There has been a lot of news coverage over the last few weeks about government strategy to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the UK. In a democracy, the government needs to please the people if it wants to be re-elected, so a balance must be found between maintaining our image as a compassionate nation and allaying the fears of those who see immigration as detrimental to our national identity.
This is a very old problem. That the Hebrews needed instructions on how to treat foreigners suggests that they had not been showing compassion or fairness (Leviticus 19: 10,33,34).
Immigration can be seen as a threat to our resources (“they take our jobs/houses/school places/health care/benefits”) hence we see more resistance in times of austerity.
Running alongside this is the more unconscious desire for purity which affects all of us regardless of our attitude to those seeking asylum. In our groups and organisations it may manifest as ‘maintaining our Christian ethos’, attempts to change the behaviour of those we disagree with, a reluctance to change the way we do things, or failure to make our buildings accessible. We all, at heart, want to be surrounded by people who are like us because then we can ensure that our environment is tailored to our own particular preferences.
Jesus repeatedly challenged the purity laws of his day, calling out the religious elite for the priority they gave to ritual cleanliness and making friends and disciples of those deemed to be unclean and unacceptable. We can see in Acts and in the epistles how hard it was for those who followed Him to move from being a people set apart to being an inclusive community. We read of squabbles about circumcision and food laws, but these arguments are definitively settled in Acts 10 where Peter’s understanding of purity is turned upside down.
Our faith is founded on a man who was seen as a blasphemer, a madman, a failed revolutionary, and a troublemaker. The manner of his death announced his shame to all who knew Him. Therefore, we are in no position to be choosey about who we will accept into our own communities.
Catherine Beaumont, Leeds Christian Community Trust.