Shaping debate on religion in public life.

With Open Arms? A Christian Response to the Immigration Crisis

23 Nov 2015

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Christians are so much better at feasting than fasting.  It might be why we react with such outrage when atrocities such as those in Pairs, Beirut and Kenya impinge on our desire for peace and joy in a world we cannot seem to accept as genuinely ‘broken’.  It may even account for some of the disbelief or – dare I say it – apparent apathy as we watch bodies being washed ashore far from the safety of our centrally heated living rooms.  Can these things really be happening?  Can one human being actually treat another with such contempt, degradation and lack of respect?

Yet for many people of faith our heritage is one of a fasting people, pilgrims, longing for a homeland, longing for their God to bring them to a safe and abundant place, flowing with milk and honey, and vines heavy with grapes.  Fruitfulness, and the promise of good wine with which to celebrate bring us home to the arms of an ever-loving, lavishly generous God, whose opening words are always, ‘Welcome home!’ as we are enveloped in the merciful love that knows all, and forgives-all.  God’s hospitality knows no bounds. These images of profligate welcome jar as badly gears crunching into reverse as we drive on, unable to hold the virtual detention centres into which asylum seekers are shunted in tension with our desire to welcome with open arms the vulnerable and those who are without a place to call home.  And should the much sought after visa be granted for an individual that is traumatised, isolated and in a strange land, finding somewhere to live and paid work is no mean feat.

Yet how easy it is to watch a child’s body being lapped by the waves and blame the parents for putting them in so dangerous a predicament; to toss verbal grenades into headlines that declare our country sinking under the weight of benefit and job-seeking immigrants, here to steal our plenty from us.  Even as the figures are circulated via Twitter, the genuine figures, it is hard to resist the incessant waves that drag us into an undertow of doubt about what the consequences of our belief system, and/or our political system might really be.  For those of us who continue to campaign, live alongside and support asylum seekers, the spectres of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma loom large.

Perhaps, more dangerously, we can look for those things that differentiate us from those drowning, in order to justify our closing doors: they are not our ethnicity; they live differently to us; they are adherents of another faith; their families are large and expansive; they will eat and drink of our milk and honey, and celebrate their safety with our good wine… and these differences are presented via the media and political sound bites as potentially threatening the very fabric of our society, ‘endangering a collective way of life’.

It is all too easy for politicians to attribute policy decisions to subjective group closure red-top headlines that feed on those fears.  For those of us happy to make a stand against inflammatory and divisive reportage, we turn to political campaigning, or perhaps join a Foodbank.  We might work with Boaz, teach people English, or befriend an asylum seeker.  We may even wade out from beaches, dragging tired, terrified travelers who have left all they have ever known to the politics of those even less able to grasp the greater good than our own government(s) can sometimes appear to do. But these activities can feel like a drop in the ocean as their need far outstrips our capacity as individuals to meet them, and we feel excluded from the table around which such policies are made.

Yet Wilson and Mavelli, in their briefing paper, Faith and the Asylum Crisis: The role of religion in responding to displacement make it clear that our political structures require a greater level of religious literacy if their policy-making is to be effective in the long-term:

‘Avoid an “add religion and stir” approach to religion and displacement that leaves secularist structures and assumptions largely in place.  Policymakers, politicians and practitioners must be encouraged to critically self-reflect on the partiality of their own values and assumptions, secular or religious.’

Contrary to the refrain that Bishops ought to keep their noses out of politics the briefing paper also recommends that,

‘Faith-based actors and civil society actors should be part of discussions with politicians and policymakers thinking creatively about how to strategically reframe migration debates. By championing universal values of solidarity and piety that do not stop at national borders, these organisations are critical in processes of desecuritization. They should (as many already do) also participate in and even spearhead civic education campaigns on these issues’.

My parish has historically, and is still is, very welcoming towards those seeking asylum.  At first hand we see the depression and isolation that follows the ‘yes’ that assures their safety.  We see the future roll out before them as an uncertain road, where every step is an enormous effort of transition and resources and transferable skills in an inhospitable land that has said ‘yes’ on the one hand, but so often shouts, ‘No, no, no!’ from every newspaper stand or volatile neighbour they are unfortunate enough to meet.  Fear drives us to exclude; fear of the other, fear of loss to ourselves, fear of being faced with the impact of our own survival instincts, and never more acutely, fear of terrorism overlaid onto ethnicity itself.

As for the asylum seekers, many mourn.  Yes, there is the relief of a certain safety, but they are not celebrating.  For they are still pilgrims, longing for a homeland; longing for their God to bring them the fruitfulness of an everyday life that is worth living, with the promise of good wine with which to celebrate. Their sense of place, identity and autonomy are fundamentally challenged as strangers decide upon their fate, and the future of their children, so much so, that many of them suffer with complex PTSD, particularly having already been exposed to trauma as the provoking incident(s) of migration.

Yet, far from their being little or no hope of positive integration, stories of what has and has not worked are vitally important with ideological language playing a crucial part in ensuring that the asylum seeker is seen as sharing the responsibility for successful integration 50:50 with the receiving community. Thus any failures are not ‘the asylum seekers fault’, adding to their sense of loss and failure.  Kirkwood, McKinlay and McVittie write that ‘attending to the rhetorical functions of integration discourse in order to understand how particular policies and practices are supported or criticized at the community level at which integration takes place’ are crucial to success on both sides and, I would argue, would make for far better headlines.  We might also learn from studies that have looked towards reforming and developing models of immigration and integration that are not merely copied, but are used as inspirational tools with which to reflect upon our own policies, our own context. We ought to own our  response to asylum seekers and refugees in order to bridge the gap between what we feel we should do, and what is actually happening in our communities.

Dr Rev’d Hayley Matthews is Rector of Holy Innocents’ Fallowfield, Manchester and a trustee of the William Temple Foundation.

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