Why We Need the Refugees

“Salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveller.”

-Henri Nouwen

I thank God that so many are saying we need to help the refugees, even as many others are singing the right wing media’s tune and saying no we don’t need to help the refugees. What I want to say is that I think we need the refugees. We need them to help us. The Britain I know and love is in a very deep hole, and if anyone in the world today can save us from our situation, it is the refugees.

 calais

The Desire to Remain Unchanged is Delusional and Destructive

Those who are resisting calls to welcome refugees into our country are motivated primarily by the desire to be unchanged by the state of war that is destroying parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They are afraid that we will be poorer, more crowded and less “British.” Indeed the government see it as their job to prevent our being changed.

But the hope to remain unchanged is delusional and destructive.

It’s delusional because it’s based on the denial of the obvious. Everything is changing whether we like it or not. The old order of things is passing. Ask Peter Hitchens (who is quite frank about the futility of his own winging). We are entering a time when the world will be increasingly mixed up and indeed a time when we can no longer maintain our imperialistic power relations with Middle Eastern countries. The sad irony is that, for most of us, life in our own country has been a routine exercise in daily alienation, structural injustice and cultural oppression, and yet so many of us are defending this miserable order of things, as though it stood for us. It doesn’t.

The hope to remain unchanged is also destructive, because, even if we succeed, by some bitter and twisted effort, in keeping all this suffering out – if we really manage to remain untouched by this terrible war – we will nevertheless be utterly changed in the process. We will deteriorate into a socially and morally disfigured society: a boat meaningless privilege sailing through an ocean of corpses. Our hard won security from the terrible other will be ashes in our mouth and we will continue on our present trajectory towards a soulless and lobotomised mirage of stability.

In any case, we have no right to remain unchanged by this crisis. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our addiction to certain resources from the Middle East, and our habit of selling arms to Middle-Eastern regimes, make us utterly complicit in the situation. We will be changed by it: the only question is, how? Will we sink deeper into the alienation of empire? Or will we come to terms with our predicament and find some unexpected opportunity to be transformed and rehumanised by this crisis of human suffering that we’re locked into?

From What Predicament Must We Be Saved?

Our predicament is one of greed, imperialism, racism and alienation.

Greed, because our level of consumption is unsustainable. If everyone lived as we do, I’m told we would need four worlds. Our wealth necessitates other people’s poverty.

Imperialism, because our foreign policy, arms trade and our oil addiction have created catastrophic political instability for Middle Eastern peoples.

Racism, because the media powers we uphold over ourselves have normalised a degree of racism since it suits them to find poor foreign scapegoats for the inequality that they themselves help to perpetuate against us.

And alienation, because life on the ground has become an alienating routine of work, sleep and numbing consumerism which has all but destroyed our community life. British life has been in a sort of glitter-sprinkled, numbing pathos for decades now.

These are four manifestations of the basic competitive hostility that has underpinned and withered British life. The first two are active, and the latter two are passive. While many communities fight the good fight and there are glimmers of hope everywhere, so much grassroots British life has been held mercilessly down in this basic world view of competitive hostility – the war of every man against every man – and it has has come close to defining our way of being as a people.

 

How Can the Refugees Save Us?

Firstly, it is absolutely necessary that we become poorer, and the refugees will help the west to redistribute wealth. Perhaps you’re having a panic attack now, but the fact is, there is not enough for everyone if we live as we currently do. Notice that relatively poor nations are taking in refugees by the million. It is rich nations like ours, and Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait who have bolted the door, turned out the lights and are all hid under the kitchen table pretending no one’s home. Yes, “it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” I hasten to add that I don’t think the poor among us should be made any poorer, but that ordinary western life needs to move towards greater simplicity, greater interdependence in communities and less waste. Ultimately I believe this will enrich the poor among us and provide an escape route from the financial and social poverty that come with our alienating myth of consumer individualism.

Second, the refugees confront us with the fruits of our imperialism, and if we are willing to face up to their stories we may finally accept the challenge of finding an alternative route into the future – one that isn’t dependent on oil and or on the economic boost we gain from the arms trade.

Third, they give us an opportunity to overcome the racism that now dominates so much of our politics and media, simply by being the human other in our midst. I believe that we will not lose a sense of who we are in the presence of the other. Rather, we will gain a deeper sense of who we are, as we gain a deeper appreciation of the other.

And lastly (and most of all) the refugees will help to reconfigure British social life and politics through the grass roots community cooperation that is now necessary to respond to this crisis. Community cooperation is necessary now because a) the powers are not invested in the future, but in the present (the era in which they hold power) – they will not do what must be done. And b) because community cooperation is precisely what has been chased out of British life by numbing consumerist order of the last decades – and it is precisely this that has left us bereft of any sense of who we are. Functional and compassionate communities will be the most important political spaces in the future. If we don’t rise to this, we will remain locked in a stagnant and dying imperial past.

