Friday, 9 June 2017

Shock Election Result: 'Another fine mess!'

Reflecting of today’s shock election result - and most of us really didn’t see it coming - the words of Laurel and Hardy come to mind when thinking about how the Conservatives - and perhaps the country as a whole - must be feeling about Theresa May: ‘Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!’ 

Prime Minister Theresa May announces she is
forming a minority government.
What I think we’ve learnt in these fractious days that we seem to be living through is that there is no point in making predictions any more (though to be fair to pollsters YouGov their final poll was more or less spot on). If we’ve learnt anything from the past few years of going to the polls it’s simply that we should expect the unexpected. While the ‘Yes’ campaign lost the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, no-one starting that campaign would have guessed that it would have been that close. A year later, in 2015, everyone thought we were heading for another hung parliament but David Cameron defied expectations and won a small majority. Then in 2016, while it was going to be close, no-one actually thought that ‘Leave’ would win the EU Referendum, and across the Atlantic who would have guessed that Donald Trump would beat Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House. So, going into this year’s snap General Election, we really ought to have read the runes and worked out that there was no way Theresa May would ever get a thumping majority. Incidentally, perhaps May should have read her history books more carefully - Edward Heath called a snap election in February 1974 thinking he would increase his majority but ended up with a hung parliament.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn
dramatically cut May's majority
It seems sacrilege to say it but I’ve had enough of going to the polls. Three major polls in three two years (four in three years if you’re Scottish) does seem be overdoing it slightly. And before anyone starts bellowing ‘…but people died so you could vote’, after another election that appears to have created more problems than it solves, I’m not sure frequency in polling is actually a good thing (though I will say that a large youth turnout amid a high turnout in general is something we should celebrate this year). Unfortunately, what I've noticed is that each of the recent polls in 2014, 2015, 2016, and perhaps now in 2017, has in turn created a new problem that has then led to a new poll: the 2014 Referendum is still being played out in every poll Scots have had since, the 2015 Election meant that Cameron had to go through with his manifesto promise to hold the 2016 Referendum, which in turn has caused May to seek her own mandate for Brexit in this election - and we are arguably in a worse state as a nation because of it. 

Now don’t get me wrong. Being a healthy democracy is a good thing. The people should choose those that govern them. However, a democracy is not something that should be held in too high esteem. After all, democracy is imperfect and is a reflection of the people who cast their ballots. What our elections have shown us is that instead of a unified nation with a common purpose and identity I see a nation that is ill at ease with itself. We are a nation that seems fragmented and rudderless. Our recent multiple elections haven’t solved anything and have simply highlighted the deep division we have in the United Kingdom. By going to the polls again and again and again (and I’m hoping we don’t get another election in the autumn when or if Theresa May’s minority government falls apart) all we are doing is getting the results that a divided nation will get - yet more division. The problem with democracy is that it often covers difficult truths about ourselves as a nation and how we relate to the ‘Other’ - whoever the ‘Other’ is to you. We are a nation that is desperately in need of healing.

So despite what the Tories in Scotland or Labour in England might say, there really are no winners in this election. As the legendary psephologist, Professor John Curtice has said

‘Almost everybody lost. This is a result that brought disappointment to all parties:

The Conservatives lost their majority.
Labour suffered its third defeat in a row.
The Liberal Democrats found themselves treading water.
The SNP’s independence bandwagon came to a juddering halt.
And UKIP imploded.

It is not only the Conservatives who will be asking why Mrs May changed her mind about holding a snap election.
The only winners are perhaps the DUP - to whom she seems to have awarded the role of kingmakers.’

So what would I like to see next? Constitutionally, it's the right of the largest party to attempt to govern and it looks like this is what is happening - though there is no way that Theresa May can pretend that nothing’s happened and she needs to listen to what the result is saying. However, I would also want all parties to try and work together in the national interest. In leaving the EU, the British people are facing an almighty challenge that is unprecedented and has the potential to harm us all. We are where we are in terms of the election result so I would hope that all parties - especially the two larger ones - would put aside petty party politics, attempt to act like grown-ups for a change and work together - yes, together - in the national interest. Governments of national unity happened in the early twentieth century and the Conservatives and Labour worked together to govern during the Second World War, so why can’t May, Corbyn and the rest of them start behaving like responsible adults and work together for the common good as we enter Brexit talks?

I know it probably won’t happen because the parties - and too often their supporters too - loath and despise the other. But surely that would be the best way forward for the country?

