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27 April 2018

Heavenly citizenship and earthly justice

Heavenly citizenship and earthly justice

John Coleby is the public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance.

The Windrush documentation scandal has continued to dominate the political news this week. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary have both faced difficult questions from MPs, as it has been revealed that migrants from the Caribbean who have lived in the UK for decades have been asked to prove their right to be here. Some have lost the benefits they need to live on, others have been threatened with deportation, and still others have been refused re-entry into the UK. The Home Office is still scanning its records to discover if anyone was in fact deported by mistake. 

The most shocking thing about this situation is that the victims here are not illegal immigrants, but people who have lived in and contributed to this country as British citizens for many years – often in the face of great prejudice. Indeed the Windrush generation first came (by invitation) to help rebuild the country after the Second World War, and many of them had served in the armed forces. But in spite of that, they have been treated as if they had no rights at all. 

Public debate has moved from hearing stories to demanding answers. At the dispatch box last week Amber Rudd said that "the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual". Commentators are now divided on whether the treatment of the Windrush generation was policy working badly or bad policy working – or perhaps a mixture of both. We should expect more detailed answers to follow in due course, and indeed demand them. 

Citizens of heaven

The Evangelical Alliance is made up of people and groups from a wide range of backgrounds. In our churches and within our membership are both those for whom the threat of deportation has become a daily worry and those for whom this issue will barely register. Similarly, when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he will have been addressing a mixed church of the secure and insecure. Philippi was a Roman colony, and some in the congregation probably had the security and political rights of Roman citizenship. Others would not have had such rights recognised, and their position would have been insecure as a result. 

To both groups Paul writes "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20). To those who were vulnerable, and who had their rights threatened, these words would be a great consolation and an unshakeable identity. For Paul, heavenly citizenship goes hand in hand with adoption, and instead of a bureaucratic system we have a God who, far from "losing sight of the individual", knows all the hairs on our heads. That's not to say that earthly citizenship and earthly justice aren't to be fought for, but it provides the strength for that very fight. 

To those who were secure, Paul's words were a warning not to put their trust in their earthly identity, however permanent it may now seem. Indeed few citizens of modern day Philippi will look back to the Roman citizenship of their ancestors, though many will still treasure the words of Paul. Through people who suffer injustice of any sort, God warns those who are secure not to idolise the current order that gives us that security – perhaps at the expense of others. Our God is a God of justice, and only God's just order can offer us true security. Our heavenly citizenship gives us a critical distance from our current context, helping us to speak prophetically to it – as Paul himself does in the rest of the letter to the Philippians. 

So our heavenly security is not "pie in the sky" – not for those who have been given a voice and a secure position, and not for those who are vulnerable. Paul tells the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven, but he also refers to them as in Philippi as well as in Christ. Paul himself is convinced that his identity is in Christ, but he is unafraid to claim his rights as a Roman citizen too, such as when he insists on an apology from the authorities for imprisoning him without cause (Acts 16:37). 

For Paul, and the other New Testament authors, heavenly citizenship does not mean isolating ourselves from suffering and injustice. As Tom Wright comments, it means being a little outpost of heaven on earth, praying "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." And this means confronting injustice when we see it – as we have seen it with the Windrush generation. Indeed, such calls for justice are a mark of our heavenly citizenship, just as English language proficiency and the 'Life in the UK' test are used as tests of British citizenship. 

And the fact is that for all the reforms that will now surely take place, another community will at some point need a voice. 

The question is now, will we together, as citizens of heaven, be there for them?

Read Dr David Landrum's piece on our dual citizenship in the kingdom edition of idea magazine.

Photo by Annie Spratt