The enthusiasm some in the UK feel regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party has filled me with almost as much gloom as my feelings of helplessness in face of the pan-European crisis of refuge and migration. What these phenomena have in common (for me) is that they point so directly to the limits of the possibilities of political action.
To take refuge first it is essential to note that the only European politician who had performed really well in all this is Angela Merkel. The collective memory of her will, I suspect, be dominated by her leadership in this to the same extent as that of Tony Blair is dominated by the disaster of the Iraq war. We all needed a voice that spoke for our moral obligation to those seeking shelter and Merkel stepped up to be that voice. Just as the underlying story of Blair’s premiership as it led him to take the wrong turning when faced with Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam is more complicated than it is now often allowed to be so is the story of the German response to the present moment and Merkel’s embodiment of it. Nonetheless she has come out on the right side and I admire her for it.
Overall, though, the German response is only part of what is required. It is essential that the rest of the EU come forward to assist those bearing most of the burden (and we should be clear that it is a burden) of offering protection and respite. The Germans, Swedes, Greeks and Italians can’t be left to pick up such a disproportionate share. The UK in particular should be much more cooperative, unlikely though that is, given the complexion of our government and the state of popular opinion (recent poll numbers). At the same time, much as some of us might resist admitting it, David Cameron is right to stress that the best way to help those fleeing Syria is first to provide adequately for them in the neighbouring countries where most of them are likely to remain, above all Turkey and Lebanon, and second to find a way to end the war itself. He is also right that there is something essentially perverse about prioritising helping those with the resources and initiative to get to Europe over helping those stuck in the hopeless camps nearer Syria. In condemning the UK government for remaining outside the effort to cope with those arriving in Europe, and we should condemn it, we must also recognise the value in the UK’s very significant contributions to the effort to assist those in neighbouring countries, to which the UK is far and away the biggest European donor.
The question of how to cope with the current crisis is not a simple one of good vs. evil although we do in the end have to decide what is right. I think the UK should participate in the formulation and implementation of a common policy of resettlement of those arriving. I also think there is something positive to be said in favour of the UK scheme to resettle directly from the camps those most in need and a lot to be said for the emphasis on improving conditions in those camps and seeking a way to bring peace.
In all of these areas, though, I am very aware that the situation is unlikely to improve and that, indeed, the increasing instability in Turkey makes everything more difficult. A lot of the refugees are in areas where an escalating campaign of terrorism against the Turkish state is being waged by the PKK in response to the aggression of an Erdogan regime reacting to its political difficulties with provocation against the Kurds. In reality what I do, say or think as an individual is insignificant in face of all this. I can say to a few people that we are under an obligation to help in every way we can. I can give a little money. My actions, when I look at them objectively, are irrelevant to the outcomes.
In my estimation, as somebody who was once a part of the same marginal far-left world that Corbyn and McDonnell have inhabited for forty years or more, the political outlook of those now in charge of the Labour Party is essentially formed as a howl of protest against this helplessness. Seen in this way it is hard not to feel some sympathy with it. There is a lot of suffering and misery in the world that looked at in a certain way appear completely unnecessary. 500 million rich Europeans should be able to give shelter to a few hundred thousand desperate Syrians without any difficulty. If you look at the food eaten and wasted by the rich world it seems obscene that anyone anywhere is hungry.
Making this sort of straightforward observation can lead quite quickly to the thought that if these things are not addressed it must be because of the indifference or even malevolence of those in charge and that if the mass of people allow it it is because those evil people in charge are manipulating them. That, in essence, is the world-view of the milieu from which Corbyn is now emerging, blinking owlishly, into the light of the real public world. His message to the British people is: “those in charge are evil and they’ve been fooling you for years”. The popularity of films along the general lines of “The Matrix” show that at the level of fantasy it’s a message that at least some people are very ready to hear. In essence it share a good deal with that of UKIP (“liberal elite”, “speak the truth”) and indeed all other populist movements. “They’re lying to you but the truth has always been in plain view, if only someone had the courage to speak it.”
At one level I even think that they’re right. The truth is simple and clear. If people would love one another, put their selfishness aside and act in the interests of others rather than seeking their own security and comfort through conflict and competition we could and would indeed live in peace and plenty. That’s the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by the prophets before him. It’s the message of the Mosaic Law and is the essence of the founding of monarchy and temple under David and Solomon in the historic books of the Old Testament.
In all these Biblical cases, though, it comes up against the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus ended up on the cross, the prophets were without honour, the Law was never followed and the monarchy and temple went down before God’s servant Nebuchadnezzar. That is not a cause for despair in the Bible, although there are plenty of desperate reactions in it. In face of every failure to overcome human sin we are encouraged to keep our faith in God, whose love is unfailing. This triumph of love over sin reaches a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and we are able to participate in that resurrection as a foretaste and promise of our own resurrection.
To put our faith anywhere else is to invite and embrace despair. That isn’t altogether a bad thing but it can’t be the last thing. One of the texts most important to my own Christian journey is Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness unto Death’. In it he argues that true faith can only be born of despair, only when one has accepted the futility of all human endeavour can one throw oneself unreservedly into the arms of God, with the loss of hope enabling the leap of faith into the unknown depths of the divine.
As long as one closes one’s eyes to the truth of the pervasiveness and intractability of the problem of human sin, preserving the illusion that all problems are soluble by us, then faith in God is partial and eclipsed by a desperate faith in human possibility. Only when this is surrendered by a faith that gives it all up to God enabled.
All my hope on God is founded … God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.