Why The Government Can’t Save Us

The government are almost completely unable to help us. Rather, we must help them by changing the assumptions under which they operate. The government have been a driving force of the greed, imperialism and social alienation that now characterise Western life, and racism is a tolerated side-effect. More than that, the government’s fear of the big newspapers (The Sun and The Mail) means that they are an obstacle to the refugees that we so sorely need to help. But lastly, even the refugees that the Government does let in will do us no good if the government oversees their life in this country.

We have to recognise now, that nobody’s humanity or dignity will be preserved if refugees are to be minced through government bureaucracy into dire council houses where they will live on a pittance, secluded and alienated and suffering continual racism and prejudice, only to be finally deported at the age of 18 if they are unfortunate enough to be orphans. The housing, social integration and provision of resources for refugees must be handled by welcoming grass-roots communities who are invested in their humanity and are willing to be changed by them. These grass roots communities, who will most likely be faith communities, must then include the wider community so that we, as a people, can be changed by encountering the other, can be grieved by their stories, can be heartened by their newfound stability and the part we are able to play in it. We could be transformed from a people of television and entitlement to a people of life, culture and hospitality once again: a people who’s core values are not dictated from the heart of capitalist economics but from a compassionate connection to the other.

What Should We Do?

If any of us have any enthusiasm about the opportunity to begin transforming British life from the grass roots upwards, then I encourage you to get involved with Citizens UK, to lobby your local councils to accept refugees, to consider how you could make yourself available to spend time with refugees and help them to settle and integrate and be welcomed, and to explore fund-raising activities that will involve the wider community.

This is not merely a crisis. This is the beginning of the world to come. And so I think it will be fruitful to respond to this in a steady, considered and committed way – to re-position ourselves gradually. If our own country is to be a good and beautiful place in the future, much depends on our response to the weary traveller. The current powers will make nothing but the most begrudging response, and so hope now depends on ordinary people in ordinary communities.

Our opening quote from Henri Nouwen, doubtless refers to Jesus’ story about the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) where he tells one group of people “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And they say “When?” and he says “Whenever you did it for the least of these.” Then he talks to the other group of people, and it doesn’t go so well.

As I’m sure is already clear, I don’t consider this to be religious mysticism so much as a concrete political reality that stands before us: “salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveller.”

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Ruskin on the Arms Trade and Petroleum

In an open letter to workmen and labourers entitled Charitas (1871) John Ruskin quite boldly asks his readers to make three promises. The first is this:

Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet pease you are producing, – not gun powder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: – You must really rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound… In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more… There is no physical crime at this day, so far beyond pardon, – so without parallel in its untempted guilt, as the making of war machinery, and invention of mischievous substance. Two nations may go mad and fight like harlots – God have mercy on them – you who hand them carving knives off the table for leave to pick up a dropped sixpence, what mercy is there for you?”

There are so many problems with this statement – not because it is wrong but because it is right. The problems involved in extracting ourselves from the industries of empire and violence are overwhelming.

I recall late on last year, the job of administration for the NHS was to be privatised and outsourced to an arms dealing company. The bid was abandoned after a petition, praise God. But it raises the question: how can we abstain from such things when everything is increasingly being mixed up together? Will we refuse to pay our taxes one day? What has it come to when it is proposed that the NHS be administered by the arms trade? That juxtaposition is a joke.

We could also ask the question from the other side of a war, ie. what resources are wars fought to secure? If its true, as Adam Curtis’ documentary Bitter Lake sees it, that our endless adventures in Iraq are ultimately about our commitments to Saudi Arabia (that is, our addiction to their oil), then it becomes a question of not only of the “arsenic and gunpowder…” we produce, but also what we consume. If we add to this the new information that our reliance on fossil fuels has itself turned into a war on the sublime cosmic sphere that God’s put us on, we are confronted with a question…

Addressing our fondness for petrol is something like the book on the shelf that we know is there, but put off reading. At what point do we decide that this choice is upon us? One part of what Ched Myers calls radical discipleship involves protest, activism and petitioning the powers – and this is growing, praise God. But if this is all we do then we confirm our total reliance on the powers to change the world for us. Are they going to be the sole agents of Good News? Another side is the rearrangement of ordinary life in spite of the powers. I believe that ordinary life can and must be rearranged radically, and that the Spirit of change empowers ordinary people to change the world in ways the powers cannot.

Ched Myers describes the moment Jesus told some fishermen and a tax collector to quit their jobs and join His movement like this:

The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the Kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich are unable or unwilling to respond to…” (from Binding the Strongman)

And now let the disclaimers begin. Just as Zacheus the tax collector kept his job, and St Paul continued making tents, and Nicodemus stuck to politics, and there is no sign that the Roman centurion quit even his job as the teeth of imperialistic power – ordinary life is not to be rearranged arbitrarily, nor is it always possible to make very necessary changes all at once. Likewise, a plumber needs a van, families sometimes need cars, and I don’t want to go to hospital with a broken leg on a bicycle (anymore than I want to be checked in by arms dealers on the reception desk). When we think of our petrol addiction, and the wars fought to supply it, we’re not talking about something like quitting smoking (a personal change), rather we are challenging the very things that ordinary life is arranged around. We will have to change the world outside ourselves in some way, to rearranging it around something better than the motor car.

