There is a scene in Francis Coppola’s film Godfather III where a saintly archbishop picks a stone from a water feature in his garden, cracks it open, and points to the dryness inside it. He comments that this is a metaphor of Christian society – after centuries the Gospel of Christ has not penetrated humanity.

A bleak metaphor, I admit, but one most appropriate to the latest shameful display of xenophobia we have seen in South Africa.

Not again, you say. Regular readers know that my colleagues and I have argued against xenophobia before. We have pointed out that hostility (and violence) against the stranger violates all great Biblical values, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Christian ethics. Xenophobia violates our Constitution and Bill of Rights, civil law and secular morality. It even violates common sense: immigrants add vitality and diversity to any culture; they bring much-needed skills; and they create jobs (not least because they know they can’t rely on welfare grants).

Not again, I say as I write this. I am sick of repeating myself. There are far more issues I would rather explore: how to address realistically the growing gap between rich and poor, corruption and the culture of greed, the coming water crisis in South Africa, power outages, global warming and the impending ecological collapse, to name but a few. But I come back again to xenophobia.

A Jesuit confrere who works with refugees has commented that the recent events are more common than we think. He says that there are almost daily incidents of migrants in South Africa experiencing hostility in various forms – from verbal abuse, through police harassment (for bribes) and demands for higher payment for medical treatment in public hospitals (which is illegal) to outright violence.

The indifference, the deafening silence, the denialism and equivocation, marked by occasional pious platitudes, of our civil, political, economic and religious leaders is a kind of acquiescence to the xenophobic status quo. Some may even rationalise it by saying that hostility to immigrants is a global phenomenon. Not again, I mutter as I hear them (or their silence). Let’s face it: We don’t give a damn!

From all this I am led to conclude that our much-touted South African philosophy of Ubuntu is a lie.

And meanwhile here we sit church on Sunday – looters, sympathizers and the great majority, the indifferent. Does our faith in Jesus, himself a refugee in Egypt for a while, make a difference? Does faith permeate us to the dry-stone core of ourselves? Or do we put the Gospel into disrepute, driving Jesus out? I fear that if we cannot see Christ in the migrant and refugee, we may not really encounter him in Church.

For the Jesus of the Gospel is with the victims of xenophobic barbarism whatever their faiths. He stands in the ruins of burnt-out, looted shops. He mourns with the victims of violence. He is the personification of Ubuntu in our anti-Ubuntu society.

With whom do we stand?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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