for their human dignity and human rights; it means appealing to their conscience in dialogue and debate; it means distinguishing between the person of the enemies and their acts. It might even mean to give one’s life for the sake of their salvation, as Christ did.

5.4. Giving as the essence of Love

But let us be clear: our response to the love of God is not primarily about duties, our actions. First of all it is about seeing the other person as a gift of God. God’s gift is a path of mutual enrichment. The Gospel tells us several stories about what happens when people are not able to receive God’s love. The generosity of God has proportions people can hardly deal with: they start to claim their justifiable share of God’s property. A good example of this is Mt 25, 14-30, which is the parable of the talents.

5.5. Imitation of the loving God

Many parables of Jesus do invite us to act like God, to try and practice perfection even, to be ge-nerous, and to give, to wisely pass on what we have received. One other example is the parable of the workers of the last hour (Matthew 20, 1-16). This parable ends with a dispute about the question if God practices justice if He pays equal money to people who did not all work the same amount of hours.The parable tells us that may be comparative justice – equal treatment of the workers – is im-portant, but there is an even more important type of justice: to provide a worker’s wage so that he is dignified to feed his family and himself, because this is an even more universal duty.
The parables of Jesus, especially the fifteen economic parables, tell us God’ s generosity includes His creation, our redemption from evil and death, our forgiveness. All in all, God’s loving generosi-ty is comprehensive.

6. Prudence

Now in Christian ethics, the three theological virtues faith, hope and charity or love are at the basis of all moral virtues. For example, prudence is practical reason which understands ends and means of moral choice.It has to do with estimating foreseeable effects of policies. Therefore this prudence is a key moral virtue for politicians and all other people who bear responsibility in the public domain. For they need the capability to foresee the effects of their politics and their leadership. As an example of this taken from the Old Testament might think of the legendary wisdom of Salomo. Salomo needed prudence to solve moral dilemma’s and to act in a dynamic political environment. Prudence as a moral virtue is based on it’s relation to God’s wisdom as described in the Old Testa-ment books of Wisdom. Its source is Gods Wisdom. The New Testament teaches us that God sha-res His wisdom with us through the Holy Spirit. Thus prudence presupposes that God has created His creation in a certain knowledgable order, with tendencies towards the good in creation and in human persons.And alas, the goodness of human persons is contaminated by sin, but not completely disappeared.
If we think about the relevance of prudence for issues regarding migration, it is obvious that wis-dom is needed to make moral choices – not by mere calculations of costs and profits, but by asses-sing the human effects of politics in this domain. It is clear that there are no choices without risks, and no choices without double effects. This is typical for situations in which prudence as a moral virtue is needed.

7. Justice as a moral virtue

Now where does this lead us in terms of a second moral virtue, justice? First of all: in order to prac-tise justice, one needs prudence. So it is not: first define justice and then use prudence to realise it. To know what justice is, one needs practical reason, we need prudence; reason and ethics are in-tertwined.
(,,,) Justice is to be done towards others. There are several forms of this according to Christian ethics.

7.1. Legal Justice

First of all, there is legal justice. All people should be treated in accordance with the Universal De-claration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention. This has many consequences. The first human right is the right to live, which is why the EU cannot allow for the dying of so many refugees and other migrants in the Mediterranean sea. And likewise, food, housing, education for children, and work should be provided for. These are human rights. And it is a matter of justice to provide these.

Refugees and other migrants from their side are supposed to comply to the laws of the receiving country – provided of course these laws are ethically justifiable.

Now where legal justice is lacking, in terms of protection of the life of inhabitants of a state, or in terms of protection against war, there is a major cause of migration en seeking refuge elsewhere.

7.2. Commutative Justice

The second element of justice from the point of view of Christian ethics is the so called commutati-ve justice, that is to say: how people treat each other in society, apart from the state. People should treat each other as human persons with dignity and the right to fair treatment. This applies to busi-ness, but also to social, political and humanitarian practices. Social practices with regard to refu-gees and other migrants should not be completely dependent on states. As an element of this com-mutative justice, and according to the principle of subsidiarity, Churches do have a right to act on the basis of their own responsibility for commutative justice, by providing facilities in terms of basic needs, legal, medical and psychological assistance etcetera.

7.3. Distributive Justice

The third element of justice as a moral virtue in Christian ethics is the so called distributive justice. This means: the goods and services that are available after economic activity, the fruits of labor, must be divided in such a way that it serves the poorest. There is no such thing as justifiable wealth that excludes the poor. For the most part, our world economy is not based on this distributive justi-ce. This lack of global distributive justice is one of the main causes of global migration. Much more has to be done in this domain.