Monday, 22 May 2017

'Not another one?' The 2017 General Election

When Theresa May announced a snap General Election last month it was Brenda from Bristol, who featured as a vox pop on BBC News, who appeared to sum up the mood of the nation. When told about the election Brenda exclaimed: ‘You’re joking?! Not another one? I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.’ 

I too have some sympathy for Brenda’s reactions as I too have election fatigue. In the UK we’ve been to the polls an awful lot within the space of a few years. If you’re Scottish then you had the 2014 Scottish Referendum - of course while the rest of the UK couldn’t vote a vote for independence would have had an implication for the whole country. Then there was the 2015 General Election and a divisive and bitter EU Referendum in 2016. Added to our elections and referenda we’ve also been subjected to the impotency of watching a car crash of a US presidential election last year too.

Prime Minister's Question Time
Photograph © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor. 
Under Creative Commons Licence
But while I’m not overjoyed to be going to the polls yet again I do think that unwelcome as it is this election is necessary. After so much uncertainty following the vote for Brexit it does feel like the political landscape is completely different to the one voted for in 2015. Though let’s hope its not a hung parliament as that will add to uncertainty - worse still, if no-one forms a majority we might have to go to the polls yet again!

Though this election may be necessary, in a world that has seen Brexit and Trump in the last twelve months there is part of me that is worried what will happen next.

I am not apathetic towards politics. I do have political views and it’s probably fair to say that these views probably don’t fit neatly into any of our political parties. There isn’t a party that I could honestly say that a feel at home in. However, unlike some other clergy who share their party political views, I personally don’t think it’s right for church leaders to express their party political views; the vicar and Guardian columnist, Giles Fraser, for example, has always been very willing to nail his colours to the mast as a Jeremy Corbyn supporter. (In the interests of balance I should name a Tory supporting clergyperson but there are far fewer examples to draw from. However, while not run by the clergy, the Archbishop Cranmer blog is an example of a Christian commentator that supports the Conservative Party). Now, I don’t mean that the Church shouldn’t get involved in politics. It absolutely should air its political views (whether that’s a concern for the poor or the plight of persecuted minorities) but I don’t think we should publicly show preference for any political party or leader. Apparently that’s why elections aren’t held on Sundays in the UK - so that clergy can’t influence their flock how to vote on polling day! Though as an aside, it's interesting to note that any intervention into an election campaign by the Church of England is normally seized on as being partisan. In 2015 the House of Bishops letter to congregations was seen by some Conservatives as being too pro-Labour whereas this year the Archbishops’ letter has been criticised by some on the Left as being too pro-Conservative - the Bishops’ can’t really win! Sadly, the truth is that sometimes people read bias into something just because they disagree with it.

While my party political views are private, I will say that I do have some anxieties about what we will happen after 8 June. But I think people of all political stripes will be anxious about the outcome of this year’s snap election - and come May 9th there will be some very disappointed people out there, as there always is when the results come in.

However, the sad truth is that whoever is in Downing Street for the next five year is likely to make mistakes that harm ordinary people - all prime ministers and governments have done so, no matter what their party colour; think Blair and Iraq or Thatcher and the Poll Tax. Yes, we should vote, yes, we should care who governs us and yes, we should hold our leaders to account but ultimately any government - no matter how powerful - is temporary. They are here one day and swept away the next. 

In these past few years when we have seen so much political instability and turmoil, one of the verses in the Bible I keep coming back to is from Psalm 146:3-7. It says: 

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God. He is the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them - he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free.’

As a Christian what is important is the bigger picture. If we believe that God is sovereign and that God is our true King then it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we are ruled by Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. In the not too distant future both May and Corbyn will find that the power they had has slipped from their grasp and neither will have made the impact that they hoped for. Yes, as Christians we should be engaging proactively in democracy but in doing so we shouldn’t lose our perspective on the bigger picture. 

The big picture is the Kingdom of God - which belongs neither to the Conservatives nor Labour nor any other party. The Kingdom of God is where God’s rule of peace and justice prevails. It is where men, women and children discover the love that God has for them and their lives are changed through encountering Jesus Christ. Coincidentally, the week leading up to the General Election is the week between Ascension and Pentecost and the Archbishop of Canterbury has launched a  global wave of prayer called Thy Kingdom Come. He wants Christians from all over the world to pray for more people to come to know Jesus, for that is ultimately how we will change the world and change people’s lives - not just for five years but for eternity.





