I was born of two Jewish parents who, despite their lack of religious devotion, always insisted that as a family we maintain the annual domestic tradition of observing the Passover Seder. Before tucking into a lavish meal, we would be required to read and sing from the Haggadah for an hour or so. This religious text narrates the story of the book of Exodus when, with the Lord’s assistance, Moses led his (my) people out of bondage under the Egyptian Pharaoh, through the desert and on to the Promised Land. I always feel somewhat uncomfortable nowadays, especially since becoming involved in peace activism, as we go around the table taking turns to read the story out loud and giving thanks and praise to Adonai (the Lord) for slaughtering the first born of Egypt, afflicting their people with terrible plagues and drowning their armies in the Red Sea. It is a tale of deliverance and salvation but also one of retribution and terrible violence and suffering visited upon even young children judged to be guilty by association. It calls to mind the Christian tale of King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents. One could say that this is how terrorists such as those of Da’esh (the so-called ‘Islamic State’), Al Qaeda, or even many governments (not least the modern state of Israel) seek to justify their barbarous and indiscriminate acts of violence and cruelty against civilians. When we dip herbs in salt water to symbolise the tears of the Jews suffering under bondage, I also want to weep for those innocent Egyptian children and their grieving families, and for the children of modern day Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, killed, maimed and traumatised by conflict, often at the instigation of – or with the complicity of - the UK and its allies.
Moses’s Children of Israel were migrants. They were refugees fleeing oppression, like those we today find stranded in makeshift camps in Calais and Dunkirk, arriving in flimsy dinghies on the European shores of the Mediterranean (or drowning at sea), and being marched over mountains and bundled into the backs of lorries by people smugglers. I guess they would have had enemies with a similar mentality to the xenophobic hate-mongering editorial team of the Daily Express newspaper or US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. I guess in its time there would also have been domestic opponents to the Kindertransport of unaccompanied Jewish children fleeing persecution by the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War. The primary response of many to such a daunting wave of movement of people is one of fear. It may be fear of the unknown, fear of change, or fear of a perceived threat to one’s lifestyle (such as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s scare-mongering warning last August concerning “millions” of “marauding” African migrants); but it is undoubtedly a fear response, mediated by the primitive limbic system of the brain. It is an attitude that I believe is best tempered through a counter-balancing energy of loving compassion and empathy. This was very much in evidence when the pictures of the tiny lifeless body of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach hit the front pages of the papers last September: those powerful images triggered a wave of public compassion for a time and forced Prime Minister David Cameron to hastily agree to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK over the next few years, having previously only conceded to take a few hundred (although the new figure still pales into insignificance next to the several million refugees already received by Germany, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan combined).
Jesus instructs us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Certainly not everyone finds it easy to love themselves, and perhaps this is part of the problem, but we nevertheless understand what it meant. He goes on to elaborate that even someone of the Samaritan race, maligned by the Judeans, is a good neighbour when he tends to the traveller who has been mugged and left for dead by the roadside (see Luke 10:25-37). The key message here being not to judge our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters by where they come from, what religion or sect they follow, their appearance, language or accent, but to imagine ourselves in their shoes (assuming they still have them) and consider how we would hope to be treated if fate had dealt us the same terrible hand, if we had been through those same trials and tribulations. It means getting to know them as individuals, hearing their stories, researching what is happening in their countries, and welcoming them into our homes and spaces. If only we all started doing this, then perhaps we could put aside our differences, stop being afraid and stand side by side with those who today find themselves walking in the footsteps of Moses.