Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Nine year old Joe was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday school.
“Well, Mum, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”
“Now, Joe, is that really what your teacher taught you?” His mother asked.
“Well, no, Mum. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!”
The Exodus we read from today was the mass departure of people from a land. Most of them didn’t have names, nor needs, or rights, or jobs, or a tax code, or a passport.
What is happening in Calais is history repeating itself once more. Choose your collective noun: a swarm, a flood, a tide, a horde. They are not Bob, or Sue, or David, or Kate, or Charlotte, or Adrian. Them. They who are stateless and helpless, foodless and friendless. “The migrant crisis” sounds so much more of a news story than “the humanitarian crisis”. The need for “austerity” sounds more important than the need for “proportion” and “common sense”.
In this silly season, there’s no wonder this is the only news story to rival Jeremy Corbyn, but I tried to find some of the facts behind the hysteria, so we can see what our faith might have to say to us.
There are about 5,000 people in Calais, and 64.1million people in the UK. That means if we let in every single person who’d currently like us to, the population would explode by 0.000078%. That’s more of a drip than a flood.
Total UK welfare spending is expected to be £217 billion this year, 29% of our overall budget, including benefits, tax credits, and pensions. That works out to £3,385 per head of current population, or £7,406 per taxpayer. If we let in those 5,000 extra people, and we assume they get benefits and pay taxes at the same rates as everyone else, they’d cost us about £17m, but make us at the current rate of GDP £100m extra. Even if they didn’t work, that £17m divided by all the taxpayers is an extra 57p each, which is hardly a major drain, especially as those migrants are more likely than those born here to work harder for longer while taking less out of the system.
The suggestion that letting these people in would mean everyone else would do the same is important, but even if you multiplied their numbers by five, the impact on our population or finances is still negligible.
Most of those trying to come to Britain are from Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Eritrea, which have a combined population of 45m. Those 5,000 immigrants represent 0.01% of them. The fact their home nations have collapsed is not down to these people’s failures. The fact ISIS are rampaging across the Middle East, Boko Haram are stealing children, and fascist fundamentalists are undergoing Islamic schism, while Britain enjoys a post-colonial reputation as a place of peace and tolerance is not their fault either. They’re not trying to bring discord and terror, but to escape from that.
As I looked into this, I learned that there used to be a building in Calais where asylum seeker claims could be processed. Health was checked, children were fed, women were protected from rape. In 2002, we told the French to close it, and we put up a fence. Then we bombed Libya, were unable to pick a side in Syria, complained about Somalia, did nothing at all about Eritrea while mining it of resources, and watched the Arab Spring install schismatic warlords all over the Middle East. It’s hardly a surprise some of them want to come here, if only to lodge a formal complaint.
We cut resources for our border agency, which means there are only a few people at a time to check lorries at Calais. This means the queue backs up, the lorries have to stop, and immigrants have the opportunity to clamber aboard. We put up better fences at the ferry terminal, which means those same people have gone to the Eurotunnel terminal instead. We’re putting up more fences there, so now they’re cutting the normal fences further away and walking up the track. On current strategy, it’s going to be steel fencing all the way to Tripoli.
The refugees are degree-educated, capable of speaking half a dozen languages, and have worked very hard to get there. Their camp in Calais contains a cafe, mosques, a church, paintings, and cut flowers. Immigrants, by definition and throughout history, are people who move great distances for a better life for themselves and their children. America and Australia were founded on immigrants and seem to have done quite well.
The media told me we faced a swarm and a hordes, but having looked behind it, it looks more like a handful of people who’ve had the wit and resources to get as far away from genocide, slavery, rape and murder as they possibly can. Yet we threaten troops, we build higher fences, we define them by a collective noun and demand the French do something about the terrible disaster on our doorstep.
It confounds logic to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day each January, while talking about sending a small number of desperate, clever, useful people back to the fascists they’re fleeing, not least when we remember the anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Have we forgotten our souls? What happened to building community and building nations? Is it that the disaster is paucity of compassion, poverty of thought, and forgetting our heart and soul?
In his gospel, John says that those following Jesus latched on to the miracle of the provision of bread, but failed to see the deeper signs. It’s clearly remembering the story we read from Exodus, where God fed the migrant people of Israel on manna. When Jesus says, I am the Bread of Life, he’s proclaiming the incredible truth that God’s presence and nature, God’s life and being, God’s constant and incredible resourcing of our human journey are focussed and made visible and available in Jesus. If there is a miracle at work here, it’s the incredible miracle of God at the heart of human living and being and becoming being made real in the living and being and becoming of Jesus glorified in dying and in rising. This is the miracle of eternal life, of life that cannot be destroyed in the end by even the greatest of horrors. Is not Christ calling us, through this story, to always remember the heart of God at the heart of all life?
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians seeks to direct the Ephesians’ eyes to more distant horizons than their immediate situation, and to a larger and richer vision of God’s calling and promise. A challenge we need to hear today, as much we ever do. At its heart, Paul’s broad and rich vision is a vision of unity.
Over and over again in this letter, Paul returns to this theme. He begins with a vast cosmic vision set forth in Christ. It encompasses all things, for it will unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. This vision of cosmic unity focussed in Christ, has to embrace all that we know of the universes in all their unimaginable vastness. It is the birth and life, death and raising of Jesus that gives all things their meaning and promises to unite all things in him.
But the vision is also about the unity and reconciliation of humanity. The Church is the sign of God’s purpose of bringing humanity in all its enmity and hostility, all its diversity and richness, into a unity that reconciles enmity and celebrates diversity. And so we can risk the adventure of peace-making and reconciling, and the challenge of justice-seeking, for Christ himself is our peace, who has made us… one and has broken down…the dividing wall of hostility… so making peace. This is why Paul calls the Church to grasp the unity that is God’s gift. This must shape our Christian life and witness. Eight times during this passage Paul refers to unity or uses the word one. In all its diversity of tradition and history, worship and prayer, culture and language, humanity is called to be one.
At a time when we face challenges of individualism, of militant atheism, of the horrors inhumanity can wreak, we need pioneers like Moses and Paul to challenge and encourage us towards unity, to build the common life, to travel through all our risky and divisive wildernesses, through which Christ feeds us.