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Society needs migrants to know itself

by
19 May 2010

Refugees are vital in helping to understand British life, says Rowan Williams

The vocal anxieties we hear from some quarters about the survival of “British identity” in the face of migrants and refugees betrays a lack of proper confidence in the capacity and the commitment of our society both to learn and to teach. It suggests a confusion about what matters to us and why.

In fact, it illustrates dramatically why we always need to be alert to argu­ment, because we need to learn how to articulate why we are as we are, and why this or that element of our culture can or should be de­-fended. The presence of the “stranger” is a gift rather than a threat in this context, because the stranger helps us see who we are — hopefully, not as an “us” over against a “them”, but as an “us” always in process of formation.

One of the mainsprings of Chris­tian self-understanding in the forma­tive years of the Church’s life was the idea that the believer was essentially a “migrant”, someone who was in any and every situation poised between being at home and being a stranger.

In fact, it illustrates dramatically why we always need to be alert to argu­ment, because we need to learn how to articulate why we are as we are, and why this or that element of our culture can or should be de­-fended. The presence of the “stranger” is a gift rather than a threat in this context, because the stranger helps us see who we are — hopefully, not as an “us” over against a “them”, but as an “us” always in process of formation.

One of the mainsprings of Chris­tian self-understanding in the forma­tive years of the Church’s life was the idea that the believer was essentially a “migrant”, someone who was in any and every situation poised between being at home and being a stranger.

In the New Testament, one of the commonest self-descriptions of the Church is in the language that would have been used in the Mediterranean cities for a community of migrant workers, temporary residents. As a “resident alien” in whatever society he or she inhabited, the believer would be involved in discovering what in that society could be endorsed and cele­brated, and what chal­lenged.

In the context of a religiously di­verse modern society, something of this role is bound to be played by all communities of faith, to the extent that they operate with different ideas of accountability from those that mostly prevail around them. They be­lieve they are accountable to tran-scendent truths or states of affairs.

But it is worth noting how deeply and distinctively this language is embedded in early Christian litera­ture. And this suggests that, if it is the case that the stranger is always nec­es-sary to make any society think about itself both critically and hopefully, the believer’s role is always, in modern societies, going to show some in­triguing parallels with that of the refugee intellectual.

Perhaps we may understand the social role of the religious believer more adequately if we think of it in terms of extending or enriching argu­ment, offering resources for think­ing about social pluralism rather than either deploring it or reducing it to passive tolerance.

At its simplest, the contribution of the refugee intellectual reminds us that in a fragile world there is always an argument to be had about society and the social good, given that the liberty to raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy and justice of social arrangements is not to be taken for granted.

At a different level, it ought also to have the effect of making us look afresh at what our own society makes possible — and making us ask why exactly this has evolved.

Britain has often been seen by those who have been welcomed here as combining a fairly hospitable pluralism with a fairly strong level of civic and cultural bonding. With varying degrees of exasperation and admiration, observers from elsewhere have noted the interweaving of a generally liberal political settlement with strong traditions clothing the monarchy and the law with cere­mony, and granting some public role to religion.

It does no harm for us to be “made strange” to ourselves, prompted to ask what the history is that has made all this possible, so that, at least, we may have a better idea of what most needs nourishing or conserving in our culture. There is no ground for com­placency about British society having an “essentially tolerant” char­acter: we are no more exempt from the risks of political and ideo­logical change than any other society.

But to see ourselves from outside, and to learn to be surprised (as well as grateful) at where we find ourselves, can be a salutary moment in our own political education. Arguments are enriched when people join in who don’t initially share a group’s story, but learn the language well enough to bring to it something fresh.

Ideally, the outcome is a fabric in which some very diverse strands come together: an articulate serious­ness about alternative visions of the human good, brought into sharp focus by political crisis or repression, and, on the other hand, a tradition of communal patience and diversity within which these alternative visions can be sifted and criticised.

In his lecture for CARA’s 75th anniversary, Dr Ralph Kohn quotes Hans Krebs on his experience in Cambridge in the 1930s, where he saw colleagues “argue without quar­relling, quarrel without suspecting, suspect without abusing, criticise without vilifying or ridiculing, and praise without flattering”. It is a gen­erous tribute (perhaps a little rose-coloured, some graduates even of Cambridge might think), but it captures something very significant.

It tells us that what we take for granted may, in the light of history and contemporary politics, be in fact rather remarkable. And because it is remarkable, it needs to be understood as best we can understand.

In that understanding we may discover better how to secure its future in a world that is not notice­ably safer for the champions of intel­lectual liberty than it was in the ’30s.

This is an edited extract from a lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London on Wednesday of last week, sponsored by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and Uni­versity College, London.

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