Friday, 10 February 2017

A Syrian Ready to Perish: a plea to the Prime Minister

I've tweeted an open letter to the Prime Minister in 138 characters. Here it is:

@ I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . Please reinstate our promise to care for 3000 child refugees.

I don't need to explain the background. This week the Government quietly announced that it was closing the "Dubs Amendment" Scheme under which the UK had undertaken to welcome lone child refugees from camps on the European mainland. Lord Dubs had suggested a figure of around three thousand refugees. The UK has to date received 350.

If anyone thought that with headlines about Brexit and President Trump, it was a week to bury bad news, they were mistaken. There has been an outcry from people of every political persuasion (or almost every - perhaps someone will tell me if UKIP has associated itself with this chorus of protest). At one level, there is something very un-British about going back on your word - which is what we all assumed it to be. In particular, refugee children who are hiding where the Calais Jungle used to be had their hopes raised and then cruelly dashed. It was heartbreaking to read about some of them in The Guardian recently.

My tweet appealed to Mrs May on two grounds: her memory and her religious principles.

Remember the Kindertransport is an invitation to recall how Britain responded the last time there was a refugee crisis in Europe on this scale. This was in the late 1930s when the scale of Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and central Europe was at last recognised for what it was. Lord Dubs was himself rescued as a six-year old Jewish boy in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1939 he boarded one of the famous "Winton Trains" which, thanks to the late Nicholas Winton, brought Czech refugees from almost certain death to safety and a new life in Britain. Thanks to the Kindertransport, ten thousand Jewish children were saved from the death camps and came here to the UK. They had their lives and futures given back to them. It is forever to Britain's credit that our country offered asylum to these youngsters.

I've blogged before about my own family's history, how my Jewish mother, then a teenager in northern Germany, was rescued from the Nazis in 1937 and made her home here in Britain. So I owe everything to this country's act of generosity to people who were desperate. If it were not for that, I wouldn't be here. I am sure the Prime Minister is as proud of that courageous decision as I am thankful for it. In the light of it, three thousand of the world's most helpless, vulnerable children does not seem a lot to ask of a nation that is so privileged. So I am begging Mrs May to reverse this week's announcement, and for the sake of being true to a history of British compassion in the face of need, do the right thing.

What is that "right thing"? This is where Mrs May's religious principles come in. As is well known, she is a committed Christian woman who attends her local church whenever she can. (I'm not going to invoke her upbringing as a daughter of the vicarage - it's her living faith I'm interested in today.) So I've appealed to her "as a Christian". Because the Judaeo-Christian scriptures are full of injunctions to care for the people who most need help - the destitute, the desperate, the economically dependent such as orphans and widows, and most strikingly, those whom the texts call the strangers who are in our midst. Add to that Jesus' impossible requirement that we should love our enemy and we see how exacting it is to live out of this faith tradition.

Where does this ethic of universal compassion come from? It's derived from the nature of God himself. A noble passage one of the books of the Torah tells us that "the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10.17-18). So while Israel is the particular people of the covenant that is given the teaching we call Torah, Yahweh's concern and care are nothing short of universal. This is the essence of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a perversion of them to narrow the scope of God's mercy in any way.

But the Torah's appeal to care for the "stranger" is not grounded only in the character of Yahweh. The appeal is also to Israel's own history. "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" the passage in Deuteronomy goes on to say. In other words, if you won't show kindness out of imitation of the God you worship, at least show it for the sake of being true to your own memory of having been aliens yourselves. "A Syrian ready to perish was my father" is how the King James version of the Bible translates a saying later on in the same book (Deuteronomy 26.5), "a wandering Aramean" says the contemporary translation. Imagine it - the people of God were born of a Syrian parent! We can't escape the resonances for our own time when we read those words.  Mrs May must have heard them in church hundreds of times.

These two appeals to memory and to religious faith are combined in another book of the Torah: "You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19.34). It's extraordinary to see how in the Hebrew Bible, showing compassion is not, or not only, a matter of duty. It springs out of love. Indeed, to care for the refugee or resident alien is "just" a special case of the universal command found in the same chapter of Leviticus, that we must "love your neighbour as yourself". People sometimes imagine that when Jesus commanded this in the Sermon on the Mount, he was announcing some dramatic new insight into what God requires of us. It's true he filled out these words in ways that no doubt arrested his hearers. But the words themselves come directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. It's an inescapable requirement of our faith. We may wish the Bible didn't make it quite so explicit. But I'm afraid it does.

Who am I to remind Mrs May of all this? I'm sure she knows it better than any of us. Hence my appeal to her Christianity as well as her memory. But the comma in my tweet is meant to be a trifle ambiguous. I beg you, as a Christian, remember the . In other words, I who am doing the begging am a Christian too. It's the Christian faith we hold in common and rejoice to affirm together that ought to make this conversation possible. But in a crisis, my Christianity is under scrutiny just as yours is.  How we respond to the most vulnerable people in the world tests us all in demanding ways. Part of that scrutiny is to shine a light on our biblical interpretation and social theology. The Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders have recognised this by registering their dismay at the Government's decision to resile from the Dubs Amendment. 

I tweeted yesterday that to turn back on our promise would be unBritish, unEuropean, inhumane and unChristian. So in the name of this nation's history, and in the name of the compassion that the great world faiths inspire us to show, I reiterate my plea to Mrs May. Please will you show principled leadership and reconsider? Please will you reinstate this country's commitment to do what it promised? Please will you enable our nation to act with big-heartedness and integrity and do what we can to help at a time of such great need? And maybe save Syrians, among others, "ready to perish"?

1 comment:

  1. As a citizen, and as a Christian, you have the right and duty to inform Mrs. May of her responsibilities in regard to refugees, especially the most vulnerable refugees. She is PM, an onerous position, and must perform a balancing act every time she makes a decision. Britain can be thankful for PM's who attempt to do their job to the very best of their ability, irrespective of faith perspective. Perhaps Britons could also be thankful that Mrs. May does not appear to tweet quite as much as someone across the ditch. (I may be wrong about that!). I applaud your forthright words to Mrs. May and if she doesn't quite live up to expectations I'm sure that you will find it in your heart to see her dilemmas and keep talking to her.

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