A Theological Reflection on Dislocated Lives by Terry A. Veling
Many thanks to Terry Veling for kindly letting us reproduce this article!
(Catholic Theological Society of America, Invited Session, June 2006, San Antonio)
has led me to take an interest in the plight of the refugee, the asylum-seeker, the exile and
the itinerant. I would like to cite a poem that I wrote during this time in my life.
“A Day in the Life of an Alien”
Lines. They begin outside the building. A throng of people all corralled
into lines. They continue inside the building. Security screening first, of course,
and relinquishing my cigarette lighter – a possible weapon no doubt.
“Form one line!” “Only those with appointments!” “Have your papers
and identification ready!” Confusion. Anxiety written over many faces. The
authorities! “Line up here!” “Fill out these forms!” “Take your number and
have a seat!” Desperate souls herded into a huge processing machine, like cans of
beans on a factory line.
Memories of the unemployment office. And now it is the immigration
office. The same feelings. Humiliation. A thing to be processed and dealt with.
A case. An issue. A number. A reject in the system. A herded crowd. Not to be
trusted. Always under suspicion. Under the law. Regulated. Controlled.
Here I was again. The drill. Assigned my number, following directions,
holding onto my forms, anxious, unsure, waiting for that all-decisive “yes” or
“no.” To the left. To the right.
I have an alien number. It is A099147068. Who would have guessed that
on this beautiful blue planet, I would be given a number that identifies me as an
alien. I can’t fathom this. It actually boggles my mind more than the most
inscrutable mysteries of God.
We all had numbers and we all sat together, in tidy and orderly straight
rows, glancing up occasionally when we heard the chime as the number for the
next ticket-holder moved from B608 to B609. I was B638, so I knew I had a
while to wait. Plenty of time to gaze at the faces around me – wonderful faces –
with different features and complexions – old and young, some sitting silently
alone, others with family or a partner. Plenty of time to imagine their stories and
the journeys that brought them here. A room full of aliens.
I attempted to go to the restrooms, but was quickly pounced upon by a
security guard, as though leaving my seat was a breach of orderly conduct.
“Where is your ticket, Sir? You need your number to go to the restrooms.” She
spoke in a very loud voice (like a commandant . . . I wondered why she couldn’t
be a little more discrete), and I felt the eyes of the whole room gazing at me. I
had a sudden flashback and felt like a school kid again, busted by the principal.
“Never mind,” I said, “I can wait,” and I resumed my seat, figuring that a leak
wasn’t worth an interrogation. God, I felt like jumping up and spewing my guts
against this whole system and the indignity of it all. I felt the rage of a wild and
unruly Amos. But then I sat down, and rejoined my fellow compatriots, felt
myself being absorbed into the room, into the crowd, into the people – sat with
them, with them, with them – an alien among aliens.
I have no doubt that my own immigrant experience is but a poor reflection of the
plight of itinerants and asylum-seekers in our world. Nevertheless, it at least provides me
with a way to become involved in their concern, to feel something of their human
condition, to want to speak on their behalf and to join in their struggle.
It seems doubtful that we will ever be able to live without borders, even though,
as Robert Frost suggests, there is something within us “that doesn’t love a wall, that
wants it down.” If we have to deal with borders, then let’s try at least to make them as
open and porous and permeable as possible – especially for people – yes, even for the
immigrant and the itinerant, but most especially for the poor and the exiled.
