This talk was given on 28 February 2009 at a session on 'Faiths and Freedoms' convened by Ekklesia as part of the Convention on Modern Liberty. Simon Barrow's introduction is here - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8822
In addressing the question of religion and ‘modern liberty’, I start by acknowledging that people of faith bring considerable “baggage” with them into the arena of civil rights, much of it very negative. I also acknowledge that I come from the Christian tradition of Reformed thought and practice which helped win the English Civil War and then threw its gains away. But I am proud of the contribution we have made to democratic institutions in the UK.
My tradition has long since sought the separation of church and state, valuing democracy in both. It believes that freedom of worship and association are fundamentals balanced by the obligation to obey the law and the right to oppose unjust laws. Faith communities have no right to ask for special privilege based on historical settlements. Constitutional reform that included Disestablishment would do us all a lot of good.
I also speak as someone engaged in areas of social justice - especially migration, poverty, and anti-racism. Migration, in particular, has been on the sharp end of the civil liberties issue for some years now.
There are two deep rooted threads within most religious traditions. One is concern for the stranger in our midst, the “other” who is worthy of respect; and the second is the religious requirement to care for our brother and sister in need.
Where one part of the body suffers then we all suffer. In Christian terms both care and harm given to a “little one of faith” is given to Christ himself. Where are we now? It is by no means uncommon for a local church congregation to find itself defending a member facing deportation. Most pastorally engaged clergy in urban contexts will be dealing with immigration issues of one kind or another.
Pastoral engagement, then, is both about protecting the stranger and about defending brothers and sisters of faith. Once when I was visiting Colnbrook Detention Centre at Heathrow, which is a maximum security prison, I was shown into one of the cells. There was a young African man, maybe 19 or 20 years old who was sitting on his bed reading his Bible. Was he the stranger to who I had an obligation of hospitality or my brother in faith? He was both.
If we look back to the early days of colonialism we are surprised to read of the debates which took place as to whether or not the indigenous peoples of the Americas had souls. If they had souls, then they were deemed worthy of a different treatment than if they did not. I sometimes wonder if future generations might look back on our debates surrounding the rights of a migrant with equal incredulity.
The governments of the western world have consistently refused to sign the International Convention on the rights of Migrants and their Families. It is not considered inappropriate to imprison children in the UK detention centres for considerably longer than 42 days when neither they nor their parents have committed crimes. It is not considered an imposition on freedom to deny the right to income, recourse to public funds. It is not considered an imposition on liberty to remove their access to legal representation.
So does the migrant have a human right? Are migrants fully human? Do they have, in the old language, souls? The answer as it currently appears from government is “unfortunately they are human, but we will do everything we possibly can to stop them from being so.”
Any community which has at any point in its history known and experienced persecution and genocide should be very wary of a surveillance society not matter how benevolent or well intentioned it might proclaim itself to be. Clearly that criterion applies to all faith communities so as people of faith together we need to be careful.
We know from apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany that it is not the mainstream religious bodies who come under attack but those people who are engaged pastorally advocating for the rights of individuals or protesting the erosion of rights.
One Christian group I know has formed itself to house 'failed' (refused) asylum seekers. It knows that its activities are legal. However, it has made a policy decision that if it did become against the law to provide that assistance it would do it anyway. My view is that we are on the right side of legitimacy at present but I want to flag up that we are drawing very close to the edge.
The church and all major faith groups are international in character. The nation state is a problem to the church. This is why the so-called “Church of England” is also a problem to the church as the global Body of Christ.
It is important that the church is able to engage and work and associate across national boundaries. The UK Borders Agency makes it extremely hard, even intimidating, for faith communities to employ staff from other countries. It is hard to organise an international conference as invitees cannot obtain visas.
But as people of faith engaged with issues of justice in the world, we need to learn from each other about climate change, conflict and war and impoverishment and development. We also need to do less apparently threatening things like pray together and study scripture. How can we maximise our potential as a force with global understanding if we are constantly harassed by draconian immigration officials and literally harassed by the dreadful UK Border Agency? Frankly if the churches are feeling this – I seriously wonder how on earth Muslim and other faith communities are feeling about it, given their awful experiences.
I find the discourse surrounding faith and public space deadly dull. The core issue is that fundamental rights are for all. If shops open on a Sunday then they open on a Sunday. There was a campaign to “keep Sunday special” but now that it isn’t for a majority I have to practice my faith as a Christian on a Sunday, as do a Muslim on a Friday and a Jew on a Saturday.
If someone decides to write a funky opera which uses familiar Christian icons in an unfamiliar way that may make me uncomfortable, then I have to allow others to express themselves. But if a fellow Christian is deported to their death, then I have a duty both as a Christian and a citizen to do something about it.
If we are denied our right to associate with our brothers and sisters of faith across national borders then I am being denied the right to full membership of my community and that matters to me and to all citizens.
The erosion of rights is subtle and corrosive. Faith communities don’t need anything that other communities don’t need. We don’t have to ask for special protection. We need to be free to be the communities we are and to ensure that all members are treated as full human beings with full rights. I speak as a Christian but I have no doubt that nothing I say would not apply to all faith groups and indeed to all people of good will.
(c) Vaughan Jones is a United Reformed Church minister in East London and Chief Executive of Praxis (http://www.praxis.org.uk/), which has worked with displaced people in London since 1983. He is an Ekklesia associate.