In today’s Guardian, Archbishop Justin Welby, whom the Guardian calls ‘the most senior cleric in the Church of England’ has been quoted in response to questions about some of the most pressing social and political issues of current Britain: the refugee crisis and the upcoming EU referendum. Unfortunately the writer of this article has capitulated to the willing mislabeling of this crisis as a ‘migration’ crisis. Welby’s quotes are presented so that the word ‘refugee’ never appears in this article. Andy Walton’s more nuanced piece presents Welby’s words and attitudes in a more accurate light, one that isn’t afraid of the word ‘refugee.
What can be agreed upon: the archbishop takes a mostly middle line on issues of migration and the EU referendum, insisting that there is no ‘correct Christian view’ on these issues and that God would not tell Christians which way to vote in the referendum. He rightly criticises the hasty labelling of people as ‘racist’ — even if their actions do appear to fall in this category.
Regarding immigration and asylum-seekers, Welby suggested that fragile communities will naturally feel threatened by incomers who don’t look, talk, or think like them. About ‘one of the greatest movements of people in human history’, genuine anxiety and fear was to be expected, but also to be dealt with. This is where I think the title of the article, “AB of C: It is reasonable to fear ‘colossal’ migration crisis” is misrepresentative of what Welby has said.
Fear, a psychological category, and anxiety its lesser cousin, are so powerful precisely because they shout down or distort reason. Perfectly reasonable human beings do awful, cruel things when they are afraid. Insidious types of fear divide even the most closely knit of communities, poisoning relationships between people who are different. Therefore to call a fear of ‘migrants’ reasonable is to give in to the very ideology that says that human relationships are characterised by irreconcilable differences and that pulling up the drawbridge against those who are different is the safest option. It is this ideology which shows no openness towards the refugee or the stranger, and this ideology which leads to an isolationist, pro-Brexit standpoint. One does not need to support a policy of ‘let every last one of them in’ to refute such an ideology.
Fear may not be reasonable, but what I’d like to think Welby means is that it is inevitable and insidious. It is fair to expect fear. It was for fear that a first century Nazarene was publicly executed — which story of passion Christians are embarking on our observance of at this present moment. Although it is reasonable to expect fear, however, I would suggest that it is not reasonable to tolerate it without end — to let it shape our political discourse and policies, either with regard to refugees (not ‘migrants’) or with regards to the future British participant in the European Union.
Suggesting that the UK might be better off not as a part of the EU (not a position I share) does not make a person a racist or a xenophobe, as Welby has suggested, although the rhetoric in support of Brexit has often had racist or xenophobic elements. In order to figure out how to go forward together, to call out racism and xenophobia and move past them, it is important that Welby, Church of England Christians, and all those who would identify as neither C. of E. nor Christian recognise fear as the destroyer of good, loving, reasonable interaction between those who are not ‘like us’, to recognise this fear lives potentially in all of us, to meet it head on. I am reminded of the mantra from Frank Herbert’s (sometimes outright racist) novel Dune, which suggests:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Welby and other Christians may want to retain a more God-focused or theological dimension of such a mantra, but one does not need to be a Christian to recognise its deep truth and witness to the ultimate destruction and futility which fear can bring. Only by facing, naming, and overcoming this fear will Europeans be able to begin to deal with the refugee crisis.