The Refugee Crisis and Christian Hope

Article by   September 2015
Over the past week, the refugee crisis facing Europe has been a matter of intense discussion here in the UK and around the world. While the facts, figures, and politics have long received attention on the news, pictures of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach pressed the tragic situation of Syrian refugees upon the public consciousness with a visceral intensity. Those images spread on social media, along with hashtags such as #refugeeswelcome, spurring popular outcry against the UK's asylum policies and a call for us to follow the example of countries such as Germany.

Christians have been among the most vocal of those calling for action, the voices of church leaders being buoyed upon a vast swell of moral sentiment, especially online. People have appealed to the teaching of Jesus, expressed in such parables as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In a widely shared piece, the left-wing cleric Giles Fraser castigated politicians who campaign on the basis of Christian morality for their supposed hypocritical response to the crisis, maintaining that only the most radical action would suffice:
[W]hy not all of them? Surely that's the biblical answer to the "how many can we take?" question. Every single last one. Let's dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles. Yes, it may change the character of this country. Or maybe it won't require anything like such drastic action - who knows? But let's do whatever it takes to open the door of welcome.
The Church should have a peculiar affinity with displaced persons. Displaced persons and refugees are disproportionately represented in the Scriptures--Abraham, Jacob and his family, Moses, David, and Christ were all displaced or refugees at points in their lives. The early Church spread in part through the diasporic movement of refugees escaping persecution in Jerusalem. The people of God, in Old Testament as in New, are called to think of themselves as 'aliens and strangers' (Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11), as those thrown upon the hospitality of the world's polities, or to emulate the apostle as cosmopolitan selves (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). As Luke Bretherton observes, much as the foetus or the suffering and dying, the refugee is a test of our preparedness 'to recognize bare life as human life worthy of respect and to be afforded dignity as a potential or existent participant in a particular human community.'[1] 

The response to the refugee crisis has been troubling, exposing the depth of the rot of Europe's psyche. Both in European societies and governments and within the Church it has also revealed just how impoverished our moral and political discourse actually is. For the difficult tasks of patient deliberation and discriminating political wisdom, a cult of sentimental humanitarianism--Neoliberalism's good cop to its bad cop of foreign military interventionism--substitutes the self-congratulatory ease of kneejerk emotional judgments, assuming that the 'right'--what ought to be done--is immediately apparent from some instinctive apprehension of the 'good'.

In the febrile environment of social media, this cult of sentimental humanitarianism frequently manifests in virtue-signalling and policing and in immense waves of collective emotion. Declaring definitively, yet thoughtlessly, upon issues of labyrinthine complexity, it regularly appears to involve a narcissistic preoccupation with our own caring, not least relative to the supposedly inadequate caring of others. The simplistic vision that would cast fiendishly knotty social and political problems as if they were parable scenes for us to re-enact for our moral self-validation is bankrupt. As Daniel Hannan and Matthew Parris both observe, our fetishization of sentiment has an obfuscating effect, and neglects the actual task of prudence that lies before us. It leaves us ill-equipped to recognize how involved matters are, runs the risk of encouraging counterproductive responses, and can produce cynical and opportunistic political leadership. Melanie McDonagh also draws attention to the capriciousness and irresponsibility of sentimentalist politics, driven as it is by unpredictable surges of common public feeling in reaction to emotionally affecting images. The images that enflame our sentimentalism are shorn of the sort of historical and political context that might prevent them from functioning as screens upon which Europe projects the theatre of its own tortured psyche.

Compounding the ethically blinding poison of sentimental humanitarianism is the malaise of European masochism. Christianity acquainted Europe with its guilt, but having shrugged off its old faith, Europe is imprisoned in a paralyzing state of cultural self-condemnation without the relief of Christ's gift of atonement, forgiveness, and redemption. Pascal Bruckner and others have commented upon Europe's self-reproaching tendencies, our perverse urge to blame the West for all of the wrongs of the world, to project upon the poor and disenfranchised the character of innocent victims, and to view alignment with them as our one chance at psychic redemption. Many of these groups are all too happy opportunistically to play the part of the wronged party to whom we are morally indebted.

Bruckner writes of Europe: 'Ruminating on its past abominations--wars, religious persecutions, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism--it views its history as nothing more than a long series of massacres and sackings that led to two world wars, that is, to an enthusiastic suicide.' The exhaustion of Europe's cultural spirit is seen in such phenomena as the bland narcissistic hedonism of our liberal utopias and in our inability to reproduce ourselves. The looming demographic crisis that faces Europe's greying populations produces a need for cheap foreign labour that needs to be seen as part of the story behind differing responses to the refugee crisis (why are we so welcoming of mass asylum when we cannot even welcome our own offspring into the world?). One of the reasons why Islamophobia is a real phenomenon in Europe is because it is so unsettlingly apparent that, as Michael Houellebecq intimates, the young Muslim immigrants entering Europe have a vitality and virility of cultural spirit that is alien to native Europeans.

