The word “refugee,” I recently learned, was originally coined to refer to the Huguenots. As the Reformation began to take hold in Europe, although mostly associated with Germany and Switzerland, many French believers left Catholicism and became known as Huguenots. Early modernity was a time when religious persecution was rather openly practiced (as it still is in parts of the world) and many Huguenots were forced out of their homeland where Catholicism was the state religion. The word used to describe these unfortunates was “refugee.” For whatever reason, the plight of the Huguenots has never really captured the public imagination the way that many groups of displaced individuals has. We seldom hear of Huguenots any more, but generic refugees are daily in our news.
While it is hardly a mark of pride or accomplishment to have Christians persecuting Christians as the origin of the term “refugee,” the fact that refugees are becoming more common rather than less so should be worrying. Borders, all of which are artificial, no matter how high we build our walls, lead to closed opportunities. Every once in a while, I ponder the phenomenon that none of us has any control over where we’re born. We might be fortunate enough to find ourselves in an affluent democracy (so I’m told) or equally beyond our control in a repressive totalitarian military state. The ability to see things from another’s point of view is essential to the concept of the refugee. Can we imagine what it is like to be persecuted for religious belief? For being born female in a chauvinistic society? For being poor when money seems to be everywhere for those who know how to extort it? Have we no sympathy for those who find themselves conceived under trying circumstances? If it were me, I’m sure I would think differently about it.
Historically, and by the numbers, the Catholic Church has been by far the most successful form of Christianity that the world has known. Claims to the title of “Christianity” are hotly contested, but the continuity, in some form or other, has hung together for a couple of millennia. In times past, those who differed, such as the Puritans in England and Huguenots in France, were encouraged to leave. The world was plenty big enough. Were the borders of today erected in early modernity, the plight of the Huguenots, like that of many untolerated religious groups, might have been far more dramatic. Largely assimilated today, the Huguenots are not much on most people’s minds and yet refugees still regularly approach the borders beyond which a more humane life awaits. Religious persecution gave the world the word; could its opposite provide the solution?