I was privileged not just to be at the Refugees Welcome march yesterday in London, but also to speak at the rally in Parliament Square.
You can catch me here
I’m proud today to have had a part in the letter from many leaders of many faiths, encouraging the government to adopt a more generous and inclusive policy towards those who seek asylum in this country. You can find the letter here, and coverage of it here and here – and these are my reflections:
Our government is committed to offering asylum to those who come to this country and who have a genuine claim. It is even more committed to preventing them from doing so. Successive governments have made it more and difficult for anyone to get here in order to make a claim: the ‘wall of Calais’ is just the latest attempt. We levy heavy fines on those who transport people to this country without passports and visas – and those genuinely in need of asylum are exactly the ones who can’t get documents to allow them to travel. We take advantage of the fact that few asylum seekers can get here direct, to insist they should have made their claim somewhere else.
The result? We drive asylum seekers into the hands of people traffickers. Those who only have to spend all their resources are the lucky ones – they didn’t die along the way. We increase the profits from organised crime. I hope that very few people, as individuals, would treat another human being that way. And it’s still wrong when it’s done by the government on our behalf.
There are simple things the government could do which would have a huge impact. To issue humanitarian visas so that people could come here to have their claim assessed, so that refugees don’t have to risk their lives to reach their families. To reduce the many restrictive rules that prevent families from being re-united, by preventing lone refugee children from bringing their parents to the UK, and making it extremely difficult even for adult British citizens to do so.
These changes would be neither expensive nor impossibly complex. In Italy, the government is working in alliance with churches and charities to issue visas in the Middle East and North Africa which allow those seeking asylum to avoid the traffickers. On arrival, the sponsoring churches look after the new arrivals, teaching them the language and helping them become integrated into the community. In this country likewise, there are thousands who have family members still in areas of conflict, there are hundreds of churches, mosques and charities who would be glad to offer sponsorship or support. But the UK government isn’t interested.
These moves should not be controversial. The wonder to me is that we have ever put in place measures which divide families in this way. The leaders of many faiths who have written today to the Prime Minister have done so in the conviction that the proposals we make are in the best interests of our country as well as those we should be reaching out to help. All our faiths compel us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, and to offer help to anyone in need. We rejoice in the mosaic of different faiths and British communities that we now represent. Some of us came to this country from other countries of birth; others, like myself, have been British for many generations. But we all recognize that the best of this country is represented by the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day. The U.K. should be proud to take its fair share of refugees, as we have done in the past, to exhibit to those in most need the very best of Britain.
Just posted on the diocesan blog – http://southwarkcofe.tumblr.com/post/149876038913/what-makes-a-good-life
I was talking recently with some Norwegian friends – fluent in English, of course, but not native speakers. So when I said ‘that would be interesting’ I was asked ‘So, which of the seventeen meanings of ‘interesting’ would that be?’ A good question in that context, and for today. ‘Interesting times’ are times of uncertainty, maybe of danger; times of change, maybe of chaos; times of new possibilities, but also unexpected fears. We are in the UK now living in interesting times.
My father was a meteorologist, which explains perhaps why I am even more interested in the weather than the average Brit (I wonder, how long will that term have its present meaning?). The weather is inherently unpredictable, but there are times when it is more difficult even than usual. The Met Office run their simulations of what might happen, and sometimes a whole range of radically different outcomes are equally possible. That’s what it feels like now to me. No-one can predict what’s going to happen – we just don’t know.
So how do we live in these ‘interesting’ times? We start from a difficult place, in a nation deeply divided after an aggressive referendum campaign marked by negativity on each side. Counting up the votes in the boroughs and districts which (more or less) reflect my own episcopal area, there were 206664 for remain, and 203611 for leave – that’s a remain majority of 50.3%. Round here we are as finely balanced as anywhere in the country.
Living with uncertainty is never easy. All the more difficult when half of us are confronted with a future we voted against, and many of those who voted to leave seem to be in a state of shock at their victory. It’s a time when Paul’s words are particularly relevant, and a little frightening. As I write, it seems as if both our main political parties are descending into the sort of civil war that Paul warns against in Galatians. The break up of the UK is again on the cards, and no-one knows what the future holds for the political settlement in Northern Ireland. There are widespread reports of racist abuse of those who look ‘foreign’. A hospital chaplain reports that staff in his hospital, from many countries in the EU and beyond, are feeling as if all their work and dedication had been rejected.
Paul’s answer is that we should instead love our neighbours as ourselves. That may be almost equally difficult for everyone. Those who voted to remain in the EU are asked to love those who voted to leave, despite everything – and vice versa. Not to agree, but to love. It’s only by doing that that we can demonstrate that we are still neighbours.
