Entering the Immigration debate by Richard Reddie

Immigration is a hot political issue. Richard Reddie argues that Christians need to contribute to the debate, and use their words to heal and bring unity rather than divide 

Since the start of 2014, the issue of immigration has dominated the news in this country, largely due to the fact that restrictions have now been lifted on those Bulgarians and Romanians wishing to work in the UK.  Given what took place after similar such controls were removed in 2004, resulting in an influx of Polish migrants, sections of the Media and the political classes have warned that Britain ‘risked being flooded’ by a new wave of immigrants, who will take British jobs and put undue pressure on our already hard-pressed public services.

What is more, immigration is likely to take centre stage at the local and European elections this May, and the General Elections next year, since a recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that over three quarters of Britons want a reduction in immigration, and that immigration is the number one political issue – ahead of the economy, education, health and housing.

There was a time when anyone who raised the subject of immigration in this country was denounced as prejudiced, and any debate on the topic was quickly closed down out of fear of stoking up racism. However, this is no longer the situation, with practically all the major UK political parties eager to clarify their positions on this controversial topic. Likewise, the subject remains a mainstay on most British talk radio or television discussion programmes.

Unlike in previous years, the political parties on the right, who tend to be anti-immigration/European Union (EU), are now reaching out to sympathetic Black (and Asian) Britons, in an attempt to widen their appeal and offset any accusations of racism. Moreover, as the current immigration debate is as much about Europe as it is about Asia, Africa or the Caribbean, the issue is less black and white. For instance, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has several high profile Black and Asian members, who are planning to run as councillors in the forthcoming local elections. (One could argue that it is a testimony to how ‘British’ some Black people now feel that they are comfortable to share views that were once the preserve of those regarded as bigots.)

At a recent political gathering, several Black anti-EU campaigners argued that their party’s policies would restore Britain’s trade relations with her former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean at the expense of the EU. They pointed to the fact that Caribbean banana and sugarcane production had suffered adversely due to EU trade arrangements. Others noted with irony that those European countries, with whom Britain was at war 70 years ago, now enjoy easy entry to the UK due to EU membership, while those from the former colonies, who fought alongside Britain during the Second World War, struggle to enter these same shores. From a Christian perspective, these right-wing, anti-EU/immigration parties claim to be the custodians of those traditional/family values that naturally appeal to those Black believers, who are concerned about the moral direction of this country.

There is little doubt that immigration is an important issue, which is in real need of a Black Christian perspective. Nevertheless, I would argue that Black Christians must ensure that, when they engage in it, they steer clear of embracing views and opinions that stereotype or scapegoat. Moreover, they must examine whether they are being complicit with the ideas and behaviours that were once directed toward them. For instance, I am cognisant that some Black Christians in the historic denominations (Methodists, Baptists, C of E, etc.) are now complaining that their churches have been ‘taken over’ by believers from Eastern Europe and the Far East, and appear oblivious to the fact that the same accusations were levelled against them several decades previously.

Christians often argue that society should reflect the Church rather than the other way around. In Isaiah 56:7 we read that ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’, which suggests that there should be real diversity within the body of Christ. What is good for the Church is also good for society, and cities such as London and Birmingham are now microcosms of the world.

There is little doubt that Black congregations, which have transformed the spiritual and social climate of the UK, are a product of immigration-derived diversity. (It has been argued that immigration restrictions are one of the foremost threats to the ongoing growth of Black-majority churches.) The arrival of Polish migrants since 2004 has helped to revitalise the once moribund Catholic Church in the UK, and newly-arrived Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Christians from South America are transforming the Pentecostal movement in London.

Those political or media pundits, who argue that we need an open and honest debate on immigration, appear unable or unwilling to ensure that it does not descend into rancour, division and racial hatred. Thus far, most discussions have been defined by a lot of heat and very little light. As Christians, we are asked to shine Christ’s light of truth and love on all situations, rather than generating a heat that confuses or divides rather than unites. Let’s hope we can do this on the immigration issue.

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