We had one of those busy New Year’s Days, clearing up not only after our modest Hogmanay celebration but also after the traditional family invasion for Christmas; something we wouldn’t miss for the world. I wasn’t listening carefully to many news broadcasts that day, then, but I was struck by a phrase from the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his New Year message, Justin Welby was quoted as saying: “In today’s world hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism”.
That line came towards the end of a succinct but powerful consideration of the plight and needs of refugees. He started with a moving account of a 14-year-old boy he met in a Kent school: the lad had fled his homeland in North Africa, having fortunately survived an abduction attempt from his school, but thereafter too terrified of a repetition to stay.
Then we Traffords got busy again, preparing to celebrate a significant birthday (not mine) in a country house party in Cumbria, close to Hadrian’s Wall. A number of us went for a walk along that spectacular section over Steel Rigg. There’s something moving about that wall, a testament to determination and engineering 2,000 years old: a symbol of civilisation perhaps?
The Romans saw themselves as bringing enlightenment and civilisation to these islands. When they realised they could not enforce their rule in the impossible terrain of Scotland, they decided to draw a line, the first time the empire had ever really accepted that it had a frontier, a limit to its ambition. This took the form of Hadrian’s Wall (and, before it, the Antonine Wall, further north).
To the empire’s opponents, however, even those fine bathhouses with their running water and heating systems would have represented not sophistication but oppression. The native Britons were not asked if they wanted to be civilised: it was brought to them with fire and sword, techniques of subjugation readily re-employed whenever anyone in the empire dared to resist or repel.
Back then, as now, whenever invaders (including the Romans) decided to annex new territory, there would have been countless refugees. War, invasion and conquest always give rise to vast numbers of displaced people on the move.
We are out of the habit of being invaded in this country. We’ve certainly feared it – by Hitler, Napoleon, Philip II of Spain (to name just three), but we haven’t experienced it properly since 1066.
Like the Romans, who believed they were bringing civilisation, when we or our allies bomb in Syria or Iraq, when we invade Iraq or Afghanistan (all this in recent memory), we believe we are doing the right thing. Maybe we are, though I’m unconvinced: but, whoever is “in the right’, warfare always creates refugees; still more men, women and children burned or bombed out of house and home.
Archbishop Welby’s New Year message reminded us of the need – not merely a Christian teaching, but a pressing human exigency – to offer such people refuge and welcome. He recalled a chapel in Canterbury Cathedral set aside in the 16th Century for refugees fleeing persecution in France, quoting an inscription that reads: “testimony alike to the large and liberal spirit of the English church, and the glorious asylum which England has in all times given to foreigners flying for refuge against oppression and tyranny.”
Our family party at the start of the week was a gathering of our oldest friends and closest family: over a couple of days, the volume of the laughter and the depth of the love renewed and strengthened the immensely strong bonds that link us. Thinking about it afterwards, and calling to mind the Archbishop’s mention of hospitality, I revisited his message, which ended: “The hospitality of people here brings love, hope and joy. If we imitate them society becomes a far better place. I wish you all a happy New Year filled with hope”. Given my recent happy experiences, that comment resonated powerfully. Still, a “happy New Year filled with hope”?
Given the state of the world, a cynic might respond, “Some hope!” But this isn’t a place for cynicism: because when we encounter and share hospitality and love, we all feel its benefit. The Archbishop is right: we have to work at it, but such work is invariably rewarded by positive results.
So I’ll add his wish in mine: to all who read this, a happy New Year filled with hope.