Theology, Asylum, and Politics in a World on Fire

by David Clough.

Whatever international action happens as a result of the inconclusive COP26 conference, it is clear that carbon emissions from human activity are changing the world’s climate in ways that are already displacing many people from the places that have been their home and will soon displace many more. Islands are being inundated. Changes to weather patterns are disrupting the growing of food crops and the grazing of animals, as well as increasing the incidence of wildfires and storms. Christians should grieve and lament the devastation caused to human communities and other living creatures as a result of culpable inaction from industrialised nations over decades. We should be angered by the injustice that the heaviest costs of climate change are falling on those who have least responsibility for causing the problem. We should be driven by these emotions to continue to make the case for urgent concerted international action to avoid making the crisis still worse.

But Christians should also prepare themselves for the political consequences of this environmental crisis. The UNHCR reported 82.4 million displaced people at the end of 2020, one in 95 of the global population. The climate crisis was one of the factors that led to the civil war in Syria. The crisis continues to provoke conflict and increase the numbers of displaced people, refugees, and asylum seekers. This presents a new international challenge. Industrialised nations need to decide either to recognise their responsibility to support people displaced by the climate crisis or to ignore these pressing humanitarian needs and instead invest in stronger borders to attempt to insulate themselves from the global disruption. There is a serious risk that some politicians will see opportunities in rushing directly from denial and inaction in relation to the causes of the climate crisis to making the case for prioritizing national self-interest rather than recognizing international responsibilities. In the UK, a clear direction of travel is evident in the government setting aside longstanding commitments concerning the international aid budget, its proposed new Nationality and Borders bill, and inadequate responses from ministers to the rising numbers of asylum seekers drowning in the Channel as a result of the lack of legal routes to claim asylum in the UK.

For many Christians, the implications of their faith for the question of the obligations of the most wealthy nations to care for those in need is clear. Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbour and the parables of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37) and the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31–46) are obvious reference points. But Christians in the US voted disproportionately for Trump in the context of promises of an implausible wall along the Mexican border. In the UK, most members of the Church of England voted for Brexit in the context of a campaign affirming the priority of national self-interest. So those hoping that Christian churches might help generate political support for international cooperation to help people displaced as a result of the climate crisis have work to do.

One sign of the challenge ahead is a recent article in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church, Oxford. ‘Whatever Happened to the Canaanites? Principles of a Christian Ethic of Mass Immigration’ makes a Christian ethical case for prioritising national self-interest above providing for the needy beyond a nation’s borders. Its argument relies on a tendentious framing of the issue and on false oppositions. The key current issue for the UK and many other countries is ethical and legal responsibilities to those seeking asylum; the article misdirects attention towards fears about ‘mass migration’ and completely open borders. The article will not convince many Christian ethicists that it presents a plausible reading of biblical and theological traditions on this topic. The problem is that it does not need to convince anyone: it just needs to provide a theological fig-leaf for those who have already decided that prioritising the pursuit of narrow national self-interest is politically expedient. It is therefore more important than ever to make the case that unjust and uncompassionate policies on international aid, the reception of asylum seekers, and immigration, are contrary to Christian ethics.

If you are a Christian convinced that churches should be supporting hospitality to asylum seekers, aid for refugees, and justice for those displaced by the climate crisis, it is time to get ready to join the debate. Reading up on the important work of the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team on asylum and migration is a great place to start.

18 thoughts on “Theology, Asylum, and Politics in a World on Fire”

  1. Brilliant! With you all the way David. As a recent preacher at our church said; Governments are prioritising economics, and national and individual self-interest over care for people and the world we live in: We are heading for a brick wall and racing to be the first to hit it!
    The comment I would like to make is that organised religion could do something about the preaching that prioritises creedal statements about personal salvation, being and presence. To my mind this is individualistic self-interestedness and often leads to judgmentalism and a sort of competitive holiness that it is basically unethical. I go to church to be reminded of the Beatitudes and the Two Great Commandments, and work with others to bring justice and fairness to all, not just to feel good about myself!

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  2. Robert, I find it very hard to believe you go to church just to be reminded of the Beatitudes and the two commandments. If you need reminding of those you could simply read your Bible at home, or look them up on Google. If you want to work with others to ‘bring justice and fairness to all’ you can do that by volunteering in the local community, or working for a charity, at home or abroad.
    A church building is, first and foremost, a place of worship and a sanctuary of peace. If you don’t want to worship and you are not looking for inner peace, then why do you go? Be honest!
    Could it be that church has become, for you, a place to be judgemental and critical? Isn’t it just a soft target for your virtue-signalling wokeness?
    And could it be that you are feeling just a little smug and ‘good about yourself’ every time you wave your ethics in the faces of those who find church, and religion, an essential part of their journey with God?

