Preacher Revd Neil Summers
9-year old Joe was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday school. ‘Well’, he said, ‘our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.’ ‘Is that really what your teacher taught you?’ his mother asked. ‘Well, no, Mum, but if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!’
The Exodus we read about tonight was the mass departure of people from a land. We don’t know their individual names. We may suppose they didn’t have much in the way of rights, a tax code, or a passport. What is happening in various parts of Europe today is history repeating itself – yet again. Choose your collective noun: a swarm, a flood, a tide. They are not John or Sue, David or Kate. They are ‘Them’: desperate enough to take the biggest risk of their lives in fleeing political and religious turmoil; conflict and brutality; in the process becoming stateless, jobless and often friendless. ‘The migrant crisis’ sounds so much more of a news story than ‘the humanitarian crisis’, but let’s be clear: humanitarian it is – and more so when the photos tell the story and we learn the names of individuals.
Now, this scenario is immensely complex on so many levels, and it’s easy to be over-simplistic about possible solutions. We must pray for politicians, policy makers and all relief efforts. But, just for a moment, let’s do a bit of ‘What if…’ There are about 5,000 people in Calais, and 64 million people in the UK. If we let in every single person who’d currently like us to, the population would grow by 0.000078% – more a drip than a flood. Total UK welfare spending is expected to be £217 billion this year, 29% of our overall budget, including benefits, tax credits, and pensions. If we were to let in those 5,000 extra people, and assume they get benefits and pay taxes at the same rates as everyone else, they’d cost us about £17m, but they’d make us, at the current rate of GDP, £100m extra.
Most of those trying to come to Britain are from Syria, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea, which have a combined population of 45m. Those 5,000 immigrants represent a minute percentage of them, roughly 0.01. The fact their home nations have collapsed is not down to these people’s failures. The fact ISIS are rampaging across the Middle East, Boko Haram are stealing children, and fundamentalists are undermining the Islamic faith, while Britain enjoys a (it must be said, post-colonial) reputation as a place of peace, relative prosperity and tolerance, is not their fault either. They’re not trying to bring discord and terror, but rather to escape from it.
As I looked into this, I learned that there used to be a building in Calais where asylum seeker claims could be processed. Health was checked, children fed, and women protected from rape. In 2002, the UK told the French to close it, and we put up a fence. We cut resources for our border agency, which means there are only a few people at a time to check lorries at Calais, so the queue backs up, lorries have to stop, and immigrants have the opportunity to clamber aboard. We put up better fences at the ferry terminal, which means those same people have gone to the Eurotunnel terminal instead. We’re putting up more fences there, so now they’re cutting the normal fences further away and walking up the track. As the Hungarians have discovered this past few days, fences have limited effectiveness, and in any case you can’t build barriers to cover every square inch of border territory in the world.
The refugees are often highly educated, capable of speaking several languages, and have worked very hard to get there. The Calais camp contains a cafe, mosques, a church, paintings, and cut flowers. Some media criticised the BBC for filming an edition of ‘Songs of Praise’ from the migrant camp. They said we faced hordes of people, but, with a more circumspect view, it looks more like a relative handful of people who’ve had the wit and resources to get as far away from genocide, slavery, rape and murder as they possibly can. Yet we threaten troops, we build higher fences, we define them by a collective noun and demand the French do something about the terrible disaster on our doorstep. Immigrants, by definition and throughout history, are usually people who move great distances for a better life for themselves and their children. Modern America and Australia were founded on these very aspirations.
I had a phone call at St. John’s on Wednesday from a local man setting up a project to take supplies to the migrants in Calais – clothes, toiletries, tents and bedding. In the news this weekend, we read of many others doing likewise, and of some being willing to offer homes to migrants and refugees. And thank God, because given some of the public rhetoric and media hysteria, it felt like we might otherwise be in danger of forgetting our souls. The real disaster in all of this could so easily be lack of compassion, poverty of thought, and failure of empathy.
Tonight’s reading from Exodus leads us to think there is nothing new under the sun. A people on the move, seeking freedom from things that hold them in thrall, looking for a new start where they can truly flourish as human beings. We have no way of knowing if the story of the Exodus as we have received it is literally true in all its details, but it is interesting to note that the people who end up suffering in this great story of liberation are those who imposed bondage on others in the first place. In this faith story, God is very clearly depicted on the side of the migrants, not of the tyrants. History does repeat itself, and while we say we must learn the lessons when things go awry, we so often fail to make that a reality. The Christian vision is about the unity and reconciliation of humanity.
According to St. Paul, the Church is the sign of God’s purpose of bringing humanity in all its enmity and hostility, all its diversity and richness, into a unity that reconciles enemies and celebrates diversity. And so we can risk the adventure of peace-making and reconciling, and the challenge of seeking justice, for Christ himself is our peace, who has made us one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, so making peace. At a time when, once again, we face up to the horrors inhumanity can visit upon people, we need latter day Moses and Pauls to encourage us towards unity, to build up our common life, to travel through all our risky and divisive wildernesses, towards a new land, which, if not literally flowing with milk and honey, will flow with justice, compassion and a welcome for the stranger, all qualities which lie at the very heart of the Christian understanding of who God is.