We live in an age where money and information travel virtually unhindered and
freely around the globe, paying scant regard to barriers and borders. Yet the movement
of people is still crassly and crudely blocked and constrained. The Pontifical Council for
the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants writes:
The ever-increasing migration phenomenon today is an important component of
that growing interdependence among nation states that goes to make up
globalization, which has flung markets wide open but not frontiers, has
demolished boundaries for the free circulation of information and capital, but not
to the same extent for the free circulation of people. (The Love of Christ Toward
We continue to draw national lines and to insist on the right of nation-states to
control their borders, such that the very concept of “open borders” seems to create a wave
of frenzy and panic among national populations. “Asians go home!” was a common
graffiti I saw scrawled on walls and subways during a particularly dark period in
Australia’s recent history. In the wake of “September 11,” a new tightening of borders is
now made even more justifiable, such that a whole new department has been created in
the United States that seeks to protect and secure “the homeland.” There seems even less
hope now for the stranger, the immigrant, the itinerant, the refugee – for human beings
who find themselves, for one reason or another, “on the move” across our wondrously
For all those who want to insist on the right of sovereign states to control their
borders, Catholic social teaching willingly nods its head. It admits – almost begrudgingly
– that this is indeed a right (Strangers, n.36). Yet the right to control borders can never
stand as a right on its own. Indeed, left to its own devices, border control can easily
become a vehicle for abuse and injustice. In acknowledging the right of a state to control
its borders, Catholic social teaching says that this right should be exercised “in
furtherance of the common good,” suggesting that a nation does not exist simply as an
isolated nation unto its own, but rather exists within a “family of nations” and thus also
shares duties and responsibilities to the wider global community. The state, therefore,
has collective moral obligations to citizens of other countries. (Strangers, n.39; The love of Christ, n.8). Yet this duty is currently violated by almost all ‘developed’ states.” Pope
John Paul II writes:
In many regions of the world today people live in tragic situations of instability
and uncertainty . . . in such contexts the poor and the destitute make plans to seek
a new land that can offer them bread, dignity and peace. This is the migration of
the desperate: men and women who have no alternative than to leave their own
country to venture into the unknown. Every day thousands of people take even
critical risks in their attempts to escape from a life with no future. Unfortunately,
the reality they find in host nations is frequently a source of further
disappointment. (Message on World Migration Day 2000, n. 4)
In Australia, for example, asylum seekers are detained in prison-like conditions
for periods as long as three to four years, including children, and have even been
subjected to beatings and tear gas.3 The current Australian government has recently
initiated a policy to process all asylum-seekers off-shore in an effort to divert and delay
their claims for asylum. When I lived in the States, 167 Haitian asylum seekers arrived
on the shores of Miami. I sought visitation along with a group of pastoral workers but
was denied access, and was stunned by the high walls, barbed-wire and guards that
surrounded the immigration facility. Rather than offer a true human welcome, especially
for people who have undergone enormous trials and suffering, these “exiles of despair”
are detained in “processing centers” that are, in reality, prisons – kept under lock and key,
behind barbed wire, and controlled by uniformed guards
The concept of open borders is often perceived as a scandalous idea, particularly
among those who fear that it will create a “flood of immigrants.” Others see it as a naïve
or idealistic conception that simply wouldn’t work in the real world. It seems to me,
however, that “open borders” is the very ideal we should be striving toward, and that it is
a rather moderate ideal, far less radical, for example, than the more utopian or messianic
ideal of no borders. Humankind has not yet discovered a satisfactory way to live
peaceably without borders. Yet the possibility of living without borders often functions
as the very inspiration that leads many prophetic and compassionate souls to serve their
fellow human beings on this planet as if there were no borders – “Doctors Without
Borders” (Medicins Sans Frontieres), for example, along with many other international
relief agencies and humanitarian organizations. It seems to me that the “people of God”
– no less – should be a “people without borders,” people who recognize, along with St.
Paul, that “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and
also members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).
In his encyclical Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), Pope John XXIII comes
“dangerously” close to advocating the principle of open borders:
Every human being has the right to freedom of movement . . . and, when there are
just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence
there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular state does not detract in any
way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his
citizenship in the world community. (n.25)
To advocate for open borders is to advocate for the lessening of restrictions and
the breaking down of barriers that unduly block the movement of people. It is to
advocate for a more humane treatment of those who seek refuge on other shores; it is to
seek the dismantling of costly and oppressive bureaucratic procedures of immigration
systems, what Hannah Arendt calls “the infinitely complex red-tape existence” that
burdens the life of every immigrant.4 To advocate for open borders is to speak against
restrictive and unjust immigration policies that have created a huge underclass of illegal
and undocumented immigrants.
To advocate for open borders is to also directly challenge the ingrained and
media-driven racism, nationalism and xenophobia that drives much of the world’s
immigration policies. We are all too familiar with the standard litany of complaints that
are directed against foreigners – “they are dirty, they are noisy, they steal, they will not
work but just want to live on welfare, they fill up the hospitals, they crowd out the
schools, they will not adopt our ways, they run down the neighbourhood . . .”5 This is the
type of propaganda that too readily spews forth from the popular press, perpetuating
ethnocentric and anti-immigrant bias – to prevent the stranger and the foreigner, as John
Caputo says, “from crossing over ‘our’ borders, from taking ‘our’ jobs, from enjoying
‘our’ benefits and going to ‘our’ schools, from disturbing ‘our’ language, culture, religion
and public institutions.”6
The idea or vision of open borders should not be a remote aspiration; it should be
the very principle of human hospitality and solidarity. We should remember, too, that
many developed nations – countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States –
from their founding to the present time, are nations of immigrants who have welcomed
new people to their shores. At times, memories can fade as people forget the positive
fruits that have been borne of the immigrant experience – the new energy, hope, and
cultural diversity that enriches a nation’s life. Sometimes we can forget the great ideals
of a nation that have inspired a generous hospitality to those from other lands (cf. Emma
Lazarus’ poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty).
