Jeremiah crops up this week in the lectionary; chapter 29 is about how to survive and thrive in a foreign country when you are a refugee. He must be the only prophet that people have ever listened to because the success of his exhortations became the success of the Jewish diaspora of which Nazis are so suspicious. His most telling aphorism is “Make yourselves at home in Babylon and work for the country’s welfare… If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”
These Jews had been driven from their homes and exiled in the country of their persecutors, effectively they were prisoners there. How much more difficult it must have been for them than even for refugees today who at least take refuge in a neutral country. As last week’s psalm (137) said “how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
In the UK we have had successive waves of refugees and economic migrants. The skill that they bring is a sore loss to the countries that they choose to leave, or from which they have been driven. A list of what they have contributed to this country would be tediously long, their grandchildren are as British as you and me (well, just you actually, my family were illegal immigrants). Every wave of immigrants suffers abuse and hardship but hope for a better future for their children. It is the American Dream in Britain and we would be poorer without it.
Many young people born here are without work and it is a commonplace to ascribe their lack of success to the immigrants who “take our jobs”. I have seen people picking vegetables in fields all day; people travelling from house to house trying to give elderly people the support that, in other countries, would be provided by their children; people washing cars by hand in the cold and rain. These people are mostly recent immigrants, our children don’t want these jobs.
In hospitals, I have been treated by a veritable United Nations of staff, who have brought skills from every corner of the world. Not enough of our children have the qualifications, you see.
Jeremiah was on the nail: work for the success of your host country; what is good for them is good for you. It is the only way to survive exile. In fact, we are all only temporary residents of the UK. Sooner or later we will no longer live here, and there was a time when we didn’t. In 673AD, the Venerable Bede published his “History of the English People” which contained the following memorable image:
“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
Worth thinking about.