Over the last few days, demolition teams have been at work in the so-called Jungle at Calais. Makeshift homes are being dismantled after a French court was persuaded to allow eviction of the people living there in conditions that have been said to be unsafe, unsanitary, and undignified.
So what’s being offered is loads better, right? An allocated mattress in a shipping container, with heat and light, but no communal space, and with the tented home you had worked to pull together bulldozed against your will, right under your nose, is better, is it? Better for whom?
I’m not surprised that the Jungle residents are reluctant to move. If I’d already had to flee my home in fear of my life, and if I was clinging onto the last vestiges of what it means to be a person rather than a label as I scraped together a living in the midst of a cold, muddy, tented existence in a foreign land… and if someone then tried to make me up and move again… well, I might not be very relaxed about being uprooted again. Especially if my greatest fear was that I’d end up losing my chance to claim asylum in the UK.
The Christian tradition is full of stories about asylum, forced and voluntary. The people of Israel are a refugee people, seeking safety and a place to call home. The overarching narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures is one of adaptation and resilience in the face of adversity. More than that, though, it is the story of a God who is faithful and unchanging.
Plenty has been written already about the ethical requirements on God’s people to attend to the plight of others: to have compassion on the widow and the orphan; and to provide hospitality to the sojourner.
We ignore this teaching at our peril. In the New Testament it is not overwritten but underlined. Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus as teaching the disciples that when they care for those in need, and when they fail to do so, those acts of loving service are acts and omissions of care for Christ himself. Moreover, they have consequences. This isn’t taught as a parable, but as direct instruction. It’s a sobering thought.
I watched an interview of a young resident in the Jungle as it was being cleared. It made my heart sink. “I feel not human”, he said. This was not what he expected of Europe, he said. Human persons, our brothers and sisters, are diminished and dehumanised in all of this.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know that the situation is complex. And I don’t condone violence on the part of the Jungle residents. But what about the people we never get to hear from. What about the hopes and dreams that are being left to die there? What about the people – and I’d hazard a guess that they are manifold – who if given half a chance, would “seek the welfare of the city” in a place of final destination?
Whatever the political rights and wrongs, the ethical imperative seems clear. The bottom line is that these people are in need that is greater than yours and mine. The way I see it, we are still failing them, and in so doing we are failing Christ.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
(The photo in this post is from Calaid)