What stories does a nation tell to one another whilst in exile? How do they understand their nationhood from the perspective of a refugee camp or even worse, a slave colony?
Much of the Old Testament emerges from this context- the people chosen of God, coming to terms with who they no longer are and dreaming of restoration, justice, peace; living in a land where the lion can lie down with the lamb. These dreams and hopes were often personified in the idea of Messiah- a great leader who would defeat the oppressors, and lead the people away from refugee status and establish a New Kingdom.
I mention this because the news has contained quite a bit about immigration of late. In the UK (and in Australia too it seems) the political landscape has shifted markedly to the right. The tabloids have thundered on for years about a so called tide of ‘others’ who are arriving on our shores, sucking our NHS dry, demanding benefits, taking all our jobs, filling our social housing estates etc etc. This has now become the agenda of government.
The general consensus even within the Left wing is that this is an issue that it is no longer possible to be ‘soft’ on. Labour has to be seen to be defending our borders from the seething mass of the outsiders who want to become our neighbours.
It is almost impossible to separate the social facts from the politics (or the politics from the economics) in all this thundering about immigration. I am tempted to try to discuss some of the figures, and what they might mean, but that is not the point of this piece. This is rather about the stories we tell one another.
The stories we currently tell in the UK are dominated by this kind of thing;
The government is experimenting with sending these vans around areas where lots of immigrants live, splashed with black backgrounds and pictures of handcuffs, offering to send people ‘home.’
The inference is obvious- you are not welcome here, we want you out and we are coming to get you. All this fits very well with a certain kind of story- the illegal immigrant as feckless and sneaky parasite, contaminating our country and its way of life with alien colour, religion and culture.
This story has been constructed from the mess of statistics surrounding immigration. Check out this article that dips its tows into this issue. A quote;
We know, for example, that the Office for Budget Responsibility thinks that immigration is good for the public finances in both the short and long run. We know that there is little evidence that immigration impacts negatively on jobs or wages; we know that immigrants are much less likely to claim benefits, and that they overall make less than proportionate use of public services like health. All of this research is based on government data on immigration and immigrants; the committee – and the government – would perhaps be better occupied highlighting the results and calling for further research in areas where we know less.
But I find myself desperate to hear other stories- ones that contain more grace, more humanity, even more plain intelligence. And for this, we can turn again to the stories of the Bible.
Stories of a proud nation, defeated by the rise of empire. Overwhelmed by global forces who have no interest in their God, their tribes, their history. Stories of people scattered, either by force or by economic necessity, to become the slaves and pawns of empire.
Then there are other stories, that tell the stories from the individual perspective. One of the most well known, if the most miss-interpreted, is this one;
The Message (MSG)
19 1-2 The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was sitting at the city gate. He saw them and got up to welcome them, bowing before them and said, “Please, my friends, come to my house and stay the night. Wash up. You can rise early and be on your way refreshed.”
They said, “No, we’ll sleep in the street.”
3 But he insisted, wouldn’t take no for an answer; and they relented and went home with him. Lot fixed a hot meal for them and they ate.
4-5 Before they went to bed men from all over the city of Sodom, young and old, descended on the house from all sides and boxed them in. They yelled to Lot, “Where are the men who are staying with you for the night? Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!”
6-8 Lot went out, barring the door behind him, and said, “Brothers, please, don’t be vile! Look, I have two daughters, virgins; let me bring them out; you can take your pleasure with them, but don’t touch these men—they’re my guests.”
9 They said, “Get lost! You drop in from nowhere and now you’re going to tell us how to run our lives. We’ll treat you worse than them!” And they charged past Lot to break down the door.
10-11 But the two men reached out and pulled Lot inside the house, locking the door. Then they struck blind the men who were trying to break down the door, both leaders and followers, leaving them groping in the dark.
12-13 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have any other family here? Sons, daughters—anybody in the city? Get them out of here, and now! We’re going to destroy this place. The outcries of victims here toGod are deafening; we’ve been sent to blast this place into oblivion.”
14 Lot went out and warned the fiancés of his daughters, “Evacuate this place; God is about to destroy this city!” But his daughters’ would-be husbands treated it as a joke.
15 At break of day, the angels pushed Lot to get going, “Hurry. Get your wife and two daughters out of here before it’s too late and you’re caught in the punishment of the city.”
16-17 Lot was dragging his feet. The men grabbed Lot’s arm, and the arms of his wife and daughters—God was so merciful to them!—and dragged them to safety outside the city. When they had them outside, Lot was told, “Now run for your life! Don’t look back! Don’t stop anywhere on the plain—run for the hills or you’ll be swept away.”
Sodom and Gomorrah, so often a phrase used to describe depravity- particularly of the homosexual kind.
You know the rest of the strange old story- how Lot pleaded for the city to be saved, but how in the end he and his family escaped, only for his wife to look back and be turned into a pillar of salt. It is a story that has all sorts of uncomfortable echoes as we tell it within our culture. How do we understand the sexual politics? The treatment of women? What is God condoning and what is God regarding as reprehensible?
But here I want to offer you this story as an image of how a people might abuse outsiders within our communities– how we might see them as less-than-human, how we might be able to demonise them to project our own fears of the unknown, or to meet our own baser fantasies.
Lot and his family (along with the two visiting angels) are the heroes of the story rather than the city dwellers themselves, and this changes everything.
Let us be suspicious of the politics of hate and fear, wherever we see it, and let us listen carefully to the stories of real people. Particularly people in exile.