Of course there is a complication here for the receiving states. Even if they are willing to receive and host refugees, and to integrate them into citizenship and participation into society, other inhabitants, citizens, do have rights too. Among these there are socially vulnerable groups too, which have pro-blems in finding proper housing, a safe position in the labor market, sufficient education and access to the health care systems. From the point of view of Christian ethics, states should apply distribu-tive justice in such a way that these vulnerable groups in the receiving, hosting countries are treated according to distributive justice, too. This way states might be able to prevent resistance against the arrival of refugees. So distributive justice does require a two track type of policies in the receiving countries.

7.4. . Social Justice

Now, during the twentieth century, Christian ethics has developed a fourth element of justice. Bles-sed Pope Paul VI stimulated the idea of Social Justice as a dimension of justice in itself. This im-plies a proactive type of justice, which aims at establishing conditions for a good life of the inhabi-tants of countries. Social Justice is integral justice in the sense that it integrates economy, politics, legalisation and ecology; and it is socially inclusive, also including the marginalised people. An example is provided by Pope Francis. In his social Encyclical LaudatoSi’, Pope Francis pleads for a legal status for future refugees who are fleeing from, or traveling away from, environmental deteri-oration. This should be part of what Pope Francis calls integral ‘ ecology’

What makes social justice so very important is that it is not merely reactive. Many types of legal justice, and especially penal law, is reactive. First you do something wrong, and only after that the state reacts. So to do justice in penal law means to hold people accountable for mistakes they alrea-dy have made. Social justice is quite the opposite of this type of reactive justice. If it is proactive, it searches for a grand strategy to stimulate the common good, it searches for prudence. For example in case of receiving refugees, it is necessary for Europe to define itself als an immigration area. This would open the way to search for proper strategies to integrate the new populations, in stead of me-rely acting on the basis of incidents, which by definitions reactive.

8. Six principles to keep justice in practice

Now if we want to realise justice, Christian ethics has something more to add. Saint Pope John XXIII has provided some guiding principles in his prophetic Social Encyclical Pacem in Terris, da-ting from 1963.

8.1. Balance of my rights and my duties

First of all: if I claim rights, I also have duties; these have to be in balance with each other. In my opinion, this is why refugees and other migrants should comply to the national law and avoid cri-me. As the Bible book Ecclesiastes 10: 1 says:Dead flies make the oil of the perfumer give off a foul odor; so a little foolishness [ in one who is esteemed] outweighs wisdom and honor.’ Likewise, I’d add, criminality among refugees and other migrants has a ‘ pars-pro-toto’ effect on societies. Therefore it is important to realise that no matter where they came from, they have responsibilities and duties too.

The second principle of application according to Pope John XXIII is, that my rights and duties should be in proper balance with yours. In my analysis this does require both a hypothetical identifi-cation with the other: what would I need if if I were the other?; and it also would require a hypo-thetical universalisation: would everybody really ought to act exactly as me? My conclusion about this second principle is that is a legitimate issue how the rights and duties of refugees and other mi-grants in hosting countries are to be related to to the rights of those who were ready there.

8.3. Aiming at the common objective of the common good.

The third guiding principle is that the execution of rights must be aimed not only at single persons of small groups, but at the common objective of the common good. My personal conclusion here would be that all those involved in the refugee crisis should look at the result of a good society for all, not only at their own rights. All have the obligation to look at the whole of society and the state. Solidarity with refugees and other migrants should include this orientation on the common good and not isolate the issues from their complex social contexts in the receiving countries. In fact, it functions best as multilateral solidarity. It also should appear for the integration of rights and duties on all sides.

8.4. Compliance to legal justice Now Pope John XXIII has formulated a fourth principle.

Legal justice needs to be done to refugees; that is to say: they must be treated according to the Conven-tion of 1951. Compliance is required. What we should not do is strive for a restricted new edition of this Convention when times get tough. But of course this requirement of legal justice for refugees and other migrants also implies that refugees and other migrants who travel with criminal intentions or already have a criminal record on arrival, must be punished and treated in accordance with penal law as in constitutional democrat states.

8.5. Empowering of refugees and migrants to live their life in dignity.

The fifth principle given by Pope John XXIII is very important too: refugees and other migrants have to be enabled to live in accordance with their human dignity, said Pope John XXIII.

8.6. Allowance to seek ‘ happiness’ elsewhere in balance with the states’ right to refuse mi-grants.

Pope John Pope XXIII offers even a sixth principle: people are entitled to seek happiness – this is even obligatory according to the Catholic World Catechism- and they are entitled to see happiness elsewhere, but states do not have an absolute obligation to accept all of them and offer to all that apply for it. So contextual prudence is needed; we do not get any further on the basis of an absolu-tist type of ethics.

In this context it needs to be said that states do have an obligation to safeguard security, that is to say: international security, human security of refugees, and security for its citizens other inhabitants, and public institutions. Christian Ethics sometimes tends to underestimate the relevance of the sta-te’s task to establish security. For this cannot be reduced to justice. Saint Augustine told us already: pax ordo tranquillitatis, peace is based on stability and security, and of course on justice, pax opus iustitiae, peace is the fruit of of justice. But these two are not identical, nor does security automati-cally result out of an increase of justice.