“And You Welcomed Me”
The best of the scriptures and the best of Christian tradition do not place any limit
or condition on hospitality. As Jacques Derrida notes, if hospitality were always set by
conditions and limits, it would not be true hospitality. However, neither can hospitality
be left as a lofty and remote ideal.7 The unconditional claims of hospitality need to be
continually tried and tested within the difficult conditions of our neighborhoods, our
societies and our nations – all of which are criss-crossed with fences, restrictions and
borders. Derrida writes:
To the extent that we are looking for criteria, for conditions, for passports, borders
and so on, we are limiting hospitality. . . But if we want to understand what
hospitality means, we have to think of unconditional hospitality, that is, openness
to whomever, to any new comer. And of course, if I want to know in advance who
is the good one, who is the bad one – in advance! – if I want to have an available
criterion to distinguish between the good immigrant and the bad immigrant, then I
would have no relation to the other as such. So to welcome the other, you have to
suspend the use of criteria. I would not recommend giving up all criteria, all
knowledge and politics. I would simply say that if I want to improve hospitality,
the politics of hospitality, I have to refer to pure hospitality . . . if only to control
the distance between in-hospitality, less hospitality, and more hospitality.8
Hospitality always involves a certain inconvenience or interruption to my world.
It is rarely within my control to prepare – in advance! – for the arrival of an unannounced
or unexpected guest or stranger, or for a person who is suddenly in need of my attention.
Such is the quandary of practicing hospitality – we cannot fully “prepare” for it; rather, it
always places us in the position of having to receive, rather than being able to control.
Here we come upon a very strange structure of hospitality – it is not simply something
that I offer – rather, hospitality means that I receive. Hospitality is always about
reception and in this sense, cannot be mastered. Rather, to be hospitable means that I am
in the position of the one who receives – such that it is the stranger who offers or
presents themselves to me.
Hospitality, in this sense, is quite “defenseless” – it lets its guard down and stands
unprotected. Perhaps this is why hospitality is so difficult, because we are so fearful.
Ana María Pineda observes that the Greek word for stranger is xenos. Our English word,
xenophobia, means “fear of the stranger.” If we turn this word around, we get the New
Testament word for hospitality: philoxenia, “love of the stranger.”9 Pure hospitality, like
perfect love, casts out all fear (1 Jn 4:18). It is not easy to create this deep trust in one
another, to convert xenophobia into philoxenia.
During the last presidential campaign, I was taken aback when I saw Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s televised speech at the 2004 National Republican Convention. He
spoke under the mantle of being an immigrant, yet he whipped the crowd into a fervor of
nationalism, as they all chanted in one voice: “USA! USA! USA!” I began to wonder
whether “of the people” might not be a dangerous principle. There is something
frightening about rallying-cries made under the banner of flag and country. Religion is
often critiqued for its zealot-like fervor that creates so much conflict in the world, but
Schwarzenegger’s speech proves that nationalistic fervor is also eerily alive and well.
According to Jacques Derrida, we live “at a moment in the history of humanity
and of the Nation-States when the foreigner, the immigrant (with or without papers), the
exile, those without a country, the displaced person or population – seems, on every
continent, open to a cruelty without precedent.”10 From border to border, close to us or
far away, “what is happening today, not only in Israel but in Europe and in France, in
Africa, America, and Asia . . . everywhere refugees of every kind, immigrants with or
without citizenship, exiled or forced from their homes, with or without papers.”11 There
is no room in the inn, no refuge for the stranger, no sense of human fraternity – such that
what we are witnessing today, Derrida suggests, are “crimes against hospitality.”12
Hannah Arendt notes that with the rise of nation-states, the question of human
rights became blurred with the concept of citizenship. The rights of a human being came
to be associated more and more with the rights of citizenship, whereas humans were
supposed to bear rights simply by their membership of humanity. As Arendt notes, “It
seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities that make it
possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man . . . The world finds nothing sacred
in the abstract nakedness of being human.”13
Derrida wonders whether a “new international” could possibly be conceived, one
that is beyond nationality and national citizenship and toward something more open,
more hospitable – “something which would go beyond the current stage of
internationality, perhaps beyond citizenship, beyond belonging to a state, to a given
nation state . . .”14
Is this a crazy dream? Or could it possibly be the hope of a new reality, one that
awaits a more mature humanity, one that we have not yet imagined – beyond flags and
pledges and anthems and uniforms and commanders – beyond this sliced-up planet – a
reconfiguration that still awaits us as we continue the ongoing experiment of learning to
live together in friendship and welcome.