Monday, 7 November 2016

Trump or Clinton: Decision Day for the United States

As campaigning for the US Presidential Election enters its final day, the world is looking nervously to who the next President of the United States will be. Will it be the Democrat Hillary Clinton or
Democratic Candidate: Hillary Clinton
As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is
in the public domain per 17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105
and the Department Copyright Information.
 Republican Donald Trump? The polls make it agonisingly too close to call. However, what is certain is that whoever becomes the 45th President of the United States will probably be the most unpopular president in modern times. After all, these two candidates are the two most unpopular candidates to run for the presidency. 

Earlier this year I remarked that the EU referendum campaign in the UK was one of the most negative and divisive campaigns I have ever witnessed. However, that was until the US Presidential campaign which has trumped it (pardon the pun) in terms of negativity, fear and vitriol.

To be honest most of the blame for the negative tone of this campaign can be laid at the feet of the billionaire businessman Donald Trump. I have no qualms in saying that this man, in the words of his rival Hillary Clinton, is ‘temperamentally unfit to be President of the United States.’ He has built his campaign on fear and hatred. Throughout this extraordinary and depressing campaign he has used racist and sexist language, he has been exposed as a bully, as someone who degrades women, and, most dangerous of all for democracy, he claims that the election is rigged - but only when things don’t go his way. How is it that such a dangerous and unpleasant individual can be within touching distance of the White House? Of course I know that Hillary is no saint, that the email scandal has damaged her credibility and raised issues about her trustworthiness, but I have trouble in understanding why anyone would choose a racist, sexist, narcissistic bully over her. But Trump has been a master in playing on the hatred that many Americans have of a political elite in Washington that is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens

Republican Candidate: Donald Trump
Photo: Michael Vadon. Creative Commons License
For me, the campaign has also highlighted huge differences between the British and our transatlantic cousins. Most Britons struggle to understand the mentality of huge swathes of the American public who think that, on the one hand, healthcare, free at the point of delivery, is an evil to be feared, and, on the other, that anyone should be able to have access to lethal automatic weapons in a country where citizens regularly feel the need to gun down other citizens. We may speak a common language but there is a huge gulf between Britain and many in the United States. However, while we in Britain may not always understand these aspects of US culture, we should still care about what happens to our closest ally and friend. After all, our two nations have much shared history, and it does matter to our nation's prosperity and security who inhabits the Oval Office.

What I’ve also found disturbing is that many evangelical Christians have endorsed Trump’s candidacy out of hatred of his rival. To many evangelicals, Hillary represents an immoral metropolitan liberal elite who opposes their conservative views on abortion and gay rights. Irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with Hillary’s stance on these issues, there can be no justification in supporting a man whose lifestyle and views are so diametrically opposed to the Christian gospel. Can a man who uses racist slurs, who bullies his opponents, who lies and who degrades women really be God’s candidate? To me the answer is obvious. Sadly, those evangelicals who support Trump are not just mistaken but are playing with fire. Their stance seems to apply that they have forgotten what the gospel of Jesus Christ is really all about. They are very, very wrong when it comes to Trump.

So what will happen on November 8th? This past year has shown us that anything is possible. A year ago, who would have thought that Britain would have voted for Brexit? A year ago, who would have guessed that Boris Johnson - of all people - would be the new UK Foreign Secretary and our chief diplomat. And a year ago, who would have guessed that Donald Trump would be this close to winning power. This year has been a year full of surprises. I’m not a betting man, but I would not bet against a Trump presidency. Stranger things have happened.

However, my hope is that a majority of the American people will come to their senses. A Trump presidency would spell bad news and create even more instability in a deeply troubled world. I hope and pray that on November 9th we will wake up to a Clinton victory, for the alternative is too depressing to contemplate. But assuming that Clinton wins, then this would be where the hard work really begins. After all, the United States is now a deeply fractured and embittered society and is desperately in need of a leader who can heal the nation. Would Donald Trump be the man to heal the United States? I don’t think so. But can Hillary Clinton? I hope so.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit Storm: Where now for the UK?

In ancient times, natural phenomena were often taken for omens signifying a change of fortune - for good or for ill. In March 1066, Halley’s comet appeared over England and was taken as an omen. Later that year, the Normans invaded England, King Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings and England was changed forever. The night before last week’s EU
Photo: John Fowler
Creative Commons License
referendum, violent thunderstorms lashed the capital and caused flooding; even some polling stations were put out of action. In times gone by, this might have been seen as an omen and a prelude to stormy times ahead. For once, the weather was in tune with events, for as the British people awoke on the morning of 24th June, they found themselves engulfed in the deepest and most serious political storm most of us have ever experienced.

