THE selectiveness of church calendars has sometimes led to a thinning of religious experience and understanding. On Sunday, the Church keeps the feast of the Epiphany. Although several narrative streams have been run into Christmas, the calendar has long established a separate date for the visit of the magi to the Christ-child. (Admittedly, this is ignored routinely by directors of nativity plays.) The flight into Egypt, however, despite an equal claim to authenticity, barely features in Christmas or post-Christmas worship. It is not family-friendly, of course, but that is rather the point. State terrorism, political and/or economic instability, or national disasters — then, as now — forced families from their homes and land. If congregations were encouraged to mark the refugee peril of the Holy Family at least once a year, they might give a higher priority to the plight of refugees and migrants — now, as then.
Despite the globalising effects of social media, compassion continues to be adversely affected by distance. The 100-odd migrants intercepted in the English Channel since Christmas Day appear to be more of a concern than the 536 migrants in the Aegean intercepted by the Turkish coast guard (21-28 December), or the 187 mentioned in just one Greek news report (30-31 December). This, at least, is the inference to be drawn from the withdrawal of two British cutters from the Aegean, where they have been assisting the Greeks to bolster efforts off the English coast. The move is deeply political. Having dismissed the urgency of the problem in the Channel, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, revised his view under pressure from MPs in the south-east. The danger is that the much greater number of migrants at risk in the Mediterranean region will be left to the mercy of the de facto buffer states, such as Turkey and Libya, both contracted by European governments to prevent migrants’ reaching their shores, both with a disgraceful human-rights record. Evidence is building that little mercy is shown.
It might have been a throwaway phrase, but something in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year message suggested that the UK had regressed further than the society in which Christ was asked “Who is my neighbour?” The Archbishop remarked that his audience should be “discovering more of what it means to be citizens together, even amid great challenges and changes. That will involve choosing to see ourselves as neighbours, as fellow citizens, as communities each with something to contribute.” The inference is that the very concept of neighbourliness is under threat. The migrants off the South Coast provide the latest test. The worry is that, for some, the relationship between compassion and distance has been reversed, so that proximity increases hostility rather than diminishes it.