Refugees and the Image of God

Refugees aren’t always seen as human beings.

Last year, David Cameron drew criticism for referring to “swarms” of refugees. It’s a rapacious, fear-laden image, biblical locusts poised to consume everything in their path, leaving the land barren in their wake.

The tabloid press latch onto this, of course, because they serve as the Id of a society. “Send in the army!” cried the Daily Mail, because we’re being invaded by a hostile force that wants to take our country and everything we hold dear. And don’t forget all the terrorists embedded in this army, that means we should all be really scared.

Meanwhile, “Go back home!” has become a common piece of venomous advice on British streets.

This language is dehumanising, a toxic removal of the dignity and personhood of individual human beings, and it’s insidious because language shapes perceptions and perceptions shape actions. Maybe that’s a good reason for Genesis 1:27‘s emphasis that humanity is made in the Image of God. That’s a better statement to make, a better bit of language to shape better perceptions and better actions. The great sin is that we’ve refused to recognise that shared humanity, allowed too many voices to strip refugees of their humanity.

That’s why it’s great to see Team Refugees at the Olympics. Yes there’s the emotional reaction to seeing them join the opening ceremony, but beyond that it’s the sport that matters, the cheering and the celebrating, the competition and the consolations. In the face of all the dehumanising that’s been going on, this is a moment of re-humanising.

But that’s not a rehumanising of refugees, it’s a rehumanising of us, those who have allowed themselves to embrace propaganda, those who have allowed privilege to blind us to suffering, those who have been taught to fear those running for their lives, who might be transformed by seeing those same people running for gold, swimming for medals, not to save lives.

Why do you think Jesus told us to love our neighbours and our enemies?

When we deny the image of God in others, we dehumanise ourselves. Other people pay the price of that – refugees doubly so, I guess. When we allow ourselves to listen to rarely told stories we can allow ourselves to rediscover the humanity in others, because those stories can give us empathy, can show us our similarities not our differences. We can take the specks out of our eyes that have prevented us from seeing God’s Image behind the eyes of those from who we’ve stolen dignity and respect.

This is only a start, of course, there’ll still be poisoned media and opportunistic politics and drunks ranting about foreigners on street corners. The Olympics won’t wave a magic wand, and we all need to examine our own prejudices and rage and do something about them; we’ll need to keep on telling better stories. But I’ll cheer for Team Refugees because they’re human like me, and sometimes we need to look behind the flags to see God’s face smiling back at us.