Provincial press releases

‘To walk with refugees means putting yourself in their shoes’

Quibbling over the number of refugees allowed into the UK shows a failure to feel what it’s like to be in their shoes, the Archbishop of Wales will say in his Christmas sermon.

We need to focus on understanding why people are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan and making dangerous journeys to Europe in the first place, Dr Barry Morgan will say in his sermon at Llandaff Cathedral.

The Archbishop will argue that the UK has lost its sense of proportion in relation to the crisis, for which it is partly responsible, by agreeing to take just 20,000 people over the next five years.

He will urge us to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand their condition – just as God became one of us through Christ and was himself a refugee.

Dr Morgan will say, “Those who behave violently towards others, by hitting elderly people over their heads, leaving them half dead, or blowing up buildings or gunning people down randomly whilst they are at restaurants or concerts or ruthlessly executing people publicly for merely ritual infractions show a total failure to place themselves in the shoes of other human beings.

“It is in essence a failure of imagination. People who act violently are usually people who cannot imagine what it is like to be maimed or injured, even though they may blow themselves up in the process.

“A failure of imagination is the failure to think and feel the effect your actions will have on the lives of others.

“Christians believe that the God revealed in Jesus does not have to imagine what it is like to be human. He became one so that He knew and knows from the inside as it were, what it is to be one of us. He places Himself in our shoes. He is prepared to wear human skin. That is the meaning of incarnation and the real significance of this feast of Christmas – Emmanuel – God with us and for us.”

The Archbishop will add, “And what of us and the nation in which we live as Europe faces the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War?

“The debate seems to be centred on how many refugees we should accept. We forget to ask or perhaps we choose to forget why there are so many refugees in the first place. As one Somali poet puts it, ‘Why does a mother put her children at risk in a flimsy dinghy on the open sea? It is because she believes the sea is safer than the land’.

“These are people fleeing persecution and death in Syria and Afghanistan where British involvement is certainly in part responsible for the crisis. Meanwhile, Jordan and Lebanon have four million people in refugee camps and we quibble about twenty thousand. Is not that a failure of imagination on our part?

“And where is our sense of proportion? Five hundred million people live in the European Union – a million refugees have fled – less than a quarter of one percent of the total population of Europe.

“And as we come to worship the God revealed in the Christ child, the irony is that a few weeks later, He too faced persecution and had to flee to Egypt. That is why God can so easily put Himself in the shoes of refugees – for He too was once one.”

The Archbishop will be preaching at Llandaff Cathedral on Christmas Day. The service starts at 11am and all are welcome.

The full sermon follows;

Sermon – Christmas Day 2015

Llandaff Cathedral

The BBC journalist, Jeremy Bowen, talked recently on television, not about the problems of the Middle East as he usually does, but on his father’s radio reporting of the Aberfan disaster almost 50 years ago.  On the last day of the school term, on 16th October 1966, 144 lives were lost, 116 of them children, when half a million tons of coal waste, in a tidal wave, 40 feet high, hit the village of Aberfan.

The essence of being a good reporter” said Jeremy “is that you feel empathy for other people and do so in such a way that you give people who aren’t there a feel of what it is like to be there and what it is like to be in the shoes of those affected by whatever is happening”.

By contrast, those who behave violently towards others, by hitting elderly people over their heads, leaving them half dead, or blowing up buildings or gunning people down randomly whilst they are at restaurants or concerts or ruthlessly executing people publicly for merely ritual infractions is a total failure on the part of these people to place themselves in the shoes of other human beings.

It is in essence a failure of imagination.  People who act violently are usually people who cannot imagine what it is like to be maimed or injured, even though they may blow themselves up in the process.

A failure of imagination is the failure to think and feel the effect your actions have on the lives of others.  By contrast, rescue workers, police and medics and nurses, who usually rush to the scenes of these tragedies do so, not just because that is what they are paid to do, but put their lives at risk and usually do things far beyond the call of duty because they have experience of what the pain is like for those who are maimed, injured and distressed, even though they may not have had to deal with acts as horrific as these before in their lives.  As a result, they exercise care, compassion and empathy.

There is an old Chinese legend about a couple who had been childless for many years and to whom a son was born.  A fairy godmother told them that they would be granted one wish for their child.  They asked that he should never feel pain.  The godmother told them to think carefully before asking for that and said that she would come back to see them in a couple of days.  The couple had not changed their minds.  They died mercifully before they saw their son grow up to be one of the cruellest of dictators.  Never having experienced pain himself, he could not imagine what it was like for others.

Christians believe that the God revealed in Jesus does not have to imagine what it is like to be human.  He became a human being so that He knew and knows from the inside as it were, what it is to be one of us.  He places Himself in our shoes.  He is prepared to wear human skin.  That is the meaning of incarnation and the real significance of this feast of Christmas – Emmanuel – God with us and for us.

The great priest poet R S Thomas (no, you are not going to get away without a quote or two from him), sums it all up in more than one of his poems:

“This Xmas, before

an altar of gold

the holly will remind

us how love bleeds”

In another poem, “The Coming”, he puts it like this:

“And God held in his hand

A small globe.  Look, he said.

The son looked.  Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour.  The light burned

There ; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows ; a bright

Serpent, a river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.

On a bare 

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky.  Many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs.  The son watched

Them.  Let me go there, he said.”

The cost to God going there is depicted in a poem about the violinist Kreisler whom the poet had gone to hear in Cardiff.  The poem tells of the effort and cost of the playing to the player.  The disciplined effort of concentration is seen in the pulse displayed on his cheek.  Kreisler is a Christ-like figure, suffering for his audience through his art.

“This player who so beautifully suffered

For each of us upon his instrument.”

And then he continues,

“So it must have been on Calvary

In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:

The men standing by and that one figure,

The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,

Making such music as lives still.

And no one daring to interrupt 

Because it was himself that he played 

And closer than all of them the God listened.”

The cost to God of becoming human is nothing less than being willing to suffer and to die because of His great love for us.

What then of us and the nation in which we live, as Europe faces the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War?

The debate seems to be centred on how many refugees we should accept.  We forget to ask or perhaps we choose to forget why there are so many refugees in the first place.  As one Somali poet puts it, “Why does a mother put her children at risk in a flimsy dinghy on the open sea?  It is because she believes the sea is safer than the land”.

These are people fleeing persecution and death in Syria and Afghanistan where British involvement is certainly in part responsible for the crisis.  Meanwhile, Jordan and Lebanon have four million people in refugee camps, countries a hundred times smaller than Europe, and we quibble about twenty thousand.  Is not that a failure of imagination on our part?  What must it be like after a perilous journey to arrive penniless, friendless and hopeless in a foreign country?

And where is our sense of proportion?  Five hundred million people live in the European Union – a million refugees have fled – less than a quarter of one percent of the total population of Europe.

And as we come to worship the God revealed in the Christ child, the irony is that a few weeks later, He too faced persecution and had to flee to Egypt.  That is why God can so easily put Himself in the shoes not just of the human race but more particularly of refugees, for He too was once a refugee.