Simon Cuff on the lessons of Lampedusa
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
Me; You. Us; Them. Jew; Greek. Slave; Free. Black; White. Migrant; Refugee. As human beings, we divide ourselves into groups. I’m like this; I’m not like that. I’m like this; I’m not like them. I’m in this group; I’m not in that group.
As human beings, we divide ourselves into groups; and decide which groups we like and which we don’t. We like the group to which we belong; we don’t like them. We like the group to which we want to belong; we don’t like them.
As human beings, we make groups based on colour, on social status, on those like us, on those not like us. We divide between those in our country whom we think have a right to be here, and those who don’t. We decide whether someone is really fleeing from war and deserves the label “refugee”, or we don’t. We say they’re a migrant, and we divide them between those who should be allowed to migrate and those who shouldn’t.
As human beings we divide; as Christians we unite. As St Paul reminds us, Christians don’t build walls – they tear them down. In the words of Pope Francis, we don’t build walls – we build bridges. As human beings we divide; as Christians we unite. As human beings we interrogate; as Christians we welcome.
As Christians, there is only one group in which we’re interested – humanity itself. We’re interested in humanity because God is interested in humanity. We’re interested in human beings because God became a human being; and we’re interested in all human beings because in Christ God has torn down all the dividing walls and partitions we place between ourselves. We’re interested in all human beings, because we’re interested in Christ.
This means we’re interested in refugees not because they’re refugees; but because they’re human beings just like us. But we’re also interested in refugees because we’re interested in Christ; and we know Christ was a refugee.
We know Christ was a child in a refugee family who fled the oppression of Herod to the then-safety of Egypt. And we know from the end of St Matthew’s Gospel that whenever we welcome a refugee, we welcome Christ. In fact, whenever we welcome any brother or sister, any fellow human being, we welcome Christ.
All of us are here today because we welcome Christ. We’ve welcomed him into our lives, and we want to serve him in his Church. We cling to Christ, to his Church – the barque of Christ – in the midst of the toil and tumult of our lives. We know Christ and His Church to be the vessel of our salvation.
We’re also here today because of this small wooden cross. On the face of it, a cross like any other – the symbol of our salvation. Yet this cross, the vessel of salvation, is made from the very stuff designed to carry somebody else to safety – fashioned from the timbers of a vessel supposed to carry those fleeing conflict and deprivation.
In her poem, “Home”, Warsan Shire helps us to imagine what it might be like to risk placing your life and the life of your family at the mercy of the sea.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark…
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly…
you have to understand
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching…
“No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” We know that this year alone 4233 souls have perished making this hazardous journey. We know that for many the vessels from which the arms of our cross derive will not lead them to safety.
What are we to do? “Our response to a world at war has a name: its name is fraternity, its name is brotherhood, its name is community, its name is family,” said Pope Francis at World Youth Day. It’s all too easy for the plight of human beings, the plight of refugees to remain a collection of headlines or statistics. The Pope reminds us of our duty as Christians towards all those fleeing war and deprivation: to welcome them as we would welcome Christ, to regard them not as numbers, but as human beings.
Only then, Pope Francis says, “the suffering and the wars that many young people experience are no long anonymous, something we read about in the papers, they have a name, they have a face, they have a story, they are close at hand.”
What are we to do to give our brothers and sisters in need a face, to remind ourselves of our shared humanity? We can work with Refugee Welcome centres to welcome our brothers and sisters fleeing conflict and war. We can raise funds for those supporting victims of war at home and abroad. We can remind our friends and families, and those all around us, that refugees are human beings like us and as Christians we see them as such. And we can pray that the situations which give rise to conflict and refugees, the circumstances which lead to deprivation and forced migration, might cease.
If we do any or all of these things, we offer hope to the darkest corners of our world. We fashion out of the miserable timbers of a refugee vessel the means of salvation on which all our hope is founded. We hold up to a divided world the mystery of the Cross through which, we pray, all might be brought safely home.
The Revd Dr Simon Cuff is Assistant Curate of Christ the Saviour, Ealing. This homily was preached during the Lampedusa Pilgrimage Week at St Stephen’s, Lewisham. www.refugees-welcome.org.uk