It feels as though half the world is on the move in these times: by sea, over land, floating in flimsy vessels or clinging beneath lorries; young and old, of all faiths and none. The flow of humanity across borders and continents seems unceasing and unstoppable. We might wonder if theres anyone left living in Syria at all...
And if half the world is on the move, it feels as though the other half is busy coming up with ways to stop them. Physical barriers, political manoeuvring, caps, quotas, bans and blockades are all employed to try to hold back the flow. Concerns are cited for the social, economic and security implications of open door policies. Just look at the abuse of Germanys hospitality if you need convincing, the argument goes...
In short, it feels as though the world is polarised in its fear: the fear that drives some to leave their homes; the fear that holds others back from opening theirs.
I exaggerate deliberately to make a point. And the point is that, sometimes, problems like this seem so overwhelming in their scale and complexity that its tempting to try and make sense of them by reducing them to more easily understandable proportions: black and white, right and wrong, in and out.
Its tempting but hugely dangerous, particularly where the plight of other human beings is involved. A Somerset Vicar writing on this topic recently offered this sobering thought:
Lets remember that the plural of refugee is simply people.
How does it change our assessment of this crisis, I wonder, as we force ourselves to look at these refugees as individuals rather than homogenous categories of ethnic, national, economic or religious description? How does it change the extent of the compassion or hospitality were prepared to offer as we recognise among them fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, doctors, teachers, future doctors and teachers, schoolchildren, playmates...?
Hospitality is an ancient Christian value and one of the earliest descriptions of it occurs in the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible. In Chapter 18, we read how Abraham saw three men approaching his tent. Were told that he doesnt just offer them hospitality, but runs to meet them and begs them for the opportunity to serve them with food, water and rest, regardless of the inconvenience or cost to himself. They turn out to be angels with a life-changing message from God for Abraham and his wife.
The 15th century Rublev icon (pictured), commonly interpreted to depict the Holy Trinity, is also sometimes thought to have been painted over an earlier depiction of Abraham entertaining the three angels. In either case, I think its a powerful depiction of true hospitality. Im struck by the way each figure directs its glance away from itself and towards the other in an unending circle of interdependence and mutual service. No room for blockades or bans here.
There are no neat or easy answers to this refugee crisis, and legitimate concerns to be addressed on all sides, but perhaps ancient notions of hospitality still have something to teach us about how we might begin to respond.
Rev James Harris