Aliens in the Land
The camp has been called ‘the Jungle,’ an apt name considering the conditions that exist there. Thousands of refugees have gathered in the Jungle, just outside of Calais, each with a story of hardship and horror. They are trying to reach the UK by crossing the Channel. Some try to stow away in lorries headed for the Eurotunnel, others in people’s cars or even find a way to hide on the trains. Their desperation mirrors the disturbing images we have seen of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in rickety vessels. Here, too, in the Jungle some have died for their efforts, though their numbers are not to be compared to the thousands that have died at sea.
‘L’étranger qui réside avec vous sera pour vous comme un compatriote et tu l’aimeras comme toi-même, car vous avez été étrangers au pays d’Egypte.’
‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’
Lévitique/Leviticus 19, 34
The camp has been called ‘the Jungle,’ an apt name considering the conditions that exist there. Thousands of refugees have gathered in the Jungle, just outside of Calais, each with a story of hardship and horror. They are trying to reach the UK by crossing the Channel. Some try to stow away in lorries headed for the Eurotunnel, others in people’s cars or even find a way to hide on the trains. Their desperation mirrors the disturbing images we have seen of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in rickety vessels. Here, too, in the Jungle some have died for their efforts, though their numbers are not to be compared to the thousands that have died at sea. Forever a silent and mostly nameless multitude, forever unknown but to those who knew them and who loved them – and to God.
These are real flesh-and-blood people – children, pregnant women, young men, weary professionals, the elderly – you can find them all here in the Jungle. They are not just ghostly two-dimensional figures on our television screens. They are real and at least some of them are here to stay. Some of us regard them as a nuisance. In fact, they are the throw-aways of ill- conceived policies that were nurtured in European and American capitals and that led, in part, to the violence, repression and poverty from which they are now fleeing.
They come from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and other fear-filled places. Places where you or I would never choose to live. Nor would they. Nor did they.
A little perspective please...
We are living through Europe’s largest refugee crisis in decades. Its impact will be considerable; however, some perspective is in order. Of the 8 million that have fled their homes in Syria, by far most have found shelter in other parts of Syria or in neighbouring countries. Less than 2 percent have sought asylum in EU countries.
It is true that record numbers of refugees have reached Europe this year – but it is still only one asylum-seeker for every 1900 Europeans. And many will be turned back. The successive waves of migrants in the 20th century – escaping the wars and deprivation of Europe – were much more.
Even still, alarm bells are sounding. Some people fear that the new influx of Muslims will change our ‘Christian’ cultures in Europe. Presently, just about 4% of Europeans are Muslim; actual migration flows would bring that number to 5%. Hardly a seismic change ahead.
What is particularly astounding is the opposing ways that Christians have responded to the crisis. On the one hand, European churches and religious agencies have played a critical role in providing services and advocating for the just treatment of the refugees. On the other hand, some right-wing political groups have been promoting the illusion of a Christian Europe and stirring up fears that traditional religion is now facing an unprecedented threat.
Maybe you have already noticed: traditional religion has already been under threat for a very long time before this refugee crisis. And it will remain so for still years to come.
The hazards of traditional religion
Of course, I am a great lover of the traditions of the Church. Its prayers, liturgy and sacraments nourish the soul and speak eternal truths to anyone who pauses long enough to listen. However, these traditions are a far cry from traditional religion, the latter having little to do with the vibrancy of the teachings of Jesus. One incident last month is illustrative of this.
Every Sunday afternoon, Songs of Praise on BBC One has been a mainstay of good-natured non-offensive Christianity in Britain for more than half a century. It invites viewer participation, the audience encouraged to sing along with their favourite hymns at home. Hardly revolutionary. Margaret Thatcher was a fan.
But last month the producers of the programme hit a nerve. Songs of Praise decided to broadcast from Calais. Many of the Christians living in the camp had set up a makeshift church. Just a tarpaulin thrown over a few boards and some religious posters. The worship was notably simple and uncomplicated. Christians fleeing from Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea made up the congregation. We would most likely recognise ourselves in the faces of those who gathered there.
The Songs of Praise presenter emphasised the common humanity that is shared between the viewers and the migrants who had fled their homelands, terror nipping at their heels. It was an incredible witness to the beauty and diversity of the Christian family, where national borders are transcended and worshippers gather around the throne of God and of the Lamb that was slain. It was a scene straight out of the fifth chapter of Revelation.