The change is impossible without re-forming grass roots geographical community and will inevitably involve reforming life around some kind of geographic village well – a life shared with others in a walkable, or bike-able, locale, and shareable resources. We can’t make the change until we emerge from the identity of individualism and consumerism.

Grass roots community resists empire. Empire dismantles grass roots community. Amongst numerous new technologies of the last century our reliance on the motor car (for all it has given us) has helped to dismantle grass roots community. I am not suggesting that none of us should have them – it actually helps a lot if some of us do. But I am, unapologetically saying that we will not be able to emerge from empire as long as our lives, as individuals and families, are arranged around the motor car rather than around our local community.

It is an odd paradox, in keeping with Myers’ observations above, that it is far more difficult for the rich to rearrange ordinary life in this way than the poor.

The less we, as a people, are reliant on such mediums for life, the richer life will be and the less Western bombs will be dropped on oil rich countries.

For the record, Ruskin’s second and third requests are these: to “seek to revenge no injury…” and lastly to “learn to obey good laws… and subdue base and disloyal ones… ruling over those in the power of the Lord of Light and Peace, whose Dominion is an everlasting Dominion, and His Kingdom from generation to generation.”

Breast Feeding & Prophetic Action

The prophets are the women breast feeding their babies in public.

If Walter Brueggeman is right that the biblical prophets criticised the present situation and energised people towards an alternative future, and did so by offering symbols from the past, public breast feeders do it all.

They criticise an order that has made breasts a symbol of women as the playthings of men, and the iconography of power, profit and control. The fact that the criticism rings true is obvious by the cries coming down from businesses, politicians, and celebrities telling them to stop it. Meanwhile the protest against the people who drag women’s bodies through the public sphere as visual amusement comes up from everyday people. (That fox, the prime minister is happy to say public breast feeding is natural, but he won’t raise a whimper against Rupert Murdoch’s peculiar right to publish breasts as a misogynist spectacle in a daily newspaper, because he knows that Murdoch carries the keys to the next election).

The prophets – the public breast feeders – energise us towards an alternative vision: a humanising order against a dehumanising one. A relational order against an alienating one. An order that glorifies grass roots life against the cult of the idealised image. It’s something that the businesses who rule consumer capitalism can make no use or sense of, and that makes the consumerist reconstruction of masculine libido evaporate. Its the image of Kingdom against empire.

Of course people aren’t feeding their babies to make a statement (apart from the protesters outside Claridge’s). British life has made a prophetic statement out of ordinary human life, by being a place driven to strangeness by systems of power and profit.

Art as Mythology

[A speech given to John Napier, Vincent Gould and Andy Howlett]

And Nathaniel said unto him “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”

“Brothers! Perhaps we might say that art is the mythologisation of human experience.

If so, what are we to make of all the fine art these days which simply perpetuates the mythology of fine art itself? What are we to make of so much of the popular music these days which is, above all else, homage to the popular music that has gone before? What are we to make of all the films these days which only further mythologise the mythologies of the film stars that star in the films? The sheer cultural and economic magnitude of these industries has plunged the art-forms they monopolise into self-referential aesthetics. Popular art these days mythologises itself, but it rarely mythologises the experience of the people. Rather, it builds around us the illusion of all kinds of experiences we’ve never had.

For all their efforts, our ordinary lives as charity workers, school teachers, cinema staff (and whatever Vince Gould does) – or even as “outsider” artists – remain dry and lacking in the fertility and richness that mythology brings to human life. For this reason, my imaginary world doesn’t feature the time and place I live in, but instead, New York, Paris, Fleet Street, Nashville, The Wild West, The Degobah System… Anywhere but Birmingham. The mythologies of the popular art world do not enrich my real life, but provide an escape from it. It all seems to accentuate that feeling so necessary to a consumer economy – that my own experience of living is peripheral, that real life is happening somewhere else, and that it must be bought in, in bits and pieces.

So brothers, our aesthetic task, as I see it, is to mythologise our own time and place, and not to escape it in hoping to find greatness in some centralised and industrialised derivative of the artist’s calling. Good things can come out of Nazareth.”

 

Nomad Podcast

Here’s my interview for the Nomad Podcast.

I didn’t know about Nomad Podcasts until they interviewed me a few months back, but I quickly realised they’re a goldmine of fascinating discussions. They have interviewed: Rowan Williams, Peter Rollins, Gail Dines, Tom Wright, Kester Brewin, Brian McClaren etc.

tim and dave

I think Tim and Dave were particularly interested in my music as a relieving antidote to bad Christian music – which was interesting to me, because I have always avoided any bother with issue by taking no interest in Christian music at all. My music has mostly just been anti-empire music, but what characterises Kingdom music? I’m starting to take the question seriously.

More on the subject soon…

Enjoy the podcast.

DBB