politics


I was talking recently with some Norwegian friends – fluent in English, of course, but not native speakers. So when I said ‘that would be interesting’ I was asked ‘So, which of the seventeen meanings of ‘interesting’ would that be?’ A good question in that context, and for today. ‘Interesting times’ are times of uncertainty, maybe of danger; times of change, maybe of chaos; times of new possibilities, but also unexpected fears.  We are in the UK now living in interesting times.

My father was a meteorologist, which explains perhaps why I am even more interested in the weather than the average Brit (I wonder, how long will that term have its present meaning?). The weather is inherently unpredictable, but there are times when it is more difficult even than usual. The Met Office run their simulations  of what might happen, and sometimes a whole range of radically different outcomes are equally possible. That’s what it feels like now to me. No-one can predict what’s going to happen – we just don’t know.

So how do we live in these ‘interesting’ times? We start from a difficult place, in a nation deeply divided after an aggressive referendum campaign marked by negativity on each side. Counting up the votes in the boroughs and districts which (more or less) reflect my own episcopal area, there were 206664 for remain, and 203611 for leave – that’s a remain majority of  50.3%. Round here we are as finely balanced as anywhere in the country.

Living with uncertainty is never easy. All the more difficult when half of us are confronted with a future we voted against, and many of those who voted to leave seem to be in a state of shock at their victory. It’s a time when Paul’s words are particularly relevant, and a little frightening. As I write, it seems as if both our main political parties are descending into the sort of civil war that Paul warns against in Galatians. The break Gal5,14-15up of the UK is again on the cards, and no-one knows what the future holds for the political settlement in Northern Ireland. There are widespread reports of racist abuse of those who look ‘foreign’. A hospital chaplain reports that staff in his hospital, from many countries in the EU and beyond, are feeling as if all their work and dedication had been rejected.

Paul’s  answer is that we should instead love our neighbours as ourselves. That may be almost equally difficult for everyone. Those who voted to remain in the EU are asked to love those who voted to leave, despite everything – and vice versa. Not to agree, but to love. It’s only by doing that that we can demonstrate that we are still neighbours.

The sort of love which holds a community together is not romantic. It’s the practical act of recognising that we are responsible for one another’s well being, that my good is bound up with what is good for you. It’s part of the trust which enables us think of other people as sharing the same sorts of values as us, even if they express them differently. Both of those sorts of communal love are under threat. The referendum debate has led many people to suspect that half of their neighbours don’t share the same basic values that they have. It has left many wondering whether they have any place at all.

Neighbourliness needs rebuilding right now, from the ground up. Those who feel that they have been rejected need to know that they are still part of our community. Those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain need to reassure each other that they are still neighbours. The future is unclear, and looks likely to be a bumpy ride. The opportunities for division, recrimination and resentment are many. But we must heed Paul’s warning. Love is not an optional extra.

I should start with a disclaimer – this is personal, not the view of the Diocese of Southwark, still less the Church of England.

As the debate has unfolded, I have become more and more convinced that it is in EU-UK flagsour best interests to stay in the European Union. Behind the headlines, there are even more important questions here, which aren’t being addresses as far as I can see – what does it take to make a healthy community? how do human beings learn to live together in harmony? I spend my life helping build healthy communities, and dealing with situations when things go wrong in them, so I hope I have something to offer here.

If you’re going to have peace, you have to have relationship. Distance creates suspicion and distrust. Human beings have a natural tendency to assume the best of themselves and the worst of others – it’s one of those human traits Christians call ‘sin’. The best way to overcome it is to get to know ‘the others’ – so that they are no longer an anonymous and threatening enemy, but a group made up of individuals really quite like us. And this is important: peace between nations is not inevitable. Right up to 1914 there were people saying that war in Europe was unthinkable, inconceivable. I’d rather have us round the table arguing about farm subsidies than sitting sullenly apart and getting ever more anxious about what ‘they’ are plotting. Let’s stay together and continue to build a peaceful Europe.

