by Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – The words of Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians.
Love, Peace, Humility, Gentleness – lovely sounding words, and because they are words of that to which each of us, each and every human being seeks to attain, thirsts for as the deer pants for the water, we want them to be easy. But we now they are not easily won – they are won through tremendous courage, the kind of courage that only Love can bear, the kind of courage that takes a man to a cross for the sake of the ones he loves. Love bears all things.
This past week I went to a conference at the University of Lancaster on Faith, Communities and Radicalisation. Astounded to be introduced as one of the Church of England’s experts on confronting the far right, I eventually realised that what I consider to be humble experiences, on the ground, at grassroots level, were actually valuable first-hand knowledge the those I shared the platform with viewed as indispensable.
“It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans.”
The common theme of the day was one of preventing our younger generation in particular from seeking to fulfil their hopes in the arms of the likes of extremism – whether it is with ISIS, or groups such as the EDL, Britain First or neo-Nazi groups such as New Dawn. We have a global context in which employment and housing opportunities are almost non-existent for a generation of young people. In the 14 years since 9/11, a generation of young Muslims have received a daily onslaught from media telling them they are terrorists. And other young people, struggling to find jobs – have also been on the receiving end of that onslaught. It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans. What each of us concurred upon, academics, religious leaders, sociologists, criminologists, community workers, was that young people need to be given hope, hope for a future in which they might have employment, feel valued, and have a place in this world. If we don’t, as a nation, give it to them – someone else will.
ISIS is the extreme manifestation of those seeking to benefit from a disaffected generation. It is said that from their fruits you shall know them – and their fruits are that of organised crime. They are involved in trafficking of human beings, in arms and antiquities sales, sale of oil, in drugs. They terrorise just as organised crime uses terror to control swathes of communities.
One of the things that was said is a feeling that this is a new phenomenon – how do we stop it? But we have been here before. Much of the patterns we know of from groups in Northern Ireland are followed in the patterns of behaviour here in the UK with regard to the EDL and Britain First – mapping almost exactly in the Orange parades and organised drug crime. Tommy Robinson, founder of the EDL, has been convicted of a number of crimes which include drug charges and assault.
What we have with both groups such as the EDL and with ISIS are a pattern of terror, illicit financial gain, and grooming of the vulnerable for the purposes of forming a voluntary army – whether it is on a small scale here in Britain, or the horrific events in Syria and Iraq. The pattern is the same.
This sounds a bleak picture – but I want to assure that it is not. The solution is not more bombing campaigns, the solution is not a 1950’s McCarthy-era style of thought police. Truly, the first solution, the solution that will make a real difference in the world, is Love.
Rick Love (yes, that is his name!) of the World Evangelical Alliance, has challenged the Christian world to wage Love. He is challenging to follow the words of Jesus Christ that we love our enemies, that we love ISIS. Not their ideology – of course not, not their actions. But individual by individual, person by person, cup of tea by cup of tea – that we sit down and listen to people, value them as human beings, that we give hope through love.
I have worked enough on the street to see how things ratchet up, and keep on ratcheting up. The more attention you give to the violence, to the anger, things ratchet up. Before we can even listen to one another – we have to stop, love, provide hope.
I was on the train to London at rush hour when the last budget was announced, and I listened to what I discerned were two social workers heatedly discussing the results. Young people between the ages of 18-25 will not be entitled to minimum wage. It is considered appropriate that they should seek help from their families. But these social workers were asking what about the young people in care who are expected to be independent when they are 18, no longer entitled to housing or benefits. Their only choice at this point is to return to a household where they were abused or neglected. It is a choice forced upon them. It will be that or the streets.
This nation which in its compassion saw the establishment of the NHS and a benefit system that feeds and houses the vulnerable, and that our Prime Minister is asking to return to British values, is at risk of losing the best of those values. We who pay in to a system of taxes that is supposed to protect us when we need it most, are seeing that slowly eroding away.
This past week, a dentist in America received global disapproval of something he considered a sport. He shot a lion in Africa – and the world went crazy with accusations. And then there were the counter accusations – that people, and the media, care more about a lion being shoe than….well, you name it; a Palestinian child burned to death, a black woman beaten to death by police in the US, or nameless migrants killed in the Channel Tunnel from Calais.
Jesus is calling us, calling us to love, to peace, to gentleness, to humility. It is a radical calling. It is a loud calling – and it is getting louder and louder!
When my children were small and had nightmares, I used a Native American technique with them. I told them the next time something chased them in their dream, they were to turn around and ask what gift it was the monster was trying to give them. You see, the thinking behind this is that our nightmares are really something in our psyche that is trying to get our attention – and that if we turn around and listen to what it is, we will find that it is a valuable gift we need to receive.
We are at a crossroads of humanity as a nation. We are being called to love, to compassion, to hope. Several people have died in the middle of a dark tunnel, crushed by lorries and God knows what. We are not provided with their names – they remain dehumanised, nameless, faceless, termed part of a swarm and like cockroaches.
What is happening in Calais has been happening for years, but is currently part of a sharp increase of refugees worldwide. What some media term to be a huge swathe is in reality on a minute portion of those seeking sanctuary worldwide. Other European countries take in hundreds of thousands rather than the thousands Britain receive. That a small portion of refugees seek to make it to the UK is no surprise. There is a global pressure of people seeking to escape unthinkable violence in their home countries, and by far the greater majority are finding refuge in countries closer to where they are coming from. They are not coming to the UK because they are under the impression we have a great system they can exploit. Those who are trying to come here either have some kind of connection through relatives, or have some knowledge of English which they believe will help them find a job.
I have worked with refugees when I was living in Sussex. Many of them were highly skilled but prevented from working, from earning their way and paying taxes because while awaiting the lengthy process of seeking asylum, they have little or no recourse to public funds or to employment.
But as hard as things are for them here and in Europe – there is at least hope, at least no one is going to shoot them just for being who they are.
I was a trustee for Brighton Voices in Exile, a Christian charity which provided for those seeking asylum who were falling through the cracks – left with no food, shelter or recourse to clothing – even for families with children, the charity provided what little they could.
What love, commitment, courage, humility and gentleness it takes to provide hope for the hopeless. It is not a case that if we opened our borders there would be hordes of refugees coming in. We are at the edge of Europe, and an island. Those who come this far are the most desperate. Rather than put up walls in fear, we need to work closely with the whole of Europe to find a means of providing for the needy – those in need of saving their own lives.
A Daily Mail headline from 1938 draws comparisons with those we are now seeing with regard to Calais: ‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. In intend to enforce the law to its fullest.’ – quoting a London magistrate. It goes on to makes claims about problems surrounding unemployment issues – there not being enough jobs, etc.
At this end of history, I would rather be perceived as the one who provided sanctuary for those escaping oppression, than the one turning them away.
The bread of life Jesus speaks of is the love for God and for one another each and every one of us is called to. That love would never see another go hungry or thirsty, in fear for their life or without shelter. The bread of Life is Love – courageous, humble, gentle, patient Love. It is not easy, it is not hearts and flowers and romance – but it is full of light and grace and blessing.
From Sunday’s sermon, 2 August 2015, using the following readings:
Bonnie Evans-Hills has considerable experience in interfaith dialogue, serving on the national Church of England Presence & Engagement task group, and working with the World Council of Churches. With the Anglican Communion, Bonnie took part in a theological exchange at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Bonnie is Inter Faith Adviser in the Diocese of St Albans, and a parish priest. You can read more of her work at https://bonnieevanshills.wordpress.com/, academia.edu, https://heythrop.academia.edu/BonnieEvansHills