Therefore, in my opinion, governments are entitled to research antecedents of refugees entering a country. They are even obliged to do so, because they have an existing obligation to secure the po-pulation against criminality. Also governments are entitled to look at the degree in which the local population is able to receive refugees.

9. Generous Justice

Now does this mean that politics regarding refugees and other migrants must be restrictive accor-ding to Christian Ethics? No, that would be too one-dimensional. Because at the basis of all justice that needs to be done is God’s generosity. The love of God for human beings includes our capabili-ty to do justice to others. Our capability to do justice itself is a gift of God. Basically Christian ethics is not ending up as a too simple list of principles, duties and rights. In the end, Christian ethics is about the way the receiving population and arriving population can be generous towards each other, and how they can be supported by their governments.

10 The generous God

Now why exactly is this generosity so very important in Christian Ethics? It is very important to realise that in God’s love there is no opposition between love based on justice and love based on mercy. The leading Catholic theologian in the history of theology, Thomas Aquinas formulated a very important insight. In a comment on St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians ( Ep. Ad Eph. 2, lect. 2, nrs. 85 en 86) of course he opens with the Divine Mercy, not with ours. According to Aquinas the Divine mercy precedes the Divine Justice. Justice even presupposes mercy. The Divine Mercy is the root of Divine Love. God’s creation is a matter of Mercy, not of Justice, says Aquinas. Why? Because Justice would require retribution, the obligation to act in a right way. So Divine Mercy is a matter of magnanimity and generosity.
Now by consequence of this argument, for Aquinas, the divine Mercy is not a mechanism that puts justice als a moral virtue and value aside. Rather it is the case that Mercy is at the basis of Divine justice. We can see this theme also in the Holy Bible, especially in the book of Exodus where God’s compassion leads Him to acts of liberation and therefore to justice.

This of course has also important implications for Christian ethics and justice as a moral virtue. Because the act of creation in itself already was an act of mercy, this implies that the justice to which we as humans are capable, likewise is a matter of mercy. A just order of society and state and our ability to create these are matters of mercy. (S. Th. II. II q. 30 nr. 4). The Divine mercy is also a precondition for justice as a moral virtue. Mercy and compassion are morally virtuous if they express a movement of our souls which is regulated by the right reason or prudence.

Of course this all seems a bit academic. And may be it is. But the consequences are not. In Christian ethics it must be seen as a trap if justice and mercy are taken as opposite to each other. For example it is incorrect for Christian ethics to just focus on the humanitarian compassion and leave issues of justice out of its scope.


Our solidarity with refugees and other migrants of course comes into being when we meet them, and we feel compassion for them. That is a very good thing. We should never put these moral emo-tions aside, and we should try to take them with us into the public domain; there is no reason to keep them private. And indeed, many of us try to resemble the good Samaritan, touched by some-one in need. It is an important parable showing us how important it is to let ourselves be interrupted by persons in need. But the Bible tells us more. It tells us about a loving pilgrim God, who is trave-ling ahead of us day and night, Who provides hope and faith in exile. The Bible tells us that all of us are strangers because we are pilgrims. And at the same time none of us is a stranger, because all of us are created after God’s image and likeness, and all of us are redeemed by Christ in His incarna-tion into our human nature, His suffering, death and His resurrection.
If we take a look at the whole picture, the Gospel goes far beyond our possible experience of our-selves as good Samaritans. For the good Samaritan allows interruption or even disruption when con-fronted by people in need. And the Gospel also invites us to take this compassion also as a motiva-tion to justice.

The Gospel tells us about God on His pilgrimage, offering a spirituality of faith, hope and love to those in exile,thus empowering them, and thus being far ahead of those who lead a primarily seden-tary existence like most people in host countries.

In practice, this justice should be an ‘integral justice’ that includes the poorest and weakest,and integrates the dimensions of justice I mentioned earlier, while at the same time it must be a multila-teral justice, focussing on the needs of different groups.

Let us opt for Biblical realism. Justice can be a hard virtue, for example if it is linked to equal rights. It can not be the case that some refugees and other migrants can stay in our country only because we have experienced them, we know them and we are moved by them and have befriend them. True justice and true mercy do require equal treatment of equal cases, and to pursue it might lead to moral dilemmas. and justice requires a government based interest in security issues which are to respected. But then again, most of all, it must be remembered that justice in Christian ethics is not primarily focused on our own interests, but on the interests of other persons, and that justice is not just a matter of rights and duties, but of generosity too. Justice roots in mercy, and mercy does not put aside justice, but makes it easier to put it into practice because it is a generously and freely given justice, which implies a type of moral virtuosity. If we want to practice justice this is made easier for everyone by faithfully asking for the pilgrim God: where can we find Him now, way ahead of us?

Thank you for your attention.

Prof. dr. A.H.M. (Fred) van Iersel

1. Fred van Iersel
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