The Archbishop’s error and owning up to prejudice

By Savi Hensman
March 11, 2016

“Fears about mass immigration are completely reasonable, says Archbishop of Canterbury”, read a headline in the Sun newspaper, with the subheading “Justin Welby said it was 'outrageous' to brand worried Brits racist.”

“What happens about housing? What happens about jobs? What happens about access to health services?” the Daily Mail quoted Welby as saying. It went on, “Campaign groups last night welcomed his powerful intervention as a ‘marvellous breath of fresh air'.”

The article reported that “In an interview with Parliament’s House magazine, Archbishop Welby said: ‘Fear is a valid emotion at a time of such colossal crisis. This is one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Just enormous. And to be anxious about that is very reasonable.

“‘There is a tendency to say “those people are racist”, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous.”

“Downing Street backs archbishop over immigration comments,” a Guardian headline later stated.

In reality, what he said was more balanced. As before, he urged the government to accept more refugees but pointed out that local communities where higher numbers settle need additional resources. He praised those involved in resettlement.

However what many people will have understood from his words, filtered through the media, is different. To them, he may have seemed to give the go-ahead to fear and mistrust of people from Asia and Africa, vocally expressed.

But, of the millions across the world fleeing war and persecution, only a tiny proportion end up in the UK. And fear of refugees and migrants is often highest in areas which are almost entirely white (apart from a few black and minority ethnic people staffing health, social care or other public services).

Not all people voicing the kind of sentiments he describes are racist, just as not everyone who fears religion and people who promote it is prejudiced. But – unless he is trying to make out that racism does not exist, an absurd claim – some are.

This is not a condemnation. Probably almost everyone has some kind of prejudice and most of us have had to unlearn some forms of bias over the years.

However, fearing or despising minorities of various kinds or underrating women can have hugely damaging effects on those at the receiving end. Even the people who end up discriminating are harmed spiritually and miss out on the joy they might find if they were to overcome such barriers.

Sometimes anxieties about migration conceal concerns about rapid social, economic and cultural change and feelings of loss of control. These may be valid but projecting them on to people who feel even more powerless does not help.

It is also unhelpful to get carried away by fearfulness. Accommodating and supporting new arrivals is not always easy but it is not as frightening as the horrors that many have fled.

Sanctimoniously condemning all who express anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments is wrong but sometimes it is right that they be challenged.

As some people have pointed out, Welby could helpfully have cited 1 John 4: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Earlier the author of this epistle writes: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Pretending that prejudice does not exist makes it harder to overcome.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.