I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be on the run from oppression, or to see my friends and neighbours beheaded or incinerated, to hand over hard-won money to me who sell hope in the faeces-stained corner of a cargo container.
I can’t imagine any of this, as I’m a white man in the western world. I have a job and a house and no-one’s trying to butcher my wife and kids. If I head to Calais I’ll be described as a tourist or a holiday maker, and my Vauxhall Astra won’t be part of a ‘horde’ or an ‘invasion’, my humanity won’t be subsumed into a ‘swarm’, one locust among thousands devouring all in the resources in our path.
The Daily Mail has published a cartoon, an image of endless queues outside the Pearly Gates, among them National Treasure Cilla Black, who passe away over the weekend. An angel is policing the line, riot helmet on head, truncheon in hand. “Sorry about the long queue, Cilla,” he apologises, “There are thousands of illegals trying to get in…”
You can see the illegals in the distance, climbing the gates. They don’t appear to have wings and halos, not like Cilla and the angel, not like everyone waiting to get into Paradise. The illegals aren’t patiently queuing, like good English people would. The illegals aren’t supposed to be there.
I know, I know. The cartoon is clickbait, and anyway, looking for theological depth in a cartoon designed to provoke outrage and demonise immigrants and fire up the darker impulses of the Great British Public is never a good idea. And yet ignoring it seems complicity somehow, makes me a party to its bigotry and cynicism and blasphemy.
I was going to talk about Matthew 21:31, in which Jesus parables the Chief Priests into submission, declaring that “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” But while that seems relevant somehow, it still feels like an inappropriate value judgement in this case – do I really want to cast people fleeing Syria or Iraq as ‘sinners’?
So then my thoughts turn to Matthew 25, to the Sheep and the Goats, to “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.” And that’s it, isn’t it? In some spiritual, cosmic way, that person fleeing with nothing but the clothes they stand up in is Jesus. That refugee lying in his own filth is Jesus. That woman drowning as she tries to make it across the Channel on a punctured lilo? Jesus.
I’m not saying we should treat ‘illegals’ with dignity because in some incarnational way they can be associated with Jesus; rather, we need to ask why, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus chooses to align himself with the poor and broken and oppressed. The answer is so simple it’s cliche – it’s love and compassion and grace. It’s because those people storming the gates at Calais are made in the image of God. That’s why the cartoon in the Mail is so vicious – it dehumanises individual children of God and uses the imagery of heaven to justify it: “Look, even God shares our prejudices!”
And that’s a blasphemy and it’s dangerous and it’s about as far from Christ-like as it’s possible to get.
And now Songs of Praise is going to broadcast from Calais, sparking predictable outrage…