Written for the Quaker gathering at Friends Meeting House, Truro
How we see the refugee is how we see ourselves.
It seems to me we live in a world full of fear at the moment. Fear that is bred from a misunderstanding of ownership. We are educated and nurtured in this country to understand ownership in a very personal way. There are a number of cultural goals that are set for us from a very early age. Goals such as status i.e what position in society we should achieve, property i.e. what place we should occupy in society, and relevance i.e. what role we should take within society. We are conditioned to believe these are our goals, and that they will in turn give us all that we need to live a healthy and valued existence. In fact, our own identity is formed and given value by these three indicators of status, property and relevance. Our very identity is intrinsically connected to what we own in society, where we are in society and who we relate to in society.
This is where fear creeps in; when we believe that these three pedestals of our existence are deemed to be under threat in some way. The fear comes from knowing that there are some in the world who do not conform to this understanding of value and purpose. It is the case, I think, that those who do not attain these goals are not as valued in society as those who do. In fact, to give people such things as status, property and relevance with no forseen effort on their part, would mean some kind of break down in social order. Why should we give them anything when we have worked so hard to achieve these things ourselves? Rhetoric, such as that of Nigel Farage, the self-proclaimed ambassador for the decent hard working individual, is an example of how fear disregards compassion for the sake of these three pedestals of our modern culture.
The refugee crisis is the tragedy of our modern time, it is a redefining moment for Western Culture. It is redefining because it calls into question the three indicators of value and worth in our society. It threatens to breakdown what has built the culture that we live in.
Our response to the refugee, if compassionate, self-sacrificing and life-giving subverts what has helped establish our own identities, and national identity. But this is critical, since it is indeed reshaping and reforming our identity for the good.
Our identity should not be formed by status, property, or relativity; but instead be formed by mutuality, justice and righteousness.
In our current system - status is a product of capitalism and competition. Neither are inherently bad things, but taken too far they quickly entertain the idea that those who succeed are worth more than those who fail.
Mutuality is a product of compassion, empathy and support. Which assures us that there are some things more valuable about every human being. With mutuality as an indicator of worth, the refugee becomes us – we choose not to be fearful, or under threat but instead see ourselves in the pain and hurt of the refugee, because of mutual love. Mutuality gives no time for ‘us’ and ‘them’ terminology but only entertains the truth that if you are hurting then I am hurting too. In a world of individualism, egoism and self-aggrandisement – the refugee reminds us of our vulnerability, our susceptibility and our weakness, and therefore in mutual love we should look to offer ourselves as they have done. Mutuality breaks down any barriers of status and encourages us to look into the eyes of one another to see who we are really are. When we do so we learn that those who are said to be our enemies are in fact our brothers and sisters.
In our society, property is seen as an indicator of value and worth, a measurement of success. We work hard to obtain the material things in life, and therefore they become icons and trophies of our labour. Working hard is a virtue, the part we play in building up society is important – and there is nothing wrong with being rewarded appropriately. However, we have switched the purpose of our hard labour from the building up of society to the obtaining of possessions. And our identity has switched appropriately. Celebrity is celebrated. Wealth is the goal. Property is the target. Community orientated vocations are way down the pecking order. Refuse collection, primary care staff, education, the health service, farming and fisheries, manufacturing have succumbed to the powers of banking, footballers, and energy company execs.
Instead of property being the target of our existence and the shaper of who we are, maybe justice would form our identity instead. Justice is a word that is so easily misunderstood. The word Justice has been damaged over time by our own society. It is now a product of fear. Justice has become a word associated with judgement, punishment, penal discipline and sentencing. The Ministry of Justice is more to do with law and order than actually to do with justice.
Justice is more to do with fairness, equality, likeness and impartiality. If there was one outstanding theme in the bible, for example, then I would say it is justice. Time and time again the objects of concern for God’s people were the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor. Justice is seen in the bible as the defender of the most vulnerable, irrespective of their status, property or familial relativity. However, it is not because they have no status, property or familial relativity that they are deemed to be in need of justice it is because they are simply in need, and that they are human beings.
For the refugee justice should look the same – their status as human beings and that they are in need is the only excuse we need.
When we share the struggles of our refugee brothers and sisters, we are not giving them status, property or relevance, we are simply treating them as human beings, in mutual love and with justice. If we make status, property and relevance our gifts then we are just creating disharmony and an unhealthy power dynamic (we are the giver, they are the receiver), and we are in danger of making the object of our task our egos, and satisfaction. True justice bypasses any social markers of value and disregards our own ego desires, and challenges us to give all that we have to protect the humanity of the other.
Lastly the word relevance is concerned with how we relate to one another, but its goal is concerned with obtaining prestige and respect. When I am introduced to someone else I am often announced as ‘this is Jeremy and he is a vicar’. What I do is an important part of who I am. How many times have you heard someone say when asked what they do – ‘oh I’m just a house wife.’ Or ‘I’m just bricklayer’ or ‘I’m just this or just that.’
The role we play in society has a level of importance if we are to be concerned with status, property and relevance. In this model the refugee challenges the position we have because the fear we are supposed to feel undermines our own worth. If instead we thought of righteousness as the indicator of worth and value then the way we would see the refugee situation would be very different.
Righteousness is another word that is misunderstood in today’s society. In the past it has been associated with piety, purity, and church going. It has been in the same camp as religiosity, and often, pomposity and self-importance of the church. However, the true meaning of righteousness is about being in a right relationship with one another, and with God. Being in the right kind of relationship with your fellow brothers and sisters means that righteousness is more to do with peace, equity and even-handedness than to do with religious piety. Righteousness is better named as primary justice. Since if we had the right relationship with our brother and sisters in Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine then we would have no need for the kind of justice I described just now. The quartet of the vulnerable (orphan, poor, widow and immigrant) would not exist. When a van carries aid to Calais, or you put £10 on justgiving account for homeless of the refugee fund you are living righteously. When you occupy your mind with the sufferings of your brothers and sisters in Greece, Lebanon or Jordan – you are living righteously.
I believe, we need to build a society that is formed and shaped not by our goals for status, property and relativity – but for mutuality, justice and righteousness. The refugee crisis is the greatest tragedy of our generation, it is redefining us – we have to decide in which world we belong. The celebrity, materialistic self-serving world, that is hell bent on protecting and defending our achievements of status, property and relevance. Or, the one that retains a humanity of mutuality, justice and right relationships.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.