The 'charity' of a guilt-ridden people can be characterized by a 'self'-lessness, a handing over or abnegation of the self in futile attempts at atonement for themselves. This self-lessness of Europe is perhaps nowhere more clearly on display than in our abandonment of cultural identity for multiculturalism. British identity, it is meekly suggested, is located in virtues such as tolerance, diversity, respect, and equality, the bare formalities that delineate a realm surrendered to largely unopposed contestation. A society that has lost its self will spinelessly accommodate itself to the demands of the unreasonable, seeking to appease them through compliance.

Giles Fraser's article is revealing on this front. Fraser invokes the notion of Britain as a 'Christian nation' as justification for a completely open doors policy on immigration. However, Fraser can only situate the notion of Britain as a Christian nation within the rhetorical appeals of the wrong sort of Christian politicians he is attacking. He cannot openly say that Britain is a Christian nation himself, because this wouldn't be inclusive and welcoming enough of other religions. Rather, the hospitality of Christianity must function as a vanishing mediator for the deracinated multicultural society--Christianity must fade away, leaving only a toothless smile of universal benevolence behind. The appeal made by Fraser and his ilk to Christianity at such junctures is piecemeal and opportunistic: true allegiance to Christianity would also cut directly against both multiculturalism and the neoliberal foreign interventionism that helped to create this situation in the first place.

Fraser's article betrays a profound disregard--and perhaps also distaste--for Britain as a place. ISIS blows up Syria's cultural treasures; Fraser would turn ours into flats and new ground for housing developments. In this attitude, Fraser displays liberalism's characteristic undervaluing of place and of the immediate neighbour. Leibniz articulates liberalism's viewpoint, 'I am indifferent to that which constitutes a German or a Frenchman because I will only the good of all mankind.'[2] 

Although participating in a common life and having a place are universal human goods, these can only be realized in the particular yet variegated forms of specific societies, through which they are refracted. Liberalism's undervaluation of particularity encourages it to think in terms of abstract right-bearers and of mere space. The paradigmatic person of liberalism is a displaced one: the universal human subject. As one might expect, the result of the liberal vision has often been the breaking down of particular communities and places into interchangeable territories, rendering all increasingly 'placeless', both in the social, historical, and material order.

The indiscriminate welcoming of migrant populations can attenuate place for everyone. Although this may serve the interests of capitalists and governments who stand to benefit from a mobile, dependent, and biddable workforce and a population with little internal solidarity, this is at heavy cost to the wellbeing of the people within such groups. The persons who bear the heaviest burden of this loss of place are typically the poorest within society.

As Paul Kahn has argued, the liberal vision of political community as founded upon the formality of social contract and around universal human values and rights, neglects the reality that every such community must be bound together by the forces of sacrifice, of faith, love, and identity, forces that are inescapably particular.[3]  Peoples and places are forged around shared customs, values, religions, languages, histories, cultural canons, symbols, and sacrifices and it is only thus that universal human goods are realized.

The biblical vision of charity 'begins at home', with those who are our immediate neighbours, and with the principled extension of our places to others--or the creation of new shared places--in a manner that preserves and develops their character as specific refractions of universal human goods. Although this extension is and should be transformative, the particular is never abandoned for the universal, however. Scripture emphasizes the household (1 Timothy 5:8) and the church (Galatians 6:10) as the sites of our primary responsibility to our neighbours, responsibilities that take priority over any to those outside these most immediate spheres. We should not extend ourselves beyond these realms in any manner that would compromise our primary neighbourly duties. Nor should we thoughtlessly open up our places to those who would undermine or attack them. Here prudence requires of us a more discriminating approach to the welcoming of displaced persons.

When thinking about the appropriate response to the refugee crisis facing Europe, these are very important concerns. We should be under no illusion that the refugees arriving in countries such as Germany are merely seeking temporary refuge: what we are witnessing is the permanent resettlement of millions of persons. The average refugee seeking to enter countries such as Germany and Sweden is not doing so on account of their particular character as places, nor on the basis of their cultural or geographical proximity to their homeland, but because of their generous welfare states and employment prospects, which promise a more prosperous future for them and their families. This move has been prompted less by pressing need than by changes in asylum policies. While people have the right to migrate, no great onus lies upon European nations to open their borders to such persons. Rather, our primary moral course lies in restoring the refugees' own places and assisting their neighbours in providing for them.

