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Think like a refugee

Think like a refugee

This blog is part of a short series for Theos Think Tank to mark Refugee Week 2018.

If you are interested in this series you may be interested in our forthcoming event on migration and the common good and our recent collection of essays on ethics and migration.

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For a people that had a great deal else on its plate – like surviving – it is striking how much concern Old Testament Israel had for refugees.

The word is, of course, anachronistic for an age before state structures and established borders, but not egregiously so. The Hebrew word gerim, usually translated as ‘aliens’ or ‘sojourners’, carries with it the scent of need. Etymologically, the root word is associated with verbs meaning “to stir up strife, create confusion” and “to dread, be afraid”. There is more than a hint of vulnerability about gerim, not least illustrated by the fact that they are usually mentioned alongside hired hands, the poor, widows, and orphans, i.e. those who has fallen through the social security provided by family and clan, and found themselves in want and uncertainty. ‘Refugee’ might not be 100% right, but it is probably 80% there.

Both the treatment of gerim and reason for that treatment are instructive for us today. Gerim had rights (again, an anachronism, but a useful shorthand). Famously, from the book of Leviticus, the Israelites were commanded not to mistreat the ger, but rather treat him “as one of your native–born”. This meant equal rights before the law, equal rights to justice, protection from abuse, oppression, economic exploitation, guaranteed harvest gleanings and fair employment practice.

Such treatment carried with it certain stipulations. The gerim could be included in the feasts and praxes which were central to Israel’s identity but they were to be circumcised and to observe the law, in particular the Sabbath. In other words, the gerim were publically to throw their lot in with their host community, symbolically showing their belonging to people and nation.

This balance of integration and loyalty is instructive. Current discourse around asylum and immigration is no different (probably worse) than when I wrote a book on the topic 14 years ago: broadly speaking our treatment of refugees is grudging at best, hostile at worst. This is deeply problematic. Welcoming the gerim and offering solace to those who have suffered so much is a calling to which any nation, and certainly any rich nation, should respond enthusiastically. It is a sign of a truly civilised, truly moral people. Yes, there are difficult questions about numbers, as Angela Merkel’s impromptu invitation of two years ago illustrated. But they should do nothing to affect the tone of the debate. We should be proud to extend a welcome to gerim.

At the same time, however, we should be less sheepish than we have been (until recently) about saying welcome means belonging, and belonging means integration. Of course no modern nation can appropriate the kind of covenantal status of Old Testament Israel, and of course no gerim (or indeed migrant) should be compelled to abandon their identity altogether. But we were for many years too squeamish about insisting on a level of professed belonging among those who settled here, too afraid of sounding like the father of teenagers who truculently insists, “My house, my rules.” Much of the resentment that has built up in the population, rightly or wrongly, in the last 20 years has been around the perception that gerim (indeed immigrants as a whole) got a different (or better) deal than native born people. There are fewer better ways of stirring up public anger and incentivising populist responses.

Thus, we might have something to learn from this ancient text about how we should treat gerim, but we also have something to learn about why. The reason behind the Old Testament law here it itself instructive, as the rest of the famous Leviticus verse indicates: “Love [the ger] as yourself,” God tells the Israelites, “for you were aliens in Egypt.”

You too were refugees, outcasts, strangers, wanderers: that is why you should treat today’s gerim in this way. This is partly just a scaled up version of the Golden Rule and partly a scaled up version of loving your neighbour as yourself: when you lived next door, you were needy; now it’s their turn.

But it is also more than this. The reasoning underlines that this isn’t merely ‘ethics’. Or, rather, ethics is always rooted in identity: the ‘who’ precedes the ‘why’ precedes the ‘what’. The way we think of ourselves inevitably shapes the way we behave to others. If we perceive ourselves as among the vulnerable, the desperate, the needy we will look at and treat those categories in a different way. If we don’t, we might as well pull the ladder up, Jack – because there’s no chance we will need it.

The British were not, of course, “aliens in Egypt”. Indeed, in spite of attempts to show otherwise, Britain has had a comparatively settled population for at least a thousand years. But the Levitical exhortation is primarily about a mindset and its challenge no less blunt. We might not be gerim, or the children of gerim, but if we can think ourselves as people in need of welcome, generosity and love – and everybody at some point in their lives needs welcome, generosity and love – we should be able to treat those who need that today better than we otherwise might.

 Photo by D. Wiwwat  via Shutterstock.


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 18 June 2018

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