Religion is a problematic business, as we all know. Most human societies seem to feel the need for some kind of belief system that provides answers to fundamental questions of existence that defy rational explanation. Archeological excavations at Göbeklitepe in the southeast of Turkey have unearthed a 12,000 year-old temple, pre-dating pretty much every other hitherto discovered indication of human civilisation.
So, religion seems to provide for a basic human need – which probably accounts for its historical popularity. From time to time, prophets have appeared in various parts of the world with an ability to articulate systems aimed at giving meaning and purpose to human existence – whether by direct connection with a deity, or their own efforts is open to debate.
Problems seem to arise when political leaders, recognising the all-transcending power of religion, attempt to harness it for their own temporal purposes. The words of the prophets, of necessity vague, since they apply to concepts beyond the realm of normal human understanding, are pinned down and given specific interpretations that suit current political goals.
The difficulties are compounded by vagaries of language. The Muslim Qur’an was written in 7th century Arabic; the Christian Bible is a composite of texts in classical Hebrew and Greek spoken colloquially two thousand years ago. The version many Christians know and love was translated and published on the order of King James I in 1611. Times have changed, and the English language too.
So perhaps we should bear this in mind as we read the words of George Leonard Carey, Baron Carey of Clifton and former Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002). In a news item I read today, Lord Carey is quoted as saying ‘it is “not enough” to send aid to Syria and admit thousands of refugees to this country [meaning the United Kingdom]. He argues that Isil needs to be dealt with “for once and for all” and that “air strikes and other British military assistance” may be needed in Syria.
Jesus himself is reported to have said (Matthew 19:14, Luke 18:16) ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven’. So there you have indisputable scriptural authority. The little children should ‘suffer’ . Everyone who ever went to church or Sunday school knows that. Bomb those Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, or who ever they are, and solve the refugee crisis at source, before they can actually leave the country in the first place.
Of course there have been many translations of the Bible since good King James authorised his classic edition, most of them acknowledging a slight shift in meaning over four hundred years, rendering the text something like, ‘Hey, guys, leave those kids alone. Let them come. They’re all mine.’ But being an 80-year-old baron, it’s possible Lord Carey prefers Jacobean methods of dealing with children. Also, according to Wikipedia, he was nominated to the Archbishopric by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a lady well known for preferring the high explosive theory of diplomacy.
Apart from what that says about the division of church and state in the home of democracy, the former Archbishop has an established record of voicing strong opinions on matters of debatable relevance to the world of the spirit. He wrote an opinion piece in The Times on 10 September 2008 in which he said: “Immigration must be kept under control if we are to retain the essentials of British society that have been built up over the generations. … If this scale of immigration continues, with people of different faiths, cultures and traditions coming here, what will it mean to be British?”
No doubt those essentials include destroying the bargaining power of the unions, exploiting third world countries for their natural resources, and keeping the British masses firmly in their place. Small wonder establishment churches have difficulty filling their pews these days. Apparently British PM David Cameron appreciates the honorable baron’s support, however, since he and his fellow Tories have so far shown little interest in confronting the growing refugee crisis – other than with police and teargas at the French end of the Channel tunnel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has softened her stance a little in the face of growing pressure after the corpse of a drowned three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach highlighted the human reality of the crisis in a way that was hard to ignore. Apparently Ms Merkel has agreed to accept any asylum-seekers that manage to make their way to Germany, and has mentioned a number of 800,000 by the end of the year. She and her Austrian neighbours even went so far as to bring a few busloads of people who had been stuck at the Budapest railway station awaiting authorisation to travel on.
It’s a kind offer, and a little more tactful than the erstwhile archbishop’s suggestion. Nevertheless, the problem remains one of displacement and sheer numbers. As long as Western powers continue to believe they can bomb other nations into accepting ongoing exploitation, no long-term solution is possible. A friend (thanks Mark) sent me a map the other day sourced from ilmfeed.com showing the number of Syrian refugees taken in by countries in the Middle East. The figures for neighbouring countries are: Turkey 1.8 million; Lebanon 1.2 million; Jordan 628 thousand; Iraq 248 thousand. The only one with a European border is Turkey, which has been harshly criticised by EU countries for allowing asylum-seekers to make the short sea trip to nearby Greek islands.
Even if they get that far, there are still many obstacles ahead before they reach Angela Merkel’s welcoming arms. The boat trip from Kos to mainland Greece is far longer than the short crossing from Turkey. Thousands of refugees are stranded in Athens waiting for processing by Greek bureaucracy. Then there are Balkan borders to cross with delays at every stage: Macedonia, Serbia . . . and Hungarian police have erected a razor-wire fence. In the end, most of those millions will have to remain where they are, or return to the countries they fled from in the first place.
At least Turkey, with 75 million people, has some chance of absorbing that number of impoverished immigrants – though their per capita income ranks them well down the world rich list. But spare a thought for Lebanon and Jordan, with populations of 4.5 and 6.5 million. Interestingly, that ILMFeed map shows Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates having taken no refugees whatsoever. Well, I guess they’re not exactly on the direct route to Europe, and they don’t have a very attractive reputation for hospitality to citizens of poorer nations. Still, in the interests of Islamic solidarity, you might think they could channel a little of their much-flaunted wealth in the direction of neighbours who are struggling to cope with the enormous task of providing these suffering human beings with the necessities of life. I guess Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on selfishness and cruelty.