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  3. ’Shalom’, in addition to complete peace, infers contentment, wholeness, well-being and harmony. But, since we are all different, the kind of peace we need will differ according to where we are in our faith, our stage of life, and what’s happening in our lives at the moment.

    We celebrate Jesus, as the “Prince of Peace”, the one who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;” the one who stilled the storm and can quell the turmoil in our lives. When we are at the end of our tether, he’s the one who calls, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” There are many times when that is exactly what we need and it’s wonderful to feel Jesus alongside us in our most difficult and darkest times. For many of us, that is what enables us to keep going when life gets rough.

    Yet one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is that Jesus also comes to disturb our comfort and our peace. He interrupts our quietude to remind us that our lives have a purpose and we have a role to fulfil. He doesn’t just say, “Come to me;” he also says, “Follow me;” and the paths on which he leads us aren’t always easy; they’re often full of challenges. If we don’t follow him, we can become restless, because we’re not where we should be in our spiritual life. St Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless, until they rest in God – until we’re doing what we’re called to do; until we’re the people we’re meant to be – and not just talking and singing about it.

    True peace isn’t just absence of conflict or struggle; it’s much more active than that. Hafsat Abiola, the Nigerian human rights activist, wrote, “Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are.” Through his struggles for social justice under a repressive regime Archbishop Oscar Romero learnt that “Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.” In his concern for social holiness John Wesley saw wholeness and harmony in the lives of those who practise peace and who have “a faith that works by divine love in the crucible of everyday life.”

    It seems that ‘Shalom’ isn’t something we’ll find by searching. It will find us when we commit ourselves to following Christ’s call and focus on bringing peace and blessing to others, whether that, for us, is through prayer and worship or through reaching out in mission.

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  4. Here’s an excellent example of the theological work that is required to inform and sustain the Christian engagement with the politics of asylum that we need: ‘Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill’ by Tasia Scrutton for the Shiloh Project

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  5. Yvonne, I find it difficult to prioritise worship, holiness, inner peace, contemplation or other aspects of religion when I reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan and see the need of others.

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    1. Yes Robert, you have made your position perfectly clear. All I am saying, or have ever said, is that others have the right to choose their own priorities, without judgement or prejudice.
      What the pulpit politicians can’t seem to grasp is that they are driving away the very people who have kept the churches open and solvent through all the years of increasing secularism. Once church as we traditionalists know it has been kicked into oblivion, where will you look for volunteers to support your community outreach and mission? Have you ever tried recruiting volunteers from the places where secular folk congregate eg pubs, clubs, bars, football grounds? Most of the volunteers manning the charity shops, foodbanks and other community services are worshipping Christians of all denominations.
      Why do you begrudge them what their soul most desires, which is one hour a week to worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness? How mean and petty is that?
      Is this the same Robert Bridge who I did the discipleship course on Psalms with several years ago?
      Do the Psalms mean nothing to you now?

      ‘Praise the Lord, all nations everywhere.
      Praise him, all the peoples of the earth.
      For he loves us very dearly, and his truth endures.
      Praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 117)

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  6. Around one-third of adults in the UK were involved in volunteering last year. Only some 5% of adults in the UK attend church regularly.
    Several months ago, on my way to Sunday morning service, I passed dozens of cyclists who were on a sponsored ride to raise money for the local hospice. They’d been cycling since midnight. With over 40 miles still to go, some who did not cycle regularly were already beginning to struggle. Many would find it difficult to walk the next day and have blisters where they would not be able to show them to others. As I stood in church reciting a psalm, it seemed clear that there is more than one form of worship. The cyclists were making sacrifices, giving a commitment and affirming that all lives, even of the terminally ill, are worthwhile. In loving others they were serving God whether they realised it or not.
    As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “It is impossible to love Christ without loving others… and it is impossible to love others … without moving nearer to Christ.”
    God’s call comes in different forms. Living life to the full in response to that call is not just about personal salvation. We need to recognize and nurture people whose compassion, acts of caring and sacrificial love reflect Jesus’ message. People who are motivated by love and a sense of justice, are our allies in the struggle to bring about God’s kingdom, whether they attend church or not..

