In Europe and around the world, people are learning that all inhabitants of this globe are now neighbors.
By Matt Barlow
“Who is my neighbor?” a teacher of the Law asks Jesus. And Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan. A story that Martin Luther King placed at the center of his mission. If I had to describe the current general attitude of Europe towards “neighbors,” it would be more accurate to cite Robert Frost than Martin Luther King. Robert Frost wrote, in his poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” This seems to have been the general European attitude towards neighbors. Before the Syrian War broke out, the European Union spent millions of Euros building fences around European enclaves in Africa like Ceuta and Melilla in order to keep their “neighbors” out. More recently, European leaders have been proposing what basically amounts to paying Turkey to keep refugees away from European borders. From a German perspective, the idea of building walls to keep “neighbors” out comes across as distinctly near-sighted and historically forgetful.
European leaders like to talk a good game about human rights. But it almost seems as if human rights are only a concern when they are first being denied to Europeans. And then, secondly, they matter if the people being denied them are far enough away and have no desire to come here. But as for the people right on our borders? The people being walled out? Well, they’re just a “mass.” A “problem.” We can care about human rights, as long as it’s our own people or people far enough away. And we’re willing to shell out plenty of cash to KEEP them far away. Good fences make good neighbors. But the Church cannot and should not listen to the voices of the politicians over the prophetic voices in our midst.
In light of Martin Luther King’s legacy, the actions of European politicians come across as just another form of segregation. Another form of living in “peace” by keeping people separated so that no problems arise. Except that there are problems everywhere. Not the least of which is an ongoing civil war in Syria. We can’t fence out the problems of others. Not when they come to our doorsteps like Poor Lazarus, begging for some kind of safety.
The increased stream of people seeking refuge really brings home just how true Martin Luther King’s words are: “All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.” And, thankfully, many of the average citizens of Europe are taking the spirit of Martin Luther King’s words to heart in spite of their politicians. The outpouring of support and volunteers to help with those seeking refuge in Europe has been, in many places, overwhelming. People are learning to look beyond their inner “fences.” People are learning that all inhabitants of this globe are now neighbors. And they are seeing that their neighbor is really not that different from themselves. We are learning how to live with each other in peace. It takes time and understanding. And it is sometimes messy. But peace can be messy. Not the least mess of which is tearing down the walls that really don’t make good neighbors.
The United Methodist Church in Germany has been present and working with migrants from the very beginning of the current influx of people seeking refuge. The way was prepared through the work with the handful of international congregations that we have. The UMC has risen to what Martin Luther King calls us to do. And the UMC, with the broader Church throughout Europe, are called to continue to welcome their neighbors and tear down the walls.
Matt Barlow received his Master’s in Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary and now lives with his wife in Eberswalde, Germany. He leads an international congregation in Cottbus, as well as leading a German congregation in Eberswalde with his wife. An emergency shelter for asylum-seekers recently opened up directly across the street from their German church.
Editor’s Note: During this week, the week prior to Human Relations Sunday on Jan. 17 and the observance Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday on Jan. 18, GCORR invites you to consider the inter-connectedness of people around the world in the work of justice and equity. We have gathered voices from across the world-wide United Methodist connection to reflect on the words and life of Dr. King in their current context. The theme for the week, All My Relations, derived from the Lakota tradition, emphasizes shared respect, honor, and love for all of people and for the Earth, leaving no one out. Our hope is that the words of Dr. King and the writers who reflect on them spark authentic conversations that inspire action. Follow along each day this week and share your own reflections on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #AllMyRelations.