The demographics of asylum seekers are also masked by the camera's attraction to the faces of women and children. Over 72% of asylum seekers are adult men (and the children accompanying them are disproportionately male). This current wave of asylum seekers will likely be followed by another wave of their family members. Europe's masochistic guilt complex, its cult of sentimental humanitarianism, and its fetishization of the innocent 'victim' can blind it to the ugly cultural pathologies that are taking root on our continent with many of these asylum seekers. Multicultural ideology has helped to make possible the sexual abuse of over 1,400 children by British-Pakistani men in Rotherham. Liberalism's politically correct valorization of all cultures equally will claim many more victims in the years to come (indeed, earlier today I read another news story with troubling similarities to that of Rotherham).

Even leaving to one side ISIS's claim that they are sending jihadis into Europe in these waves of migration, the threat of militant Islam in Europe is also a growing one. This vast movement of people has been marked by violence both from the refugees and those who--not without justification--believe that their places are threatened by their influx. Islamophobia--the fear of Islam--doesn't seem quite so irrational after one has seen videos like this and we should expect it to be a central feature of European politics for decades to come. We should be under no illusion: in the name of blinkered compassion we are at incredible risk of creating an angry and powerful underclass that is resolutely hostile to Europe and its values, and a popular swing to the far-right in reaction against it. Many of these refugees seem to recognize Europe's guilt-driven 'charity' for the cultural emasculation that it is and, rather than showing gratitude for their welcome into other people's places, manifest an attitude of angry entitlement to and hostility towards Europe's places, people, customs, and societies. While this is by no means universal, it is widespread enough to justify genuine concern.

How ought we to respond to the refugee crisis as Christians and citizens? The following are a few suggestions.

First, the plight of asylum seekers and refugees should recall us to our own identity as aliens and strangers, a people who are uniquely situated to be present to and in solidarity with the displaced. We can provide a social place for placeless persons coming into our nations. 'Christian churches and families can make a very practical difference if they are prepared to take refugees into their communities and homes, relieving the social burden upon the poor and forging concrete neighbour bonds, where refugees' relationship with their host countries might otherwise be established primarily by the impersonal machinery of state bureaucracy.'?It also tests our capacity and willingness to recognize the image of God in 'bare humanity'. In many respects, this vast influx of refugees provides openings for the gospel to people to whom Christian missionaries formerly had little access. Whether or not our governments' asylum policies are wise--the question that has been at the forefront of my analysis to this point--we have a distinct identity as the Church and, as our societies experience new waves of refugees and immigrants, we must pray for and minister to our new neighbours, serving them in Christian love, even on the occasions when these neighbours may be our enemies. The Christian calling to love enemies provides an alternative both to xenophobia's hatred and to liberalism's dissembling of the reality of cultural evil and intercultural hostility.

Second, we need to form churches that 'make a place' for new immigrants and refugees in their cultural particularity. In the Church, this should involve the living out of our cultural particularities in fellowship under the judgment of the cross. The 'assimilation' or digestion of other peoples into an undifferentiated or indifferently different liberal populace should not be our goal. Rather, we should recognize the potential for cultural difference--if it is welcomed wisely and with discernment--to be an enriching gift for our own communities. This requires, not effacement of our own national identities, but their opening out as a 'face' presented to a wider world. Bretherton writes:
By understanding a nation's borders as a face, we can express pride in our national character and history. We can also require that those whom we welcome learn our language and commit to the economic, social and political life of this country.
But it also requires that we move beyond mere humanitarian concern or isolated charity, and toward authentic long-term relationships, and it is this that enables strangers to become citizens.

Third, we must recognize the spiritual poison of the politics of Western guilt and sentimental humanitarianism. As people redeemed by a gospel of free forgiveness, our charity should not be self-less and guilt-driven, but the loving and generous outward movement of a culturally confident people who have been set free from spiritual bondage. We must minister the message of such deliverance to Europe's crushed psyche. We should appreciate the difference between true Christian compassion and a sentimentalist and narcissistic glorification of the passion of empathy.

Fourth, we need to commit ourselves to the works of mercy as integral to the life of the people of God. We must practice various forms of solidarity with the displaced. We should support and assist the various agencies that practically address their immediate needs. We should ensure that the Church itself is prominently represented among these. We should keep them in our prayers. We should draw international attention to their plight. We should advocate for their needs to our governments, encouraging them to devote considerable resources to helping them and the regional governments currently providing them with asylum. We should do what we can to encourage a healthy process of public deliberation concerning how best to ameliorate their condition--especially the most dependent among them--and how wisely to allocate resources and direct action in order to make a difference.

Few moral issues facing us in our day require such careful navigation between treacherous hidden shoals of false virtues and well-intentioned folly as that of the mass movement of refugees. Fulfilling our calling to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves is an immense, yet never more pressing, challenge.

Alastair Roberts did his doctoral studies in Theology in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair's Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged


[1] Luke Bretherton, 'The Duty of Care to Refugees, Christian Cosmopolitanism, and the Hallowing of Bare Life,' Studies in Christian Ethics 19.1 (2006), p.58

[2] Cited in ibid. p.47

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in its Place (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)

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