Everybody needs somewhere to live. Nobody wants to be a refugee, travelling from country to country looking for somewhere to settle down.
Today the world has an exceptionally large number of refugees. The main cause, as usual, is war. Another, becoming increasingly prominent, is climate change. Syria suffers from both.
It has been a tragedy to see how easily most Europeans have been persuaded to treat refugees with hostility. The conditions at Lesbos, Kos and Calais have been appalling. Our tabloids heap abuse on them, and even the BBC often presupposes that the main problem is how to make sure they are the other side of the Channel.
This is the classic ‘us against them’ attitude that so easily arises. When we feel threatened we mentally draw in our horns, focus on ourselves and want everyone else to just go away.
The political model of nation states gives us a framework: we distinguish ourselves from other people by insisting that we are British. Or English. It is as though we think there are two kinds of humans, the ones with a right to live ‘here’ and the ones with no such right. We imagine a barrier: the rest of the world isn’t as deserving as ‘us’, or doesn’t matter as much.
It is this barrier that needs challenging. Both Christianity and Islam began by challenging it. It is a tragedy to see how both get used as dividing lines today.
The biblical histories describe Israel as a state forged out of a bunch of refugees.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left: it shall be for the alien [i.e. refugee], the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this (Deuteronomy 24:21-22).
The people were to share their food, and their parties, with refugees (Deuteronomy 26:11-12).
It is obviously right, if you believe that everybody has been made by the same god, so God wants the best for everyone.
The hostility to refugees that has been whipped up in the last few years could not be a starker contrast. Of course it is not just a matter of some xenophobic politicians. Politicians blame others for their own failings: the workshy for unemployment, immigrants for low wages. Newspapers play on the themes to increase sales, television programmes to increase viewing figures. When all the leading opinion-formers are playing their own self-centred games without regard for the common good, we end up with a society full of hatred and barbarity.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Everybody needs somewhere to live. We could vote for something better.