“Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right“
Brexit. The UK referendum on its membership of the European Union has caused a huge amount of division and ill feeling, and we are in the middle of the fall out – the pound is tumbling, markets are reacting badly to the uncertain about what will happen and political parties are tearing themselves apart.
A small majority of people in the UK – and these, for the most part in England, rather than Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted for the change, and one of the issues that many people felt very exercised about was that of immigration. The EU allows for free passage of people between all the member states. “Britain is in the grip of an immigration crisis,” said Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the “Leave” campaign. The UK is at “breaking point,” he claimed, all the fault of the EU. Great Britain, he says, has “frankly become unrecognizable” and looks “like a foreign land.”
Although this xenophobia clearly played on the minds of voters in what are clearly anxious times, Farage’s immigrant fear-mongering is badly flawed. First, it is quite clear, and now admitted after the vote by the Leave Campaign itself, that withdrawing from the EU is unlikely to reduce immigrant numbers in the UK.
Secondly, the evidence shows the benefits of immigration to the UK economy:
- According to research by University College London, European immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 contributed around £205bn to the economy between 2001 and 2011.
- Not only that, they also rewarded the country with valuable human capital and vital skills that would have cost the UK £6.8bn in education.
- Earlier this year, nursing leaders warned the government that if lower-earning non-EU workers were to be deported, the shortage of nurses in the UK could worsen and the NHS would have to spend millions on recruitment.
- In terms of the UK’s benefits system, immigrants arriving in the UK after 2000 were43% less likely than UK-born workers to receive state benefits and were 7% less likely to live in social housing.
- Immigrants from the European Economic Area paid 34% more in tax than they took out.
And yet Farage and the other leaders of the Leave campaign were able to play on the latent xenophobia which exists in the UK, as it does in virtually every other country in the world. And it’s interesting – and extremely disturbing – that since the vote to leave the EU, we have seen instance after instance of ugly racist abuse around England both in terms of graffiti on buildings and personal abuse.
Sadly there is the same race-baiting rhetoric coming from would-be presidential candidate, Donald Trump. “People are pouring across our borders unabated,” he says. He’s on record saying that the Mexicans that are coming into the US are killers, criminals and rapists, and that he wants to ban all Muslims from the US. Similar rhetoric, similar xenophobia.
Whole every country wants to have a proper immigration policy, and the world refugee crisis, caused largely by war, is not an easy problem to solve, but we seem to be sliding away from the values of neighbourliness, civility and openness that have often been part of life in the US and the UK. I’ve found it interesting, as I’ve travelled around the world and met people in desperate poverty – that it’s these very same people who have so very little, that are the most generous. They’ll share what very little food they have with you. They’ll welcome you into their tiny homes.
Maybe that’s why we get this theme appearing in the blues – amongst blues singers and communities who had very little, and yet were prepared to share what they had with others. Take Blind Willie Johnson, who lived a life of extreme hardship and penury – he might have expected nothing less as a black blind man in the early decades of the 20th century. But check out his Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right, recorded in 1930 with backing vocals by Willie B. Harris on Columbia.
“Careful of how you treat a stranger, Careful of how you turn him away.”
At the end of the day, Willie Johnson says, “All of us here are strangers, None of us have no home.” There but for the grace of God…
And then there’s the classic Careless Love, recorded by a host of singers. “Don’t you never, drive a stranger from your door…it might be your brother or your sister, you’ll never know.”
There’s the nub of it right there – we’re all brothers and sisters. Our common humanity demands we take care of each other, demands compassion – never mind the fact that the immigrant might actually be bringing our society something beneficial.
But Willie Johnson goes further, particularly speaking to those of us who are Jesus followers. “Well Christ came down as stranger, He didn’t have no home.” Jesus became a refugee – exiled to Egypt as a child – and was at times all but homeless – “foxes have holes, the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man nowhere to lay his head.” Is it possible to be a follower of this Christ and not reach out in compassion to the immigrant, especially if he or she has been dispossessed, made a refugee by war or danger?
The words of an early disciple come to mind: But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care – how can the love of God remain in him? (1 John 3:17)