I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: September 2015


I’ve spent a long time wondering about thee European refugee/migrant situation. Part of my interest is that I live in one of the top-ten contributing countries. I don’t know any young man here who wouldn’t be happy to go to West, and I can’t imagine a family that wouldn’t love to have a wage-earner living in the West. Ten years ago a study here showed that about a quarter of the economy was cash remittances: money sent back into the country by people living abroad. Conversely, the fighting that is going on here is localized, and always transitory. Villages might conceivably empty for as much as a few months, but there is no, e.g., emptying of the countryside in a way that is visible in the cities. If there are mass migrations of people in this country, I have never seen evidence of it.

Based on these numbers from the UNHCR, we have 69% men, 13% women, and 18% children. Glancing down the top-10 list of countries, I feel confident in predicting that the refugee women are typically not traveling alone. My guess is that the women and children are typically accompanied by men. If that is the case, then we can estimate 56% of the men are traveling alone. (These are estimates; I would love to have data disaggregated by age, marital status, and country of origin. My prediction would be that, aside from the Syrians, the refugees are healthy young men looking for employment.) So, from some cultural experience and these numbers, I feel that we are looking at a mass economic migration. That is, these people have not given up on their security situation; they’ve given up on their economic situation.

I don’t blame them at all. I’ve lived in the developing world for about six years, and I see very little reason for optimism, for most people. I don’t doubt that national GDPs will increase, but as is strikingly obvious from visiting a country like India, for example, that even very highly developed economies can leave large swathes of the population behind. Certainly my experience in this country—and I suspect this is typical—is that employment is generally available only through kinship or patronage. One does not simply move to the city to work in a factory, and get ahead that way.

These economic and social realities create interesting effects, such as the one noted in this blog post (backup up by a proper peer-reviewed research article): “The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country.” This implies that the economic problems lie not, for the most part, with Haitians, but with Haiti. That is, the basic problem seems to be that these people are stuck in bad situations. Take them out of the bad situation, and their lives get better. (This is even a problem at the cultural level: most immigrants don’t change their cultural beliefs and practices, or even their language, in the first generation. It’s a matter of being in a specifically bad situation. One thinks of being in a poorly-built house: there is a point at which you just have to give up and start over.)

So what is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? This foundational UNHCR document defines a refugee as a person who,

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Of course “fear” is not defined, but there are entire ethnic groups that are persecuted (to one degree or another). There are entire ethnic groups for whom it would be putting it mildly to say that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of their government. There are moreover millions of people whose economic prospects, viewed from a Western perspective, are a nightmare. That is real. I know plenty of people who meet this definition.

Given these facts, and the interpretation I’ve put on them, it would be easy to say: well, we can’t employ them all, so let’s turn them all away. But I think that there are positive things to be done. One thing would be to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge that for many people, this is an economic crisis. It’s not a coincidence that they’re trying to get to Germany, for instance, and not to some nearer country. I think that a positive government response would be to open the borders in a responsible way: to allow migration for economic purposes. We could assign temporary visas based on a lottery system, and let people make their own travel arrangements. A separate track can remain open for people who want to come with their families as well. But there could be a humane system to allow menial laborers to come in to the country to earn money. (And it’s not as if this is some new idea: countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates rely on immigrant labor.) This could also allow for protection of worker rights, which can deal a blow to human trafficking. And—not that these are people I am typically interested in mollifying—I think it would take away some oxygen from the newly-revitalized right-wing parties: it’s easy to work oneself into a frenzy over utopian policies; it’s much harder to do it over sane ones.

The big picture problem, as I see is it, is a global imbalance of aspirations and means. Media gives aspirations of wealth to all people of the world: from the richest to the poorest. Big house, fancy car, beautiful wife, successful children. In a country like the United States, you can buy into that and run the rat race—not that I recommend it, but the option is there. In most countries of the world, that option is not there. I believe that frustrated ambition is the driving force behind most of the particularly realizations of sin in the world today: religious extremism, mob violence, violence against women, and so forth. If we close off our borders, it’s like clogging a pressure cooker. If we adopt sensible policies in regard to economic migration, we can let out some of the steam.

Paul of Tarsus, advocate of gender neutrality

One of the perennial controversies in English Bible translations is the issue of gender neutrality, i.e., whether to interpret Greek masculine nouns as generic uses of the masculine (short answer: often yes), and then on top of that, whether to retain the use of the generic masculine in English (a matter of style, but so far as good taste is concerned: also often yes). So you get a verse like 1 John 2:9, “ὁ λέγων ἐν τῷ φωτὶ εἶναι καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῶν ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν ἕως ἄρτι.” The ESV translates, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” Conversely, the NRSV adds a feminine: “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.” Whether this is to avoid implying that we’re allowed to hate women, or whether it’s simply to allow women the privilege of being generic too, the translators have not informed us.

