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Visum Monachae…On Being Alien

By Sister Edith Bogue

I began this column in Chisinau, Moldova, writing it as I met with people from many formerly communist nations. In biblical language, I was living as an alien, traveling among people who differ from me in religion, cultures, and languages. I met faculty who travel in a loose network of faith-based schools in the former Soviet Union, teaching hybrid courses in multiple languages and locations. The schools spread out from Austria east through Turkey, Georgia, and Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan, and northeast through Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States into Russia. Students come from all these nations and more, including a few from Africa and the Far East. I was an alien among aliens; it prompted me to consider the tension that can arise between the values of Hospitality and Community

Ancient Jewish law prescribed compassionate treatment for aliens, reminding the Hebrew people that their ancestors had been aliens in the lands where they settled. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien,” says the book of Leviticus. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33). The open dynamic of Hospitality is easily seen here. There is also an honest recognition of us-and-them. The alien should be treated fairly but, nonetheless, does not share a common identity, a Community, with the citizen.

In modern society, each of us have dozens of identities. We are an insider to some groups, and an outsider to numerous others, often at the same time. These roles are not easy to negotiate. Several of the students and professors I met described the moments when a heated classroom debate flared into rage and enmity. Students who shared common values, similar Christian beliefs and academic goals, also experienced deep rifts. Their home nations were at war, and bombing or invading each other. In moments of intellectual debate, their deeply embedded stereotypes and animosities overwhelmed all that bonded them. In the moment, they couldn’t see the other student as a person, but merely as the embodiment of the “other” or the “enemy.”

I asked professors and students how these conflicts played out. Their immediate response was no different from any US classroom: We must work together to de-escalate the conflict and return to the topic. In general, they welcomed these episodes as opportunities to grow in understanding, compassion and, yes, self-control. Andrei, a Russian student, said, “In 2014, my fellow students were all Ukrainians, and we were at war. This year, it’s mostly Turkish students in class. The potential for anger is constant.” He paused, then went on, “I study here because I have the chance to learn to live past the anger into something bigger.”

At CSS, our clashes can occur around many identities. They can be nasty and dividing. If we are willing to do the hard work, we too have the chance to grow into something bigger. May it be so.