But apparently, not everybody saw it that way. Politicians and even Good Church Folk lined up to level scathing criticism against the BBC for having aired something so blatantly ‘political.’ Crooning comments about the UK being a ‘Christian nation’ only underscored their ignorance of what Christianity was about in the first place. I have a vicious image in my mind of them taking scissors to the Gospels and gleefully removing any reference to the compassion of Jesus!
An historic moment
I cannot help it. It escapes me sometimes how some professing Christians can square their fear and suspicion of refugees with the compelling witness of the Bible to show hospitality to foreigners. I simply cannot conceive of the inner gymnastics that must be required to reconcile the two positions. Christians must always come out on the side of compassion and justice, right? Or else the faith of Jesus and the apostles is deeply compromised. Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no need for political debate and good sense. Europe has long needed a coherent approach to migration and asylum claims. It has now become all the more urgent with the present crisis thrust onto centre stage of the European agenda.
We must stop defending a fictional Europe that no longer exists. Perhaps it never did, except in our minds and fantasies. It could be that this historical moment is actually providing yet another opportunity to the Church in Europe to live into the values that it proclaims.
One day an expert in the law of Moses quizzed Jesus on the essentials of religion. Actually, the man was himself a defender of traditional religion. ‘You must love God with all you’ve got,’ Jesus replied, ‘and your neighbour as yourself.’ The man wanted to be argumentative and said, ‘And who then is my neighbour?’
A story followed about a man who had fallen among thieves and left for dead alongside the road. Religious people passed him by, people that you would expect to show compassion toward the injured man, but instead they just went about their business. Finally, it was a despised foreigner that came to the man’s rescue, an element in the story which likely threw the religious expert off guard.
Jesus turned to him and asked, ‘Who was a neighbour to the man who fell among the thieves?’ Neighbours are those who have come nigh. That’s what a neighbour is. Don’t look now, but we have suddenly acquired many new neighbours. And I imagine that we are just as odd to them as they are to us.
Who was the neighbour to the man in distress? ‘It was the one who showed mercy,’ retorted the religious expert.
‘Go and do likewise’ was the parting instruction. Go and do likewise.
L’Eglise en Europe fait face à un moment historique où nos valeurs et notre vision de l’Europe sont mis à l’épreuve. Sommes-nous vraiment des pays « chrétiens » ? La crise des réfugiés est particulièrement révélatrice. Certains prétendent d’être gardiens d’une tradition chrétienne sur le Continent qui est actuellement sous menace d’extinction grâce du nombre de musulmans qui tentent de s’y installer. D’autres constatent que cette tradition est déjà loin passée, une fiction qui n’est plus pertinente si jamais elle était. En tout cas, ceux qui se disent chrétiens font bien de manifester leur appartenance au Christ par leur compassion et accueil envers les nouveaux-venus parmi nous. Nous sommes une seule humanité et un seul corps.
Le Fils de l’homme n’a pas un endroit où reposer la tête. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
- Luc/Luke 9,58
A home is when you feel safe. A home is when you feel free to talk. A home is when you are not afraid of tomorrow.
- businessman from Damascus, now seeking asylum in Germany
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs
or the insults are easier
than your child body in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
- Warsan Shire, Somali-British poet
Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
- Frederick Buechner
L’hospitalité demande plus que le partage t’un toit, elle demande de manger ensemble, et cette « convivialité » est un acte eucharistique au sens large.
- Raimon Panikkar
O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer
Que tout soit bouleversé à la bonne heure, Seigneur Dieu, pour que nous trouvions en toi notre demeure.
- Saint Jean de la Croix
The Rev. Dr Mark Barwick is the Associate Priest of All Saints’ Church. He is also the Vicar of Christ Church in Charleroi. Fr Mark has been described by some as a tender of sacred fires, referring to his work as a teacher, spiritual guide and retreat leader.
He has also worked for more than twenty years for non-governmental organizations in the promotion of justice, peace and human dignity, particularly in African countries. He is currently policy adviser for an international human rights organization based in Brussels.
Fr Mark is a Third Order brother of the Society of St Francis, a Franciscan religious order within the Anglican Communion. He lives in Brussels with his wife Corinna and their two children.