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    1. I quite agree that everyone should be free to worship or serve in whatever way they choose; if God is the source of all love then any way in which love is given and received must be the work of God.
      What I object to is Robert’s insistence that anyone who worships in a traditional manner, who believes in the creeds and doctrines, and is concerned with personal salvation, is self-centred and self-serving. This just is not true, which is proven by the number of worshipping Christians who give freely of their time, money, and resources. Their love is just as valuable as Robert’s, or anyone else’s! Even giving someone a lift to church, cleaning the church or serving the drinks after the service are acts of love; we don’t all want or need to be political activists. I think it’s very self-centred and self-serving (and controlling!) to insist your way is the only way.

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  7. So it is alright for the Priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side because in the tradition worship is more important than love and care for others!

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    1. I’m not saying it’s alright at all. It is a parable which tells us loving and caring for others must be our primary concern. Our common humanity surpasses all our beliefs, opinions and prejudices. I should imagine that, if any of the priests/vicars/ministers/pastors in my town were on their way to a church service and they came upon a man who had been beaten and left for dead, they would stop to help in any way they could. And I should imagine their congregations would be very understanding about the delay, and very concerned for the man’s well-being.
      The parable does not say people of faith should not worship, or that the only kind of service that matters is our service to others. Once again, you are taking the message of the parable to extremes, and using it to beat those whose faith manifests itself in a way you are not comfortable with. In a metaphorical sense, you are like the robbers that beat the traveller and left him for dead, except your victim is the traditionalist Christian!
      I’m going to cast myself as the hero of the story and say I am the good Samaritan who stopped to help (just because I can, this being my comment ;-))
      I know I’m being very blunt and confrontational now, but how can you think it’s acceptable to devalue the faith of another Christian just to make yourself feel ethically superior?

      To traditionalists everywhere:
      I love you. I love your faith. I love your style of worship. I love your desire for a personal relationship with Jesus, and for your salvation through that relationship. Don’t let the woke folk beat you into submission.
      Keep singing, keep praying and praising, keep loving and serving in any way you feel God is calling you.

      All together now:
      ‘Sing Hosanna! Sing Hosanna!
      Sing Hosanna to the King of Kings ….’ 🙂

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  8. ‘Our God, Heaven cannot hold him,
    Nor earth sustain;
    Heaven and earth shall flee away
    When he comes to reign.
    In the bleak midwinter,
    A stable place sufficed
    The Lord God Almighty,
    Jesus Christ.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 107)

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  9. Traditional Christians have, and also cause, problems with action to combat climate change. I have two attended services this Advent when the message has been that Christ could return at any moment and bring in a new Earth. If this were true, why would anybody worry about the impact of climate change on future generations?

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    1. ‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife
      The world has suffered long;
      Beneath the angel strain have rolled
      Two thousand years of wrong.
      And man, at war with man, hears not
      The love-song which they bring.
      O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
      And hear the angels sing!’

      (Hymns and Psalms 108)

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  10. David, Pavel. You both gave a clear description of the state we are in and I applaud the way you prioritise the ethical concern we should have for others. Bearing this in mind would you agree that the Church should do something about the harmful, unethical Christianity that is still preached from our pulpits? I have said this all before, but I feel it is negative and harmful to judge humanity as sinners in need of redemption; to imply that we are unacceptable to God unless we repent, must unquestioningly take on the whole package of creedal belief and, if we have enough faith will find personal salvation from sin. At best it is individualistic, at worst it is used as justification for abusive behaviour. The Jesus I meet in the Bible spoke of the amazing unconditional love of God and was radically inclusive and non-judgmental in his dealings with all he met. As I see it to hold exclusive and judgmental attitudes is to deny that unconditional love to others and to re-crucify Christ.

    It being Christmas I will end with this poem written by a friend.

    Are You Listening?

    Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
    In the lane snow is glistening,
    children laughing, making snowmen,
    in the meadow, can you hear them?

    Back at home, the present wrapping,
    mounds of food, turkey and the trimming,
    family coming home for Christmas.,
    all excitement, that’s what it is:-

    Walking in a winter wonderland.

    So this is Christmas, for us to enjoy,
    Shop tills ring, to retailers’ joy.
    But does the joy of laughter and the bells
    drown out cries of the hungry and homeless.

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  11. UK government has pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. Since it is about our ethical concern for each other, our love for our neighbour, I cannot understand why there is so little protest about this. Has the Methodist Church protested? Is it that protest, being woke, is considered socially unacceptable? Are protestors like Greta Thunberg, the leaders of Insulate Britain and Desmond Tutu misguided or are they simply following Jesus, who was the most woke person that ever lived?

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      1. In what sense did Greta Thunberg, the leaders of Insulate Britain, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King and the many courageous people that have protested ever force their views on anyone? If they could have forced their views on anyone why would they have bothered to protest?

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