The vote to leave the European Union came as a huge shock to many. Despite the momentum on the Leave side during the referendum, the British political classes, European leaders, the financial markets and many in the British population as a whole did not expect the seismic shock of a vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

The shockwaves from Brexit have been reverberating ever since the early hours of Friday morning. We woke up on Friday morning, not only to learn that Britain had voted out, but also to the news that we are a deeply divided nation. In fact, given the closeness of the vote and the subsequent political fallout, perhaps we should call ourselves the Disunited Kingdom. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but England and Wales voted to leave. Industrial working class areas and the English shires voted out whereas most of the large metropolitan cities voted in. Younger voters tended to vote to remain but older voters tended to vote to leave. And while the Leave campaign won the referendum they only won by a tiny margin - just 4%. Roughly speaking it’s one half of the electorate on one side, the other half on the other.

What is worrying is that after a divisive and ugly campaign we’re seeing a hardening in division across the country. Brexit will more than likely spell the end of the United Kingdom itself. It is highly likely that there will now be a second referendum in Scotland and I’m fairly sure that given the divisions now between Scotland and England, this time we will see Scotland break away. The Labour Party is beginning to fracture at the seams as virtually all
David Cameron resigns
Crown Copyright. Photo: Tom Evans
Under Creative Commons License
of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have resigned since Sunday. Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his intention to resign following his defeat in the referendum so plunging the Conservative Party into what could be a bitter leadership election. People across the country are anxious and deeply troubled by the unknown implications of Thursday’s result. But most worryingly there has been a spate of racist incidents across the country linked to the decision to leave the EU.

There have been financial implications as well. The pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. Billions have been wiped off the value of stocks and shares across the world. People are worried about their jobs, the economy and what this means for Britain’s place in the world.

What we are seeing is an unprecedented political, economic, constitutional and social crisis being played out. Britain has entered stormy and uncharted territory, and no-one knows where it will lead. But what is even more worrying is that we have a political vacuum: the Prime Minister is leaving but we don’t know who his successor will be, and the Labour Party is in complete chaos. It does feel as though there is no-one really in charge of the country at a time when we need desperately need it.

I believe that the vote to leave the European Union was the wrong decision. However, what we all need to do now is accept what has happened and come together to rebuilt our divided nation. Each of us has a responsibility to reach out in love and with respect to those who voted differently to us, to tone down the divisive rhetoric, to stand up against racism and xenophobia, and to support our elected representatives as they seek to build a consensus for the negotiations to leave. What we also need to do is listen to the voices of the marginalised and forgotten who voted for Brexit. Large swathes of the country feel disenfranchised and that they have been left behind by modern Britain. Finally, for Christians, we also have the added responsibility to pray for our nation and our leaders, and to be a force for good and to foster reconciliation amid a divided nation. In a joint statement the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called for us to ‘unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers.’

It is easy to feel a sense of panic or despair at a time of national crisis. It feels as though Pandora’s Box has been opened. There will be people hurting on both sides of the argument. Remainers who feel deeply disappointed and angry. EU nationals who no longer feel welcome in the United Kingdom. Leavers who have been subjected to appalling vitriol, especially on social media. A storm of this magnitude means that events will be out of our control. The British have a saying which was printed on posters in World War II in case of invasion but never used: Keep Calm and Carry On.

Yes, we keep calm and carry on, but as Christians we do so because of a different reality to the one we see played out in our nation. On Friday morning as I looked on Facebook I saw posts from despondent Remainders and posts by hurt Leavers, but one post caught my eye. It said this:

‘There is absolutely nothing to be worried about this morning because Jesus is on the Throne!

Amen to that.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Fear, Hope and the EU Referendum

I made up my mind months ago how I will be voting in Thursday’s EU referendum. 

However, despite the barrage of campaign literature through our letterbox and the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, the truth is that I feel very uninspired by either side of the argument; after all, the European Union was not something that I had ever spend a large amount of time thinking about. The conduct of the referendum campaigning hasn’t helped to fire my passion for either side. In fact, the way the campaign has been conducted could be argued to have shown democracy at its worst. 

Last week’s horrific murder of Jo Cox showed us all something of the common decency and dedicated service of many MPs, both through Jo Cox’s exemplary but all too short career as a parliamentarian but also through the way that politicians of all parties have shown their collective solidarity with her family and each other; indeed, yesterday’s recall of parliament to pay tribute to Jo was one of the most moving sessions I have ever witnessed.