For myself, I don’t find the generic use of the masculine particularly offensive, and I don’t think the man on the street does either. 😉 But also I don’t care very much, although there are many people who—having solved every other problem in their own life, and achieved perfect sanctification—have a great deal of energy to expend upon this issue.

All of this as prelude to my amusement upon reading Paul’s paraphrasing of 2 Samuel 7:14 in 2 Corinthians 6:18:

καὶ ἔσομαι ὑμῖν εἰς πατέρα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔσεσθέ μοι εἰς υἱοὺς καὶ θυγατέρας, λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ.

And I will be a father for you (pl.) and you will be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.

The Septuagint has:

ἐγὼ ἔσομαι αὐτῷ εἰς πατέρα, καὶ αὐτὸς ἔσται μοι εἰς υἱόν·

And I will be to him a father, and he will be for me a son.

So Paul changes the singular to a plural, and not only that, but he adds in mentions of daughters specifically. Gender-neutral in the first century A.D. How about that?

(This entire post of course is a 20th/21st century anachronism. The really surprising thing should be that Paul has applied the promises made to David directly to the Church—incorporative Christology at its best.)


After finishing the Urquhart biography, I’ve gone on something of a Hammarskjöld kick. I’m re-reading the W.H. Auden translation of Vägmärken, Markings. (This is particularly meaningful because I am reading from the copy I inherited from my maternal grandfather, which he had given to his father-in-law, my great-greatgrandfather, in 1964.) In my previous post I identified Paton, Mullins, and Hammarskjöld as influences on me in my early twenties, but as I’ve thought about dates and events, it must have been my late teens. So on the one hand I have the nostalgia of reading Hammarskjöld’s treatment of categories that became foundational for my thought and self-understanding: maturity, responsibility, integrity, faith, sacrifice. On the other hand I flatter myself that the intervening years have given me some deeper understanding of his writings, and I think I can look forward to a still better understanding after another ten or fifteen years.

Since Auden’s translation has been heavily criticized by some, I was also pleased to find an alternate translation from the Swedish, with additional notes and interpretations, online for free (A Reader’s Guide to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Waymarks).

Less to my credit, I have looked through the recent report of the Hammarskjöld Commission on the various ideas surrounding Hammarskjöld’s death, in which the mutually contradictory, decades-old ramblings of non-credible witnesses are taken to be evidence for any number of conspiracies, again all mutually contradictory, regarding the plane crash. This at least I can appreciate as Fate’s ironic riposte to Hammarskjöld’s own wish: “If even dying is to be made a social function, then, please, grant me the favor of sneaking out on tiptoe without disturbing the party.”

What to say about Markings? I think that really there is no other spiritual autobiography to be written. (That is unjustifiable hyperbole: I have not even read Augustine’s Confessions. But what I wrote, I have written.) The only comparable work that comes to mind is Romans 7. Hammarskjöld knew what he was: strengths, weaknesses, potentials, liabilities. He didn’t just happen to be a man of integrity; it was hard-won.

In the preface Markings, Auden says that Hammarskjöld shows “a narcissistic fascination with himself” (xiv). Part of me says: fair enough. But what other option is there? Is it less narcissistic to leave the soul unexamined? To be unaware of the grounds of one’s own behavior?

Here is what Hammarskjöld has to say about it (writing after he has predicted that his journal would be published):

Not to brood over my pettiness with masochistic self-disgust, not to take a pride in admitting it—but to recognize it as a threat to my integrity of action, the moment I let it out of my sight.

I had not wanted this post to be a mere collection of quotes, but when I was looking for the first that I cited, I found all of these others, and I can’t resist sharing them. The following three are meaningful for reasons I won’t disclose here:

The question answered itself: “I believe that we should die with decency, so that at least, decency will survive.”

It is more important to be aware of the grounds for your own behavior than to understand the motives of another.

While performing the part which is truly ours, how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours: the person you must really be in order to fulfill your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfill it. How exhausting—but unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behavior.

And finally Hammarskjöld on sacrifice:

Tomorrow we shall meet, Death and I—And he shall thrust his sword Into one who is wide awake.

Smiling, sincere, incorruptible—His body disciplined and limber. A man who had become what he could, And was what he was—Ready at any moment to gather everything Into one simple sacrifice.

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