[After analyzing M.I.A’s latest song and music video, this blog entry raises questions about what it means to be church in the midst of the refugee crisis and argues that when refugees drown, we the Church drown too]
First, in good Catholic tradition, I must make a confession: Until today, I had never heard of the artist known as M.I.A. (Mathangi Arulpragasam). Second, I’m deeply fascinated by her new song and video titled, “Borders,” which was released this past November 26th—Thanksgiving Day.
(You may need/want to watch the music video before reading on. Warning: lyrics contain explicit words and blog contains explicit image of drowning).
For any readers who like me live in an alternate world from rap (perhaps unfortunately so), M.I.A is a musical artist born in London. When she was only 6 months old, her parents moved with her to their native Sri Lanka where she grew up in the midst of the civil war. At age 10, she and her mother returned to the UK as “refugees.”
M.I.A. has been described as a “provocateur,” not only because of the graphic lyrics in her songs but because of the politically infused images she employs. Borders is no different. Borders’ lyrics, more akin to a postmodern series of deconstructive questions than to a constructive narrative, repeatedly asks: “What’s up with that?”
“Borders—what’s up with that?” // “Politics—what’s up with that?” // “Police shots—what’s up with that?” // “Identities—what’s up with that?” // “Your privilege—what’s up with that?”
While I can’t claim to grasp all the references and critiques embedded in the song, among the references to social media narcissism and internet clichés, M.I.A.’s repeated central questions create a drastic contrast between that which concerns so much of this “new world—what’s up with that?” and the “realness—what’s up with that?” of the “boat people—what’s up with that?”
Despite the difficulty with following a single narrative in the lyrics (purposely so I imagine), the video does provide a visually stunning narrative about displacement that invites us to re-read ourselves, our nations, and our notions of freedom.
The video starts with people in an arid dirt field running toward a massive metal fence, and portrays them climbing unto and over the fence covered with barbed wire. The camera angles evoke images of prisons, and some may argue, of concentration camps. The connection is most explicit when those climbing the fence spell “life” with their bodies hanging from the fence.
The video then shifts from the desert to the ocean, where alternating images of a ship made of bodies (on shore) and that of people on boats (in water) are hauntingly contrasted. The ship, made of men wearing off-white hooded gowns, points to the drowned—to the dead bodies that are still on ships at the bottom of the ocean.
Analysis, highlights, and critiques of the video could continue (for example, why are all the refugees men?), but at this point I want to shift to an ecclesiological key and ask a few direct questions:
When these “refugees” drown, do we drown? When they die, do we die?
Or, do our borders, politics, police shots, identities, and privilege protect us?
If so, “what’s up with that?”
First, let’s deal with the second possibility: Do our borders, politics, police shots, identities, and privilege protect us? Yes.
Clearly, borders are meant to divide and yes, as citizens of the United States who have practically unrestrained access to Europe, the border “protects” people like me/us. The politics protects people like me. The police shots protect people like me (though increasingly aims for people like me). My identity and privilege protect me. “What’s up with that?”
Why is it that I am I now “protected” by a system that was trying to hunt me down when I was not a citizen? How is it that now as a 33-year-old “citizen” I “deserve” protection from a system that saw me as a threat when I was only a 9-year-old “illegal” boy? Let’s face it, we live in a system where some lives matter more than others. Lives in the global north simply tend to matter more. But, as we know from the systematic killing of black lives in the United States, the systemic problem of valuing some lives more than others runs deeper than just borders.
Now let’s deal with the first option: “When these “refugees” drown, do we drown? When they die, do we die?” Yes.
Ecclesiologically and pneumatologically speaking, unless the church is no longer a mystery and sacrament that binds us in the Spirit of Christ to God the Father and to all creation, and in a particular way to the human person regardless of creed, nationality, socio-economic status or any kind of illegality with which the human person has been branded, then yes, when these “refugees” drown, we drown too.
This can be said on multiple levels:
(1) As Christians we believe that it is the same Spirit who dwells in each and every person, regardless of whether they are internal or external to the “borders” and “boundaries” that demarcate what we call the official church. While sacramental theology would want to make clarifications and nuance the above statement, fundamentally, the Spirit does not belong to the church and is not a possession of the church. Rather, the Church belongs and finds its raison d’être in service to the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom of justice and peace.
(2) We as a church drown when refugees drown because we continue to fail in our mission to participate in the transformation of the world so that it is not a privileged place for some and a hellish existence for others. As the 1971 document, Iustitia in mundo (Justice in the World) declares, “the church’s action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world… [are] a constitutive dimension…of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” (para.6).
(3) One of the classic images for depicting the mystery and sacrament of the church is a boat or a ship. The image of the bodies in the white gowns constituting the ship serves as a reminder that we are the church. Each and every one of us personally and collectively constitutes the church, and when one of us is affected we are all affected for we journey together towards the eschatological horizon that seeks the salvation of all, Christian and non-Christian. So yes, when one of our Christian or non-Christian brothers or sisters drown, we too drown.
Lastly, we can say that while borders, politics, and privilege protect us, churches are failing to use that protection to protect refugees. On September 6, 2015, Pope Francis invoked the ancient practice of sanctuary and called on all parishes, monasteries, convents, and other religious communities in Europe to take in at least one refugee family. The very next day, Hungarian Bishop, Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, publicly opposed Pope Francis’ call for sanctuary. Unlike the 1980s practice of church sanctuary that lasted about a decade and at its height consisted of a network of over 500 places of worship, Pope Francis’ call for an ecclesial movement didn’t seem to move very far—his voice was drowned by xenophobia and Islamophobia.
M.I.A.’s song and video subversively uses the very mechanisms of power and privilege to critique the system to which she, I, and you the reader belong. Some may say that she is simply exploiting the refugee crisis for fame. Perhaps. Yet, I can’t help but think that her own personal history has forged a commitment between her art and her politics, one which grants her the freedom to journey artistically with the displaced.
A 2010 interview with M.I.A. by the UK’s The Guardian, ends with the following:
Maya [M.I.A.] tells a story about moving back to England when she was 10. On her first day at school, her class [was] working through a sum. Maya put her hand up, because she knew the answer. “And literally the whole class turned round and laughed at me,” she says, laughing herself. The teacher patted her on the head and told her she didn’t have to pretend. But she did know the answer – she just couldn’t speak English. She didn’t have the words to tell them.
We have the words, we speak the language of the empire and have access to power and privilege in our own small or large social circles. Are we speaking and making our voices heard, or has our faith already drowned?
 If you want to read more about M.I.A., see: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jun/13/mia-feature-miranda-sawyer