Grant Tungay SJ describes how he heard about the latest xenophobic attacks while studying in Kenya. He draws on the parable of the Good Samaritan, asking us to reflect on who our neighbours are and how we have behaved towards them.
I first learnt about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa this week on Monday evening in Kenya, where I am currently studying. I am based at Hekima, a Jesuit college in Nairobi. A video showing the violence against foreigners was circulated in the WhatsApp group that also includes Jesuits from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
What is going on back home? What is going on in my country?
It seems this is the question on everybody’s lips this week. As we seek credible explanations for this fresh outpouring of violence against foreigners, one of Jesus’ parables keeps coming back to me. It is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The details of the parable are well known. Jesus is questioned by an expert on the Mosaic law about eternal life and how to obtain it. Jesus asks him about what the law says and the expert responds by saying that we should love God with everything we have and we should also love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Then the expert tests him by asking how we should recognise our neighbour. Jesus responds with a story, but does not focus on rules to identify who we must care about and who we can justifiably ignore. Instead, Jesus tells us that we should be like a person who stumbles across an absolute stranger on the road, lying injured in a ditch, and helps him. Jesus contrasts this Good Samaritan with the priest and Levite who came across the same person on their path and ignored him as they walked by on the other side of the road.
Who are you in the parable?
Preachers like to tell this story and ask the congregation to see if they can identify themselves in the story. Who are you like? The Good Samaritan, the priest or the Levite? However, when I ask myself who South Africans can identify themselves with in the story this week, I shudder when I realise that we are not mentioned in the story.
We are certainly not like the Good Samaritan who reaches out to strangers in need. We are not even like the priest or Levite who sees a stranger and walks on by. Instead, we are like the robbers who injured the stranger in the first place and put him in the ditch. We stand accused not of negligence to strangers, but active violence.
What is going on in my country? Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, spoke about the need to engage in a narrative that is constantly being nurtured about foreigners. This narrative wants to paint foreigners as taking local jobs and benefiting from social aid meant for locals. In a context of high unemployment and poverty among the local population, this narrative can be explosive and can fuel xenophobia. This outlook sees the expulsion of foreigners as the solution to economic stress. In this way, more money will be available to South Africans.
The minister of police, Bheki Cele, disagreed with this point of view in saying that xenophobia is an excuse for criminality. Violence against any person in South African is against the law. He called for greater police presence and more effective prosecution of the perpetrators of violence as the only way to respond to the situation.
These two explanations keep making the rounds and each explanation comes with its preferred solution. Either the government should focus on dropping the unemployment rate and increasing economic growth or the government should crack down more firmly on criminal activity directed towards foreigners.
Honest discussion about perceptions of foreigners
Bishop Mpumlwana proposes that we should have an open and honest discussion about the negative perceptions of foreigners so that we are able to identify false narratives. Foreigners are not the monsters we paint them out to be. As he himself notes, foreign nationals have been a constructive and positive presence in South Africa for a long time. The narrative is false, but we have to also recognise that South Africans are hungry and economically desperate.
What’s going on in my country? We will continue to grapple with this problem as a country for a while. But the images are hard to get out of my head. We are not loving our neighbour as ourselves. We are not even neglecting our neighbour in the street as we walk by. We are attacking our neighbours and leaving them in ditches.
Jesus’ parable is as relevant as it ever was. He calls us to care for our neighbours. A neighbour is not only a family member or friend, but every person we come across on our way.