However, the way that the referendum has been fought is in stark contrast to the way that politicians and the nation have come together to mourn the loss of Jo Cox. The referendum campaign has showed us the ugly side to politics, as J. K. Rowling has written about in a recent blog. She eloquently describes how both the Leave and Remain campaigns have resorted to fear tactics to try and win the day, and of how both campaigns have created monsters to win their arguments. Leave tell us of an EU that is corrupt, undemocratic and allows uncontrolled immigration into the UK, whereas Remain warn of an apocalyptic financial meltdown if Brexit happens. 

British and EU Flags
Photo: Dave Kellham. Under Creative Commons License
What I have found throughout the campaign is the lack of serious engagement with real issues. There has been claim and counter-claim. Remain will claim something and Leave will simply dismiss the argument by saying something along the lines of ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.’ Or a high-profile figure comes out for Leave and Remain replies ‘well, we all knew that so-and-so supported leave all along.’ Then throughout the campaign, the claims on both sides have got wilder and wilder. David Cameron has suggested that a Brexit might lead to World War III and Boris Johnson has claimed that the EU currently prevents bananas from being sold in more than threes! If you ask me, the whole campaign is bananas. Then or course there is the more sinister side to the campaign. Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster, featuring lines of non-white migrants queuing up to enter the EU, was a particularly low low for the campaign, and if - and it is a big if - if the murder of Jo Cox really was an act of political violence stoked up by the referendum campaign then that would be a damning indictment of how the campaign was run. Read Alex Massie’s excellent article in the Spectator for more on the consequences of irresponsible rhetoric in public life.

What the British public needs is not rhetoric, name calling, half-truths and fear. Instead, we need a sense of hope. Whatever happened to the politics of hope? Eight years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United State claiming ‘Yes we can.’ Perhaps he couldn’t do all he hoped but the aspiration was there. Now, whether we’re Leave or Remain, we should cast our vote based on hope, not on fear. Sadly too many people will be voting Leave based on a fear of migration and too many people will vote Remain based on a fear of the economic consequences of Brexit. While these fears are real and should be addressed, I think we need a narrative of hope to rescue our politics.

So what I would have wanted to see during this campaign is the opposite of what we have seen. I would have wanted a far more positive case on both sides of the argument. I would have wanted to hear about the moral and social case for leaving and for staying. And I would have wanted the debate conducted with dignity, integrity and with grace. Sadly, it took the murder of a young wife and mother on the streets of Birstall for us to see the best of our politicians. Let us hope that, whatever the result on Thursday, our politics, our politicians and our nation will be able to develop a narrative of hope that transcends our fear.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’ll be voting to remain.

I’m aware that the European Union is far from perfect, but no-one is truly an island - not even our island nation. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent. Nation states should not purely be looking after their own self-interests and instead we should have genuine solidarity with other nations. The EU has many flaws and is in desperate need of reform but I think that Britain will be more of a benefit to a dangerous and unstable world from within the EU than without.

[If anyone wants to read more about what a reformed EU could look like then check out Ben Ryan's Theos Report 'A Soul for the Union.']

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Bombing Islamic State in Syria

In February 2003 I was one of around a million people who marched through London to protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq. It was a bitterly cold day but the streets were packed with a huge cross section of British society all united in trying to persuade Tony Blair not to attack Iraq. Of course we know what happened and the terrible consequences of that war. Yet even to those of us who opposed military action in 2003, I think that the extent of the subsequent bloodletting that followed in Iraq would have surprised us had someone from the future told us what would happen.

Royal Air Force Tornado
Crown Copyright under Creative Commons Licence
Photographer: Corporal Mike Jones
The recent history of Iraq reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables in which he told this story: 

'When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of the man is worse than the first.’ (Matthew 12:43-45)

To me this chilling parable speaks to us of what happened in Iraq. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but because of the vacuum left behind after he was deposed and because of the failures of the American and British Government in building the peace, a new and more terrifying evil has entered Iraq. What Islamic State have done in Iraq and in Syria is both more brutal and arguably more evil than the authoritarian Ba'athist regimes they replaced. The trouble with wars is that they are unpredictable and can have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.

So far the question about British involvement in bombing Syria seems an open and shut case. Learn the lessons of Iraq and abandon military interventionism. Yet, sadly life is rarely that straight forward.