I have also seen that communities that turn in on themselves do not thrive. It can feel so much safer and more secure to lock the doors and “keep out the foreigners”. But in the long term (even in the medium term) it doesn’t work. The flow of new ideas, new energy, new ambition that outsiders bring increases the liveliness and energy of society as a whole. Yes, it means that there is more competition, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. We have the talent and the ability to rise to the challenge and thrive.

And finally, a community that is strong knows it has something to offer beyond its borders. The UK is a growing and prosperous country – except, often, in our own eyes. We have a huge amount to offer to the rest of the European Union. We do not have to regard ourselves as passive victims of “EU directives” – we have the capacity to make a real difference, to change things for the better. We should be talking about leading the EU, not leaving it.

The voting season is upon us – for those of us in London, voting for a Mayor and Assembly, thought that election is struggling to get much air time compared with UK referendum on membership of the EU. And for most people who intend to vote I suspect they’re still in the box marked ‘oh I must get round to thinking about that’. And for everyone else? ‘Please let it all be over’, perhaps?

Confession time: I think I’ve voted in every election I’ve ever been eligible for (and no, I’m not going to tell you who for). It was one of those things I absorbed when I was a child: voting wasn’t an option, it was an obligation. It was quite a surprise to me when I first met people who couldn’t see why they should vote.

Like most of us, most of my life I’ve lived in places where the result was pretty obvious before anyone even cast a vote. So I wasn’t voting because I thought my ‘X’ on the ballot paper would really make a difference to the result. It was more because I wanted my voice to be heard, even if it was in adding to the majority of someone who was going to elected comfortably – or alternatively, registering the existence of a minority who were never likely to win.

I suppose part of it is that I do believe elections make a difference. Please don’t say to me ‘oh, they’re all the same’ unless you want an argument. Different political parties stand for different things and what they stand for makes a real difference to ordinary peoples’ lives. Even if my vote ‘doesn’t make a difference’, I still want to express my support for the party which is closest to what I personally believe (no, I’m still not telling).

I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should vote. But I will encourage you to use yours, to make your voice heard, even a little bit, in whatever elections may be coming up where you live. Who serves you in elected office does make a difference – and every vote does count for something.

Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.

Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.

It was a privilege to be there on Saturday – to be with several hundred others who were, or had been, or simply cared about the situation of asylum seekers in this country. Since I became involved with supporting and speaking for asylum seekers and refugees – and especially since taking on the chair of the Churches’ Refugee Network – I’ve got used to being made angry and depressed by the political struggle in this country by all the main parties to outflank each other in the hostility they show to those coming to the UK for help. Yes, there was still quite a bit of that. But there was also the inspiration of being together with many others who equally share a better vision of what the UK can be and can do – and a few who had come all the way from the Republic of Ireland as well. And maybe even more, there was the inspiration of those who had survived the system and come out the other side as resolute campaigners for the justice they did not experience.

I’m very glad to be a signatory to the declaration that came out of the day – you can see it here. Do go and see – and think about whether any of the group’s you are part of might sign it too. Not just campaign groups: I hope all sorts of organisations and groups could sign this. The five principles are these:

1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.

2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.

3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.

4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.

5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.

And in case you’re wondering, no – none of these are presently or fully in place for asylum seekers and refugees in this country. I think we can do better than this, because I believe as a country we are better than this. We need to let our politicians know that that’s what we want.

“We are united against Isis, against terrorism, against atrocity, against pain and suffering”. A great sentiment, but even more so when I put the missing word back in: “We are Muslims united against Isis …” That is a quote from the message produced by Muslim leaders in Britain of different groups, Sunni and Shia together. It was produced primarily for the Muslim community, and a few weeks ago now, but I think it’s just as important for all of us, now.

People of no faith may be tempted to blame religion for the violence presently being unleashed across Syria and Iraq by the so-called Islamic State. Christians, Hindus and others might even be tempted to think that Islam is an especially violent religion. Neither of those assertions holds water: there’s plenty of evidence of warfare among followers of all religions, and the 20th Century’s greatest murderers were the atheists Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.

