The following is a speech given by Bishop Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield, for the Conference on the Middle East Migration Crisis: Genesis and Response hosted by Initiatives of Change in collaboration with the Next Century Foundation.
Today is International Refugee Day. Themes of seeking refuge and of migration resonate deeply with Christians:
– in the core narratives of our scriptures,
– in our fundamental understanding of who we are as the people of God, and
– in the way we view some key questions in our current situation.
Some examples of refugee and migrant stories from the scriptures, which intersect in different ways with our discourse today:
– Abraham travels from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, with his household and his herds – an archetypal figure for Jews, Christians and Muslims, from an age of semi-nomadic existence before borders are settled.
– the people of Israel travel down to Egypt in search of grain, at the instigation of Joseph who has through force of circumstance gone first and established himself in society: people trafficking followed by economic migration.
– in the Exodus, the Israelites leave Egypt both as refugees from injustice and persecution, and in search of religious freedom.
– the Book of Ruth movingly describes how a Moabite woman leaves her native land and travels with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem. This immigrant woman, motivated by familial reasons, becomes rapidly integrated in her new society to the extent that her grandson is chosen as king.
– after the collapse of the kingdoms of first Israel and then Judah, the Jewish people are forcibly related to Babylon by their conquerors. From their point of view (and God’s), this is exile, but from the Babylonian authorities’ point of view it could also be described as internal displacement.
– the Holy Family travel to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of children in Bethlehem. In contemporary terms, they are short-term asylum seekers.
Themes like this also play a major part in other faiths too – for example:
– the experience of hijra, migration in search of religious freedom, is central to the formation of the early Islamic community, and one of the first places they seek asylum is in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia;
– over the centuries until the formation of the State of Israel, the experience of galut, diaspora or exile, was the shaper of Jewish identity;
– to take one example from religions further east, the model of righteousness in Hinduism is Rama, the king whose rule in Ayodhya is conditioned by his long years in exile.
In these formative narratives, religious faith plays a key part for individuals and for communities: as motivation for their journeying and as encouragement on the way; as something challenged by the experience of displacement, but eventually deepened through reassertion in a greatly changed situation; as a marker of identity which is carried across borders and provides continuing distinctiveness in a new context, and so on.
As expressed in the New Testament, a Christian understanding of identity is fundamentally one of uprootedness, or unsettlement – ‘here we have no continuing city’ (Heb 13.14); [because] ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3.20).
Some of the contours of this account of identity are these:
– we are all in exile from our true homeland, the fullness of life with God;
– here on earth, we are strangers and pilgrims the word peregrinus, literally ‘traveller through the fields’, a stranger from another city, acquires in Christianity a positive meaning of ‘pilgrim’, traveller to the heavenly country);
– as those with the heart of a stranger or pilgrim, we owe a duty of welcome to those we meet who are also strangers far from their homes;
– we are called together to build a new community where our primary identity in Jesus Christ transcends and brings into unity all differences of nationality, ethnicity or culture: ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal 3.28).
Some perspectives on our current situation which immediately flow from this:
– for Christians, national borders are not of ultimate significance. They are practical arrangements put in place to enable the right conditions for communities to flourish; if they fail to meet this end, they should be abandoned, redrawn or reconceived. They should not be absolutised.
–no fundamental distinctions should be drawn between different categories of migrants on the basis either of motivation (e.g. refugees vs migrants) or location (e.g. those who cross boundaries vs Internally Displaced Persons). It may be useful practically in some situations to sort people in these ways, but there is no basic moral difference in the claim on our attention that they carry.
– religious allegiance is a key factor in many different forms of migration, and religious freedom should be given a heavy weighting in considering these issues. Christians will of course have their closest affinity with other Christians, but all who are in migration for religious reasons have a claim on us. That said, it may well be that we focus on Christians in particular for two pragmatic reasons: that nobody else carries a specific brief for Christian minority groups; and that we are best placed to understand and support them in their needs.