For while there are huge and often unknowable consequences to intervening militarily in a crisis, there are also consequences to inaction or being slow to act. The world failed to act to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia during the 1990s and, as a result, thousands of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered while the United Nations and Western nations largely stood at the sidelines.

The sad truth about the appalling mess that the world finds itself in is that there are no longer any good choices to make. All options on the table are likely to end in death and destruction - usually for innocent Syrians and Iraqis. 

Bombing Islamic State targets in Syria - as we are already doing in Iraq - is more than likely to cause the deaths of innocent civilians and reinforce the narrative of a crusading West which then draws young Muslim men and women to join the so-called Caliphate. David Cameron and all those who choose to go to war should be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of the innocent. 

Yet, inaction will also have consequences. In summer 2014 the world failed to act and allowed Islamic State to commit genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq, ethnically cleanse Iraq and Syria of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other minorities, to rape and enslave women and to carry out the systematic and brutal murders of civilians. It is unlikely IS can be stopped without some kind of military intervention. Jeremy Corbyn and all those who choose not to go to war should also be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of innocent civilians.

Either way blood will be on all of our hands. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. There are no longer any easy choices to make over dealing with Islamic State. Whatever Britain and the rest of the world chooses to do with have dangerous consequences, but perhaps we can try and settle for the least worse option.

So whatever happens over Syria and Iraq, whether MPs vote to extend airstrikes over Syria or not, none of us should wash our hands and walk on by on the other side. This crisis may get worse before it gets better, but what the world needs to do is to put aside our differences, learn the lessons of peace building in Iraq, and make lasting peace a reality for the people of Syria and Iraq - by whatever means necessary.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Europe’s Shame: The Migrant and Refugee Crisis

The heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing image of a dead three-year-old boy washed up on a beach may prove to be the defining image of the migrant and refugee crisis that Europe is struggling to deal with. The Independent newspaper made a brave decision to put this graphic image on their front page this morning. It isn’t pleasant but it does help to reframe the debate. Instead of seeing migrants and refugees as a faceless ‘swarm’ this image demonstrates the terrible human cost of this crisis. 

Sadly this crisis is not new. Two years ago, Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa and condemned what he saw as ‘global indifference’ to the plight of migrants drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean. A colossal failure in leadership by European leaders and indifference and even hostility by European populations has exacerbated the crisis. Certain sections of the media are also to blame for stoking hostility. The Daily Express front page on 11 August which criticised the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme for wasting tax payers’ money by filming at the migrant camp in Calais was just barely concealed racism.

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31)
rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton.

Copyright Irish Defence Force under 
Creative Commons Licence
On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, the former Cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, spoke with compassion when she highlighted Britain’s history in offering refuge to people fleeing war and persecution. England offered many Huguenots asylum during the sixteenth century, and Edward VI even gave them the whole of the western crypt of Canterbury Cathedral for their worship. They still worship there to this day. Then in the twentieth century, the Kindertransport organised before the outbreak of World War II saw Britain take in nearly 10,000 Jewish children. To me it is sad that Britain is not living up to the hospitality offered by our ancestors.

Baroness Warsi was also right to point out that Britain is already a major supplier of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, but I feel that however laudable our aid contribution is it there is still more that can be done. Last summer, Britain was slow to act as Islamic State seized control of Mosul and forced Yazidis and Christians to flee. In being slow to act and in refusing to take in refugees arriving in Europe, we are making the same mistake over this crisis, which of course is partly caused by the chaos in Syria and northern Iraq.

David Cameron and other European leaders now need to show both leadership and compassion in this crisis. The British Government needs to take a lead and not be swayed by xenophobic and isolationist views on immigration. It would be naive to say that immigration is always benign and doesn’t present challenges to the United Kingdom. Immigration often comes with profound dilemmas for both immigrant and indigenous communities. However, from a Christian perspective, ignoring the plight of these migrants and refugees is untenable and goes against the grain of scripture and Christian tradition. Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Sheep and the Goats* mean that for Christians we do not have the luxury of being able to walk on by on the other side (read them if you don't believe me). Jesus simply does not allow us to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

However, hospitality is by nature a costly enterprise. Just as, in the parable, the Good Samaritan paid for the injured man to be cared for at an inn, hospitality costs us something. Dealing with the migrant and refugee crisis will be costly, but I guarantee that that the cost will be less to us than it was for that dead three-year-old on the beach.

* Luke 10:29-37, Luke 16:19-31, Matthew 25:31-36