Who is my Neighbour?

Someone I know has just posted a hateful video on his Facebook feed - it 'features' a British right-wing extremist 'ranting' about Muslim immigrants in 'our' country. All the usual stuff about how hate-filled 'they' are (without an inkling of the irony of what he's saying), and how 'they' ought to be (at best!) 'sent back to where they came from'.

By way of contrast, this Lent, a friend is leading a series of three 'seminars' on "Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees: Some Biblical Perspectives on People on the Move."

The juxtaposition of these two things in my mind has set me thinking. There's an awful lot I could say, offering all sorts of different perspectives. But please allow me to tell you a story - a story which I hope will reveal some of my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

Some months ago, three young ladies of Middle Eastern origin, 'turned up on the doorstep' of our church. They were, to use the current pejorative term, ‘migrants’ or 'asylum seekers'. They were also seekers after something else. In their very broken English, they managed to communicate the idea that they wanted to leave Islam behind, and to embrace Christianity. Which, over a period of weeks, they did, being baptised and confirmed by the bishop at our annual service of baptism and confirmation. They originate from Iran - as do many 'asylum seekers'. To my mind, they are 'seekers of sanctuary' (which I hope sounds kinder, and has less negative connotations - despite meaning the same thing!)... In other words, they simply want to live somewhere where they are safe, and where they are free - free to worship the God they want, rather than being liable to the death penalty for changing their religion - as is, officially, the case in Iran (though I don't think any women have actually been executed for the crime?) - where is the harm in that?

The journey they undertook was one of desperation, incredible hardship, and trauma. Three young women alone, crossing the Middle East, and Europe, before finally winding up here. Think, if you will, of the worst things that might happen to young women on long journeys with nowhere to ‘hide'; no 'safe spaces’; nowhere they could lock themselves away; and you might begin to be able to imagine what it seems they may have experienced. Even having arrived 'here' their troubles weren't (and aren't) over - our 'system' for 'processing’ (even the words are de-humanising!) asylum claims - and even for housing 'asylum seekers' - is inhuman at best; degrading and cruel at worst. One of the three has now been moved, arbitrarily, to another town - why no-one seems to know. They were relying on each other for friendship and support. Why 'split them up'? What purpose does it serve?

They are the first seekers of sanctuary in our church - but I know of other churches which are now the 'spiritual home' to hundreds of ‘migrants’ (migrants are converting to Christianity in large numbers - and it doesn’t seem to be a cynical ploy to avoid being ’sent back') - and I was both surprised and delighted when they arrived and joined us. As far as I'm concerned, they deserve sanctuary simply for daring to undertake the journey. The idea that they might be 'sent back' - because of, effectively, the vile ideas of a minority of fear and hate mongers - is abhorrent to me.

I am, perhaps, extreme in my views. I do not believe that ‘nation states' are a good idea. 'This bit is ours, and so 'they' can't come here' seems to me the antithesis of Jesus' teachings… I could ramble on about part of the salvation Jesus offers the world being about ‘rolling back’ some of God’s ‘punishments’ - like the supposed sundering of peoples which happened at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) - but (for now at least) I won’t! We are commanded by Jesus to love:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Luke:10:25-27

So who is my neighbour?

Jesus has an answer for this too. In the familiar story of the 'Good Samaritan', which follows on from the quotation above, we hear of a man beaten and left to die by the side of the road. Two supposedly good Jewish men (a priest and a Levite) pass by and ignore him. Finally, a Samaritan (Jews and Samaritans hated one another) came along and, seeing the man, took care of him. Jesus then asked the lawyer who was the neighbour. To which, of course, the right answer was the Samaritan. So, we are called to love everyone. Anyone and everyone is, according to Jesus, effectively our neighbour; even (or perhaps especially?) those we 'ought to hate'. This has always been the case but now, in this era of globalisation and incredibly efficient communication links, it is more true than ever.

So how are we to treat 'seekers of sanctuary'? Ought we to assume that they're 'up to no good' - as the hate-filled extremist in the video believes? Ought we to assume that 'they' are here purely to overrun us and to replace our 'cherished' laws and traditions with Sharia Law and Islam? If we'd taken that view, and 'chased them away', or ignored them, what would the situation of those three young women be now? They might have become just what the man in the video feared - violent jihadists, repaying rejection with hatred.

As things have turned out, they are rapidly becoming part of the family of our church. It is lovely to see them each week, and to worship God with them. I don't know whether they'll be allowed to stay here, or whether they'll be 'sent back' to Iran (and then, in all likelihood, imprisoned for their beliefs). I sincerely hope they are allowed to stay - and that the third of them is allowed to rejoin her friends, and us.

Because they're part of us now.

We love them because God loves them. Like us, they're His adopted children. As far as I'm concerned, they have as much right to be here, in our town, and in our church, as I have, because:

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.
Psalm 24:1-2

It belongs to Him - who is man to say which of us can live where? We are all just people. Why can't we all just live where we like and get along? Where's the harm in that?

The late Jo Cox, MP (before her murder by a violent British nationalist extremist), said:

"While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."

Lastly, to quote the rock band U2:

"There is no them. There's only us."

Think about that for a moment.

...

As far as I’m concerned, our young ‘Iranian’ women are ‘us’, because there is no ‘them’.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2016