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Britain cannot turn its back on refugees

Britain cannot turn its back on refugees

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Just before the UN’s Summit on Refugees and Migrants today, we marched in support for refugees outside Parliament.

We are trying to tell the story of a society which can reach out to those most in need, which can give generously from the good things it has gathered, and which in turn is enriched by the gifts and talents of people from all corners of the globe, from many ethnic and religious groups, from very different social backgrounds.

I’d like to share with you what I said at the rally in Parliament Square:

"You are the conscience of our country – you come from many places, today within the UK, many of you from the furthest corners of the world. But today, here and now in Trafalgar Square, you are the conscience for our nation. We here are reminding everyone that we have a problem. Not a problem with asylum seekers and refugees – we have a problem with ourselves. As a nation, we have an uneasy conscience because we know we are doing wrong."

And what do you do when you know you’re doing something wrong? You try to justify yourself, and then you try to pretend that it’s someone else’s fault, not mine, and then you just pretend it isn’t happening. In this country we’re doing all three. We hide behind the pretence that this country cannot fit anyone else in; we blame everyone else but ourselves for making this happen; and we close our eyes and ears to the suffering that we are causing.

Jesus tells a story a bit like this. A rich man had done really well for himself, and he sat at ease in safety and security with everything he needed, and thought ‘how well I’ve done to get myself all this’. And outside the gate he didn’t even notice the poor man Lazarus, dying of starvation while the rich man feasted. And we have kept ourselves at ease behind our travel restrictions, and our penalties to carriers, and our barbed wire, and our money given to other countries in order to take the problem away, and now our own separation wall of Calais. And we have turned our gaze away from those suffering outside our gates, in desperation and in squalor in the Jungle in Calais.

If you don’t know the story, let me tell you it doesn’t end well for the rich man. Nor will it end well for us in the United Kingdom if we keep on ignoring your voice, our voice, the voice of conscience. Conscience calls us back to ourselves, it reminds us of what we really want to be. And if we ignore it too long, we will turn into something else, and lose the best parts of our own identity. So for the sake of refugees, but also for the sake of our whole country, keep on saying it, saying it loud and clear, refugees are welcome – here and now, they are welcome.

Most readers of this blog will know the story well, and also the other passage of Jesus’ teaching which for me sums up the moral and spiritual imperative which should make us respond with openness and generosity to those who come seeking shelter. That is the story of the judgement in Matthew 25, which I think we do not take seriously enough. As Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, those who have done good from those who have not, he does so on the basis of their care for others, and specifically their care for those who had no call on them, those who could not repay in kind, those whom society was content to condemn or disregard.

For Christians, these are matters of salvation. But not I think only for Christians, or for individuals. The moral strength of a society is measured, I believe, by the reach of its compassion. The present government will argue, with some justification, that the UK has invested far more than other nations in helping those in refugee camps in the Middle East. My suspicion though is that financial aid is functioning primarily to buy our country off from the more profound moral responsibility, that of allowing the stranger to make their home in our home. But that is precisely the test our society should be able to pass if we want to make a claim to be truly compassionate.

And if we do not pass - and for a generation now we have shown no desire to do so -  we are in danger of condemning ourselves to ever more restricted measures of compassion. Once we are able to write off one group of people as undeserving of our help, what is to prevent us from extending the list? So ironically, even reasons of self-preservation should make us turn outwards, to welcome others as would wish to be welcomed ourselves if the tables were turned.

Jonathan Clark is the Bishop of Croydon.  

Image from Welcome Refugees 


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