No, they aren't cockroaches: How the Church can change the migrant debate

Surviving migrants are brought aboard Irish and Italian Navy life-boats in the area where their wooden boat capsized and sank off the coast of LibyaReuters

Fed for so long with a diet of fear-mongering and hatred, something in the British psyche seems to have snapped. The image of a single drowned refugee child, and the story behind his death, cannot be reconciled with the language of "swarms" and even "cockroaches" used by politicians and journalists. This week, we have seen a change of mood that holds the promise of a more hospitable response to those in need.

Church leaders have rightly been prominent in calling for this change. But it is the work of local congregations which will determine how deep and long-lasting its impact will be.

For months, Citizens UK and Avaaz have been collecting pledges from congregations, households, landlords and local councils; specific, concrete commitments to house and welcome refugees.

Instead of saying to politicians "YOU should do something" and reserving the right to complain later at the cost of such hospitality, local churches are saying "WE will do something" - and urging politicians to change the rules so that the people they are willing to host can enter the country.

It's a wonderful embodiment of Stanley Hauerwas' challenge to the Church: not just to have a social ethic, but to be a social ethic; not just to call for the state or big business to do things, but to provoke change by living out the vision of the gospel.

Hauerwas is often criticised for being "sectarian" when he teaches that the Church's real gift to the world is be the Church. But this week, we are seeing what that looks like. Local congregations are showing what it means to "be the Church". They are communities of hospitality; communities which recognise their salvation comes from the hospitality and mercy of Jesus Christ.

There's another sense in which their actions belie the charge of "sectarianism". For even as they are being the Church, and challenging the dominant voices in our culture, they are making common cause with people far beyond their walls. As they live out the hospitality at the heart of the Gospel, churches in Citizens UK are working with their neighbouring mosques and synagogues, residents' associations and schools.

Hauerwas is rightly wary of idolising modern liberal democracies. Vox populi is not vox Dei and the truly Christian way to respond to the refugee crisis won't always tally with public opinion. Which means that, if we want a radical change in public attitudes, hearts need to be converted one by one. There are limits to how much any successful politician is able to choose the imperatives of the Gospel over the values of the dominant culture, so changing politicians' behaviour must begin with changing voters' attitudes. And that can only be done face to face, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

This is why a "social gospel" which neglects evangelism is useless in our context. If society is to be changed, hearts need to be converted. Christian social action must be modelled upon Jesus' words to Andrew in John 1:39 - "Come and see". It must embody a different kind of life, and invite those who see it to join in.

Citizens UK is holding a vigil for the Refugee Crisis outside Westminster Cathedral at 7pm on Tuesday. You are welcome to join in. 

More News in Comment