The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, dares to suggest that God may have a view on how we treat refugees. Spoiler: for a Christian, God does. Yet rather than take the word of someone infinitely more qualified than they are to know what that is, some people choose outrage, avoiding completely the invitation to reflect, whilst also ignoring the irony of any previous pearl clutching about the fact that we’re fundamentally a Christian country.
The Bible’s view on refugees and “foreigners”
One might argue that if you don’t want archbishops to take a view on political matters: disestablish the Church of England, kick them out of the House of Lords and stop leaning on our ‘Christendom’ to score political points against Muslims. If we really are a Christian country, it’s somewhat pertinent, should be expected in fact, that faith leaders might have something to say about what that looks like.
For clarity here, the Bible has much to say about performative and self-seeking religion which ignores entirely matters of justice for the poor, the vulnerable, the sick and – yes – the foreigner. Some verses:
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” Deuteronomy 27:19.
“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” Zechariah 7:9–10.
Jesus: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me” Matthew 25:35–36.
Party politics and religion
Whilst Welby did not mention party politics during his Easter day sermon, it’s been fascinating to see how many critics of his have reached for a party political insult in response. Apparently, the Church of England is both the Liberal Democrats at prayer and plagued by hard-line socialists (who of course are well known for their deep love of institutionalised religion!) within its hierarchy; an insightful commentary on the tribal inability to consider viewpoints of those you’ve already decided are wrong, perhaps.
Commonplace in the toolkit of bad faith dialogue, is the accusation of ‘virtue signalling’ which is the biggest crime Welby seems to have committed in the eyes of some, although in itself this is a confusing insult. When did signalling virtue become something so detestable that any time somebody says something we don’t like, we simply call them a ‘virtue signaller’ – as if that settles the argument. It could be said that Jesus’ entire life was one of ‘signalling virtue’, and he was executed for it. Just as many Christian martyrs have been throughout history. One notable example is German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who ended up arrested and hanged for his vocal opposition to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.
Should archbishops have a say in politics?
Some have determined it was wrong for an archbishop to talk about how our government is proposing we treat refugees, because it is wrong for him to pass comment on the actions of government full stop. I wonder how they feel about Bonhoeffer wading in on a policy area of democratically elected Hitler? Equally, would we be thrilled or appalled if religious leaders in Russia used their own sermons to challenge their government’s policy on Ukraine?
There are many issues on which faith leaders might pass comment, which are bound to intertwine with government policy making. Consider the Jubilee 2000 campaign during the 1990s which was based on particular biblical principles and implored the government to develop policy on wiping out the debt of the world’s poorest nations. The Church of England publicly supported the movement with the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey speaking about it openly, including during a New Year’s Day address broadcast on the BBC.
In case you’re wondering how the government of the day responded; rather than lash out and tell the archbishop he should stay out of politics, Tony Blair (then PM) and Gordon Brown (then chancellor) met with directors of Jubilee 2000 to hear about their concerns. When challenged, we always have a choice about how we receive it.
Welby contends the Rwanda policy “cannot carry the weight of resurrection justice, of life conquering death”. Preachers have been delivering sermons on Easter Sunday exploring the message of resurrection for as long as the Easter festival has existed, and connecting theology with real world current events is the bread and butter of every church leader who delivers Sunday sermons week in week out.
You can disagree with Welby’s conclusions, but you cannot say that he wasn’t perfectly within his lane to offer them.
The Rwanda policy
- Inhumane – it treats human beings like a commodity to be traded or a problem to be got rid of, thereby failing to honour the agency and dignity of our fellow human beings, made as much in the image of God as anyone else.
- Illegal – as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention we have a duty towards refugees who arrive on our shores. Contrary to popular belief, refugees do not have to claim asylum in the first country they get to (that would break the whole system of international asylum), and refugees cannot be forced to remain in a country where they do not feel safe.
- Ineffective – those taking to the waters either don’t know what awaits them when they arrive or are so desperate that they will take their chances on not being amongst the few to be transported. If they are, they will most likely not stay in their enforced “new home”. When Israel tried the same arrangement, they found almost all of those sent to Rwanda ended up being smuggled out again. This policy will force more vulnerable people into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, not less.
- Fiscally irresponsible – the more humane options to address refugees coming to us from France via dangerous journeys, are also much cheaper. At a time when food bank use is rising, people are struggling to pay for energy and getting a GP or NHS appointment feels more like a lucky dip than functioning healthcare, wasting money is morally repugnant.
For those who value God’s view on refugees, it’s difficult to see how the answer to the question of whether archbishops should have a view on politics is anything but “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).