The sort of love which holds a community together is not romantic. It’s the practical act of recognising that we are responsible for one another’s well being, that my good is bound up with what is good for you. It’s part of the trust which enables us think of other people as sharing the same sorts of values as us, even if they express them differently. Both of those sorts of communal love are under threat. The referendum debate has led many people to suspect that half of their neighbours don’t share the same basic values that they have. It has left many wondering whether they have any place at all.
Neighbourliness needs rebuilding right now, from the ground up. Those who feel that they have been rejected need to know that they are still part of our community. Those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain need to reassure each other that they are still neighbours. The future is unclear, and looks likely to be a bumpy ride. The opportunities for division, recrimination and resentment are many. But we must heed Paul’s warning. Love is not an optional extra.
I should start with a disclaimer – this is personal, not the view of the Diocese of Southwark, still less the Church of England.
As the debate has unfolded, I have become more and more convinced that it is in our best interests to stay in the European Union. Behind the headlines, there are even more important questions here, which aren’t being addresses as far as I can see – what does it take to make a healthy community? how do human beings learn to live together in harmony? I spend my life helping build healthy communities, and dealing with situations when things go wrong in them, so I hope I have something to offer here.
If you’re going to have peace, you have to have relationship. Distance creates suspicion and distrust. Human beings have a natural tendency to assume the best of themselves and the worst of others – it’s one of those human traits Christians call ‘sin’. The best way to overcome it is to get to know ‘the others’ – so that they are no longer an anonymous and threatening enemy, but a group made up of individuals really quite like us. And this is important: peace between nations is not inevitable. Right up to 1914 there were people saying that war in Europe was unthinkable, inconceivable. I’d rather have us round the table arguing about farm subsidies than sitting sullenly apart and getting ever more anxious about what ‘they’ are plotting. Let’s stay together and continue to build a peaceful Europe.
I have also seen that communities that turn in on themselves do not thrive. It can feel so much safer and more secure to lock the doors and “keep out the foreigners”. But in the long term (even in the medium term) it doesn’t work. The flow of new ideas, new energy, new ambition that outsiders bring increases the liveliness and energy of society as a whole. Yes, it means that there is more competition, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. We have the talent and the ability to rise to the challenge and thrive.
And finally, a community that is strong knows it has something to offer beyond its borders. The UK is a growing and prosperous country – except, often, in our own eyes. We have a huge amount to offer to the rest of the European Union. We do not have to regard ourselves as passive victims of “EU directives” – we have the capacity to make a real difference, to change things for the better. We should be talking about leading the EU, not leaving it.
The voting season is upon us – for those of us in London, voting for a Mayor and Assembly, thought that election is struggling to get much air time compared with UK referendum on membership of the EU. And for most people who intend to vote I suspect they’re still in the box marked ‘oh I must get round to thinking about that’. And for everyone else? ‘Please let it all be over’, perhaps?
Confession time: I think I’ve voted in every election I’ve ever been eligible for (and no, I’m not going to tell you who for). It was one of those things I absorbed when I was a child: voting wasn’t an option, it was an obligation. It was quite a surprise to me when I first met people who couldn’t see why they should vote.
Like most of us, most of my life I’ve lived in places where the result was pretty obvious before anyone even cast a vote. So I wasn’t voting because I thought my ‘X’ on the ballot paper would really make a difference to the result. It was more because I wanted my voice to be heard, even if it was in adding to the majority of someone who was going to elected comfortably – or alternatively, registering the existence of a minority who were never likely to win.
I suppose part of it is that I do believe elections make a difference. Please don’t say to me ‘oh, they’re all the same’ unless you want an argument. Different political parties stand for different things and what they stand for makes a real difference to ordinary peoples’ lives. Even if my vote ‘doesn’t make a difference’, I still want to express my support for the party which is closest to what I personally believe (no, I’m still not telling).
I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should vote. But I will encourage you to use yours, to make your voice heard, even a little bit, in whatever elections may be coming up where you live. Who serves you in elected office does make a difference – and every vote does count for something.
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
Jesus looks forward to his own death, his sacrifice of himself. In this Holy Week we are looking forward to our celebration – yes, celebration of Good Friday. A day of torture and death which was the sowing of the seed of abundant and eternal life. Christ received into himself the hatred and violence of humanity and transformed it into its opposite.
And then Brussels. Three men it would seem sacrificed themselves as suicide bombers. A sacrifice built on hatred of European culture, a sacrifice that desires to spawn yet more hatred, and its cousin fear. This seed seeks to die in order to make a harvest as horrible as itself, hundreds of times over.
I can’t condemn anyone for anger at a time like this. It’s because I know well what anger is like that I pray that it may not set hard into hatred. That way leads to the success of the suicide bomber. The more difficult path is for anger to become the passionate search for justice, and its cousin peace.
That is the way of the cross. If we can walk in it, even falteringly, we are beginning to take the seeds of hate and transform them into love.