We have all heard Psalm 137, either from the Bible, or in the last track ‘Babylon’ of Don Maclean’s 1971 album American Pie, the 1978 Boney M hit ‘Rivers of Babylon’, or maybe in ‘By the Rivers Dark’ (2010) by Leonard Cohen. The recurring theme of how people feel when exiled from the land they love is highly pertinent today, when we read about a “tide of human scum”, “people coming to take our jobs”, or just “those poor refugees”. The last line of the psalm should be shocking: urging anyone to revenge those “who grab your babies and smash their heads on the rocks!” Or, today, an interview with an Iraqi refugee: “ISIS came in and everybody had to kneel down on the ground. They murdered four children in front of us and everybody had to watch. I will never forget that, I will never be the same person again”.
Refugees have always been with us and our record is frankly shameful. Giles Fraser, the “Loose Canon” ex of St Paul’s Cathedral, reminded us last week that our whole parish system of community organisation, which lasted for 1300 years, was designed by a Turkish refugee, Theodore of Tarsus, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 668AD. Refugees are all around us, working in our hospitals, driving our buses, or forbidden to work whilst claiming asylum. Some arrive, penniless, without English, in strange cities, dumped by their traffickers, unless they are unfortunately pretty enough for prostitution.
My adopted children, and their children, to whom I am not any more closely related by genes than I am to any immigrant, surround me with the same love and joy that those with genetic children and grandchildren receive. What is the difference? Simply that I was lucky enough to commit myself to caring for those little children thirty or forty years ago. It is the act of commitment that brings the rewards. It is a source of joy open to anyone, at any age, to commit to caring for someone else outside of their own “family”; to bring them into their own family.
An American rock band released a new phrase into our language when they chose the name “Rage against the machine” in 1991. Rage is a good motivation for the sort of insignificant, loving actions open to us when we are faced with the terrible machinery of human cruelty and natural disaster that can dominate our TV news every day. When we cease to respond to rage with love, and turn to retribution; when we turn from compassion to rejection; we become part of the Machine.
The unprecedented tide of human misery around the world just now has the potential to dehumanise us all, or to create more love. As Moses apparently used to ask (Exodus 32:26) “Who is on the Lord’s side?” Well?