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04 September 2015

Compassion as vast as an ocean

Compassion as vast as an ocean

In one of my favourite episodes of the West Wing, president Bartlet declares that: “Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns.” He goes on to say: “Every once in a while there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.”

For the past two days I’ve been trying to work out if this is one of those days. There is certainly a mounting body count, there are calls for a straightforward response of compassion and generosity. Refugees are dying, not just in the countries they are fleeing, but as they attempt to make their way to places of safety, to refuge. For every article demanding simple action there is another explaining the complexities inherent in each and every course of action.

Ever since I saw the photo on Wednesday evening it was only a matter of time before something shifted. A petition that had been accumulating signatures gradually exploded into life. Politicians across the political spectrum called for action – shamed by the low number of refugees, particularly from Syria, that the UK had taken in. Today, the prime minister announced that thousands more Syrian refugees would be allowed into the country.

The challenge is, this is not just one problem. It is at least three overlapping issues, and likely many more. It is the displacement of over four million people from Syria; it is the crossing of tens of thousands of people from North Africa into Southern Europe in boats that barely hold together; it is the surge of people attempting to get into the UK from Calais. Each situation comprises a varying mix of people seeking better opportunities than their home country provides, some provoked to move by situations so extreme we class them as refugees, others by more promising economic opportunities.

That the UK, a safe and prosperous country, should provide space and refuge for people forced from their homes and in fear for their lives is almost axiomatic. It is that 10-word answer. But which people? And for how long? And what about the underlying crises?

For Christians helping the stranger, the exile, the refugee, has particular pertinence. Not only is it regularly commanded throughout scripture, but it embodied the people of Israel. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees in Egypt when Herod ordered the death of all newborn boys. This is in our DNA, it is part of our passion to help the least, the last and the lost. It is engrained within us that when we turn away fellow humans who are in need we are doing so to Jesus. We want to do something.

The urge to do something is not always enough. Something can sometimes be a salve for our conscience without actually helping. But similarly the complexity of any given situation can bind us to inaction, it can tie us up in knots and end up sounding like an excuse for not getting around to it.

The crisis this week may be news but it is not new. That it took a photo - a hideous, traumatic, heart-wrenching photo - to motivate us as a country to pay attention should press us to look beyond the immediate, but we cannot ignore what is happening right now. If a viral image is what it takes, then let us take that prompt.

Let us call on the government to act, in making the UK a place of refuge. Let us also act ourselves. While the government holds a lot of keys, it is not a reason for delaying our own response. Where we can give to people in grievous need, let us give generously. Where we can open our homes to people in our communities, let us have hearts of hospitality. Where our churches can provide warmth and food and shelter, let us use the resources we have. Where we do not know what to do, and in all that we seek to do, let us begin in prayer, let us continue in prayer, and let us believe in a God who has compassion vaster than any ocean.

By Daniel Webster, advocacy programme manager of the Evangelical Alliance

Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, has today written to all member churches as well as thousands of supporters and organisations with a specially written prayer and ideas for how we can respond.