'Immigration: A cultural and ethical challenge?' - ideas behind this year's Bishop's Debate

Written by Andrew Studdert-Kennedy on .

For a few years now, local churches have organised a ‘Bishop’s Debate’ in which different topical subjects are addressed. The thinking behind such events is primarily to provide a forum for the discussion and also to see if there is anything distinctive that Christian tradition might be able to contribute to it.
Immigration, the subject for this year, could not be more topical and we are fortunate in having three distinguished speakers who will be in conversation together. Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith LLD,  a leading activist and advocate for women’s human rights worldwide, and the Bishop of Ramsbury, Rt Rev’d Dr Edward Condry, will provide differing insights into the moral and logistical challenges which large numbers of refugees are presenting to the watching world.
One of the striking things about comment and discussion thus far is the recognition of our responsibilities as a nation.   It is about the obligations a society, any society, owes to fellow humans – men and women like us, as Pope Francis has said.  We are members of the same human race and we belong together. Accordingly the language of debate has been in the first person plural rather than the first person singular – about us and not just me.
The emphasis on universal obligations to fellow humans raises interesting questions about how such care is shown. Humans are not called to a love of an abstract concept of ‘humanity’ but to particular people in particular places.
A general dispensation towards people in general can only receive particular and limited expression - friendship entails spending time with people and there is only a limited amount of time available. Accordingly friendship and ‘favouritism’ are inextricable.
In the same way our levels of responsibility cannot be universally spread.  If concern for the whole human race is to be concrete it must receive specific expression. The Good Samaritan gave help to the particular need he was confronted with.
Abstract or universal truths need particular expression. And what applies to human relationships seems to apply also to the way groups of people organise themselves. A nation helps give people somewhere to belong.
The Bible emphasizes the importance of hospitality for the stranger and alien, but the mere term stranger and alien suggests the lack of a homeland.  We pray for refugees because we recognise that they are displaced from a homeland. They lack something which is a positive, something which contributes to human flourishing. For the Jewish people, this experience of exile has profoundly shaped their self-understanding.
One of the areas for consideration is thus the issue of the moral and political status of borders. Do we think borders are good or bad, a necessary evil or a moral necessity?
Whilst it is true that nations seem to bestow identity and whilst it is good to celebrate national differences and diversity, Christians will recall that the Kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating is a Kingdom in which barriers and division have no place - there is equal access to all.
So one reflection is that what is good about borders is that they help establish order, identity and diversity, but the bad side is that they restrict access and exclude people. An ideal border might be one that bestows identity and variety on the one hand, but is entirely porous on the other. In a fallen world such a thing is probably impossible!
In the face of the immediate challenges we face, these deliberations may seem something of a luxury but part of our responsibility is to take long term considerations into account as host nations seek to ensure that the hospitality and welcome offered to those in such need is genuine, deep rooted and long lasting.
Do come along to the Town Hall on September 30 at 7.00pm to hear more.