Today, 20th February is the United Nations‘ (UN) World Day of Social Justice is observed annually to encourage people to look at how social justice affects poverty eradication.  This year’s theme is ‘Workers on the Move: the Quest for Social Justice’.

Council for World Mission joins the movement calling for fair and compassionate labour governance at all levels and calls on the Christian community everywhere to discern their role in this mission context in response to the plight of migrant workers. We call on believing communities and individuals to enter into a process of discernment that is centred in an appreciation for God’s gift of life and our call to be stewards of that gift.

According to the UN, most migration today is linked directly or indirectly to the search for decent work opportunities. Even if employment is not the primary driver, it usually features in the migration process at some point. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are roughly 150 million migrant workers, among which 56 percent are men, and 44 percent are women.  Additionally, migrant workers account for 4.4 percent of all workers and have higher labour force participation rates than non-migrants globally (73 percent and 64 percent respectively).

We live in a time in history of unprecedented global wealth which also appears in many ways to be heavily subsidised by systems that keep the cost of primary goods and services, such as labour, disproportionately low.  To maintain control, the system ensures that the rights of individuals, at the bottom of this social-economic ladder, are restricted as far as possible. This becomes easier and worse when such workers are foreigners in the land, and when the society is conditioned to xenophobic sentiments1, often associating foreign workers with criminality, immorality, and general illegality.  It is also easier to keep silent, even callous, towards the sordid facts of injustice in the migrant worker industry, especially when some of the results are deemed to be for the greater good – such as the economic growth of a nation.

Migrant workers in many countries are severely overworked, often in highly hazardous conditions, and grossly underpaid. The reality of dehumanising attitudes towards and actions against migrant workers is far more disturbing than what is caught in the news headlines. There are endless stories of abuse, slavery and death at sea of migrant workers in the fishing industry; of rape and torture of domestic helpers at the mercy of their employers, most of whom are trapped in the brokerage system that supplies migrant workers to foreign countries which demands settlement of debts, to the tune of thousands of dollars, in order to be allowed to leave the country.  It should be noted that foreign workers, particularly, domestic helpers and caregivers are not covered under legal frameworks governing labour laws of many countries; therefore, their working conditions are left solely to the discretion of their employers.

There is a prophetic role for the Church to provide space and to enable the voicing of all of God’s creation in the land.  By way of encouragement, look to the book of Ruth where Abimelech and his family are presented as economic migrants. Abimelech’s family migrated to Moab because of the famine in Israel (Ruth 1: 1-5), and Naomi only returned to Israel when the famine was over (Ruth 1: 6-7, 22).  Ruth survived in a foreign country because of the kindness of Boaz, her own agility and the strategic considerations of Naomi (Ruth 2-4), in the same way, that Naomi and her family survived in the foreign land of Moab (1:  8-18).  The issue of migration is not new but the deliverance or demise of migrants always depends on the attitude of the receiving people to show hospitality, as in the case of the Moabites, or hostility, as in the case of Egypt towards the Israelites (Ex. 1: 8-11, 13-14, 22; 2: 23).  The Church must stand as a prophetic presence in community enabling the voicing of those who groan beneath a heavy burden and advocating for justice and peace.

The discipline of discernment ought to be an ongoing posture of the church. It is a spiritual discipline that locates the individual and community of faith at the fountain of God’s wisdom, a process by which we are helped to see, more clearly, the world in its struggle and search for meaning, for hope and a sense of future.  Discernment is using the “eyes of the heart” to see beyond the surface; to understand what God’s requirement of us is in the particularity of the social and political context in which we find ourselves; and to be “enlightened in order that we may know the hope to which he has called you (us)”2.

So, what does discernment mean for a community of faith today?  It means asking and struggling with the hard questions: What is going on in our community?  What are the dynamics at play?  Who are the players and what is their scope and intent of influence, motivation and commitment?  And more importantly, where is God at work in the midst of all that is going on; to what extent is the heart of God bleeding; and what does the God of life require of us in response?  These are the hard questions, questions that invite honest and unbiased reading, thorough interrogation, uncompromising truth-telling and a commitment to radical engagement for life.

Discernment is a spiritual discipline that prompts and propels us to dig deep, to go beyond the surface, to look for that which lies behind the façade to discover what is at stake and what is required to affirm life in community and to breathe life into the carcasses of latent dreams and remote possibilities.  Discernment is positioning oneself to receive the scroll that is in the hand of God and to listen for the message of God as the scroll is opened and God’s plan revealed3 for the salvation of the world, our world, that is in our own backyard, as it were, and beyond.  Discernment is learning what it means to be ready to receive the gift of courage and the mantle of prophetic presence to be able to translate discoveries into radical engagement.

However, discernment requires much more than reading scripture because ultimately discernment is the gift and work of the Holy Spirit.  Henri Nouwen tells a tale in his book, “The Wounded Healer”4 and it goes:

“Looking in the Fugitive’s Eye” is the tale of a young fugitive, who trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village and received the kind hospitality of the community.  However, no sooner than he was offered shelter that the soldiers came in search of him.  Receiving no cooperation from the villagers, the soldiers threatened to burn down the community; at which point the villagers went to seek advice from the minister.

The minister was faced with a crisis of options – whether to hand the boy over to the soldiers and watch him killed; or to continue to provide him a safe haven and watch the community destroyed.  Torn between a rock and a hard place, the minister “withdrew to his room to read the Bible, hoping to find an answer by dawn”.  As the minister searched the scripture he came upon the text: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost”.  Satisfied that he had found the answer he closed the Bible, called the soldiers and handed over the boy; whereupon “the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed”.

The village threw a big party, and there was celebration everywhere.  However the minister did not join in the celebration; he was “overcome with deep sadness”.  That night the minister was visited by an angel, who enquired of him: “What have you done?”  This was the same question asked of Cain who killed his brother, Abel.  Having told the angel what he did the angel promptly informed him that he had just “handed over the Messiah”.  “How could I know?” asked the terrifying minister.  This is the response of the angel, which takes us to another way of looking at the discipline of discernment: “If, instead of reading your bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known”.5

May the God of life give us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to respond to the prompting of the Spirit.

Photo by International Labour Organisation (ILO).

[1] For a critical analysis of social perceptions and status of migrant workers in Taiwan, see Cheng, Hsin-I. “On Migrant Workers’ Social Status in Taiwan: A Critical Analysis of Mainstream News Discourse.” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 20.
[2] Eph. 1: 18; see also Prob. 4: 23, where the writer calls for the guarding of the heart, recognising that “everything flows from it”.
[3] Revelation 5-8 (NIV) – the scroll contained seven seals, each representing a segment of God’s plan for the vindication of God’s people and the fall of Babylon.  On discovering that there was no one to open the scroll, John wept (5: 3-4) because he realised that lack of understanding concerning God’s plan creates insecurity regarding the future.  Discernment leads to understanding of the plan of God and builds confidence regarding the future.
[4] Nouwen, Henri: The Wounded Healer, Doubleday, NY, 1979
[5] See Nouwen, pp 25-47 for the full tale as well as Nouwen’s reflections and insights

Council for World Mission

1 Comment

    • Corrie van der Ven

      What a good, wise and important column, thanks. Beautiful quote from the Dutch Henri Nouwen.

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