My latest sojourn has caused me to reflect further on what it means to be “at
home” – a phrase that is laden with many meanings. We can think, for example, of
Augustine’s “restless heart,” or we can think of the latest creation of the U.S. government
– the Department of Homeland Security. We can think of all the “homelands” around the
world that are being fought for, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even though I am now “back home” – presumably where “I belong” – I don’t
really feel at home. It seems that part of my spiritual journey has always resisted any
efforts I make to settle-down and be “at home.” While I recognize (and feel for) the great
human suffering borne by so many displaced and dislocated lives (witness New Orleans,
not to mention all the world’s refugee camps), I can’t help but feel there is a certain
“homelessness” that accompanies every spiritual journey. I think I understand what St.
Augustine means by a “restless heart.”
I also feel continually wary of all of humanity’s vain hopes to “secure a
homeland.” Jesus asked us to travel lightly in the world: “with no gold or silver, nor even
with a few coppers for your purses, with no bag for your journey, or spare tunic or
sandals, or a staff” (Matt. 10:10).
I recently came across this rather perplexing statement from Gabriel Marcel:
“Perhaps a stable order can only be established on earth if man always remains acutely
conscious that his condition is that of a traveller” (from his book titled Homo Viator,
And then, from a twelfth-century text by Hugh of St. Victor: “All the world is
foreign soil to those who philosophize.” It is a great spiritual practice, he suggests, to
remain detached from the quest for secure homelands. “The person who finds his
homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; the person to whom every soil is as their native
land is already strong; but the one is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.
The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has
extended their love to all places; the perfect soul has extinguished all such attachment”
(Didascalicon, Book 3).
We are all “temporary residents” on this planet, or, as St. Paul says, we have here
no lasting home; we are tent-dwellers (2 Cor. 5:1; cf. Lev 25:23). We live under the
shelter of God and in the shelter of each other. What we need, I think, is a “Department
of Human Friendship.”
1 Terry Veling, Practical Theology: On Earth as It Is in Heaven (Maryknoll: Orbis,
2 Robert Frost, Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1973), 44.
3 Brennan, Tampering With Asylum (Brisbane: University of Queensland, 2004).
4 Hannah Arendt, The Portable Arendt (New York: Penguin, 2000), 25.
5 Michael Dummet, On Immigration and Refugees (London: Routledge, 2001), 67-68.
6 John D. Caputo (ed.) with Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A
Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham, 1997), 106-107.
7 Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness
(London: Routledge, 2001).
8 Jacques Derrida, “Discussion With Richard Kearney,” in John Caputo and Michael
Scanlon, eds. God, The Gift, and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999), 133.
9 Ana María Pineda, “Hospitality,” in Dorothy Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith (San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 33.
10 Jacques Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” in Adieu (Stanford UP, 1999), 64.
11 Ibid., 70-71. See the 2003 Annual Report of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
12 Ibid., 71.
13 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 299-300.
14 Jacques Derrida, “The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida,”
in John D. Caputo, ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell, 12.
Cited Church Documents:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano,
“Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” – A Pastoral Letter Concerning
Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States, Issued by USCCB, January
22, 2003. Retrieved from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us,” United
States Catholic Conference, 2000. Retrieved from the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops website: www.usccb.org
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Refugees: A Challenge
to Solidarity (1992). Retrieved from Vatican website: www.vatican.va
Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, “Erga migrantes caritas
Christi – The love of Christ towards migrants,” Vatican City, 2004. Retrieved from Vatican
Pope John Paul II, Message of the Holy Father for the World Migration Day 2000. Retrieved from
the Vatican website: www.vatican.va