Violence isn’t about religion, whether it’s your own or anyone else’s. It’s something all human beings are capable of – every one of us. But we are also all capable of being peacemakers. At the heart of the world’s great religions is that desire for peace, a desire shared by many of no faith at all. The message from Britain’s Muslim leaders reminds us that we can’t blame some other group, religious or not.

There’s not a lot most of us can do about the conflict in the Middle East, except prayer (for those of us who pray). But we can all be peacemakers in our own lives, families and communities. It’s important that the word is peacemakers. It’s not just about living a quiet life; peacemaking is an active thing. It means reaching out to those we might otherwise not meet, understanding their lives and allowing them to understand ours, and finding the common ground of our shared humanity. Leaders of the different faith communities here in Croydon have recently started meeting together in order to get to know each other and to understand the lives of the different faith communities we represent. But when it comes to making peace, we can all be leaders.

And we can at least do one thing on the wider stage: the blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer has begun to gather support for the following statement:

“While conflicts rage in the Middle East, we continue to pray for peace. Britain has a history of providing refuge to the oppressed. We ask the Government to offer sanctuary to Christians and others who have been expelled under threat of death.”

If you agree that our government should do this, why not ask your MP whether they do too?

A wing at Brook House Two answers come to mind, after this afternoon: ‘when you call it an Immigration Removal Centre instead ‘ or perhaps more importantly ‘when people are deprived of their freedom who haven’t committed a crime’. Today I’ve visited Brook House, an IRC built on the same pattern as a Category B prison. For all that the management are trying to make it feel a bit more relaxed, there’s only so much you can do with a building which has classic H block prison wings. The fact that the residents are locked into their rooms (cells) for twelve hours each night is a bit of a clue too. As one of the current detainees explained to me, passionately, one of the big differences between an IRC and a prison is this – in prison you know when you’re going to be released. Detention is indefinite, and sometimes very long – years, maybe. And, strangely, we’re all very happy about it – we meaning the freedom-loving British public. To repeat, these are not people who are being held for committing a crime. The way we treat the people who end up in IRCs is really only explicable (I think) as an example of scapegoating, in the way it’s explained by Rene Girard – a society unconsciously loads its own tensions onto a specific group, whose expulsion would restore peace and order. But because a rational analysis would soon demonstrate that this wasn’t actually true, the scapegoating has to remain unconscious. Its presence is revealed by the increasingly bizarre and unrealistic justifications which are urged for persecuting the selected group, which depart further and further from reality. Recognise that, anyone? Today I’ve been the guest of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I was also privileged to meet several people still going through the asylum system, and to see the dignity with which they deal with the humiliations our system loads on them. The GDWG provide support, and give hope to many people who otherwise would have no-one to befriend them. I am hugely impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the people I met. The staff and volunteers of GDWG demonstrate that scapegoating is not inevitable. Girard argues that Jesus’ resurrection ends that cycle; whether or not they think of themselves in that way, I saw today, among the despair of Brook House, also the resurrection hope of a new way of living.

Part of yesterday’s motion on Syria proposed that the House of Commons:

Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;

The house did not agree. The French have a good word for what happened to the Prime Minister – un camouflet. Originally it meant ‘a mine so charged and placed that its detonation will destroy enemy mining tunnels’ – and now figuratively, an unsuspected explosion destroying someone’s plans. What a perfect picture of that surprising vote.

But better an explosion under the government’s plans than yet another attempt to bring peace by violence. The contradiction is in the section of the motion I quoted. To define death as destruction as any sort of humanitarian response is to push language beyond its limit. It could be argued as just (if you believe in just wars), or politically expedient – but to suggest that there are humanitarian missile attacks is a perversion of the word.

The Syrian tragedy is an appalling on-going disaster, but the natural desire to ‘do something about it’ should be channelled into more genuinely humanitarian responses – like, dare I say it, a more generous response to those who come to us as refugees.

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