Getting real on migration

By Vaughan Jones
11 Jan 2010

Lord Carey, who has joined forces with a group of lobbyists wanting to shoehorn their anti-immigration views into the forthcoming election campaign, is living in an unreal world.

Church offices and local clergy do indeed face daily frustration around immigration issues. But the problem is about restrictions on the life-chances of vulnerable people, not how to get people anxious about abstract population numbers or how to portray those of different background, culture and religion as a ‘threat’.

For members of churches, for international theological students and for visiting church officials – among many others – harsh immigration controls championed by the main political parties (David Cameron has just joined the bandwagon, it seems) are biting hard.

They create many pastoral problems, including the forced separation of families and the incarceration of children. Esoteric debates about supposed ‘Christian culture’ and British society are far removed from the coal-face. What we desperately need is for more church leaders to devote time and love to our brothers and sisters, many of whom are Christian, languishing in Britain’s deportation centres.

In this context, Lord Carey’s latest intervention (echoing views expressed in The Times back in November 2008 and the News of the World last year, it should be noted) let down hard working clergy and volunteers engaged in pastoral work with desperate people.

The relationship between migration and social, cultural and economic development is extremely complex. Crude, populist and simplistic comments like those of the former Archbishop add nothing new or helpful to the debate.

The migrant is not a stranger to the church to be accepted or rejected at our convenience. We are siblings within a transnational and interdependent global community that transcends narrow and outdated nationalism. Indeed it points forward, towards the kind of global community we so desperately need.

The narrative from which Christians derive wisdom is a story of a Diaspora community, an exiled community and an enslaved community. In order for the wisdom of our faith to flourish in our present day context, we need to identify those who share the experience of our community – whatever labels they wear, religious and otherwise. Then we need to extend and expand with them the conception of the promised “abundant life” spoken of in the Gospel of St John.

Harsh immigration controls contravene the wisdom of the narrative of “good” Samaritans, of a new community, of missionary journeys, of imprisoned and tortured apostles, of persecuted minorities and of martyrs for truth and justice standing up to those with might and power.

It seems to me that it is impossible to commit yourself to the narrative of the faith of, and in, Jesus the Christ, and not see the perversity of separating human beings along ethnic lines, or of drawing lines across the map of God's creation and calling them borders.

Lord Carey’s recent remarks also reveal the delusion of some in the Church of England around its anachronistic Established status. England’s state church does not speak for all in the nation. It represents only one (and increasingly a minority) Christian tradition.

So as the Rev Aled Edwards has pointed out, Lord Carey’s narrow sense of the ‘DNA of our nation’ will not be shared by many good citizens of different faiths and of none.

He adds: “The UK now also has three devolved Governments containing parties with a sense of national identity that isn’t primarily British. This reality impacts increasingly on faith communities. The notion that migrants to Wales should be made to believe that they live in a country with an Established church is as quaint as it is erroneous. Wales has no Established church.”

Moreover, the church overall is growing in the UK through migration. Other faiths are also increasing through people movements, adding an important dimension and excitement to the re-emergence and diversification of faith in the UK.

The demand for an optimum population is fundamentally at odds with traditional Christian teaching. Christians believe in the protection of life and a just stewardship and sharing of the earth's resources. Without immigration we would need to take some very drastic decisions about who could and who could not survive. It is a matter of life and death.

The reality is that we are faced with a changing demography that will either require the UK to have a smaller population with fewer elderly people or a larger one which has a sufficient base of people who are economically active to support the larger number of people who are not.

Numbers are not the issue. In place of vacuous statements and sterile debates, we need a broader vision and the action needed to create international agreements on the movement and exchange of labour, peace-building, ecological responsibility and respect between people of all faiths and beliefs.

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© Vaughan Jones is a United Reformed Church minister in East London and director of Praxis, which has worked with displaced people in London since 1983. He is an Ekklesia associate.

See also: 'Are immigration controls moral?', by Vaughan Jones - http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/280405immigration

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