A guest blog by Revd Dr Michael N. Jagessar, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries at the United Reformed Church. Michael is a URC minister, theologian, speaker and author, and has lived and worked in Guyana, Jamaica, Grenada, Curacao, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and, since 1999, in the UK. He has been involved in a variety of ministries including community development and theological education, and has served in various leadership roles, including as Moderator of the URC’s General Assembly 2012-2014.
There is no doubt that the current UK environment is a hostile one, especially if you are a migrant, a refugee, or any visibly ‘foreign-looking’ person. But for some, though, the reality has always been one of hostility. This is the story of many of the Windrush Generation from the Caribbean. I suspect the Roma and other travelling communities can also tell stories of hostility – as would all those who depend on welfare benefits, with all the cuts and suspicions they continue to face, and some from continental Europe as a result of Brexit.
This hostile environment did not evolve in a vacuum. Such an environment relies on collaborators or agents to be effective. Some may knowingly carry out this work. Others may unwittingly be co-opted to carry out policies that are hostile and contrary to both conscience and the underlying principles of their faith or beliefs. Have we been complicit?
We ought to be aware of how difficult it is to not be co-opted. The co-option may take a variety of forms: for example, as Churches we may be over-cautious in interpreting the demands of legislation to check that those who are not White British have the right to work with us, study in one of our institutions, or even attend one of our gatherings or stay at one of our hospitality centres. The hostile environment has turned many of us into border guards, complicit in carrying out the government’s requirements, and forgetting the risks we are called to take by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the URC, we should remember what our Basis of Union has to say about which law ultimately governs us and our consciences.
Complicity creates and nurtures hostile environments. It is one thing for the Home Office to behave the way it did to some members of the Windrush Generation. But even scarier when institutions that are supposed to have a heart and the common good of citizens at their core carry out these abominations. If complicity is about being involved in a morally questionable act, then how about those of us who are drawn into effectively policing the act? What, if any, is our role in and responsibility for the hostility?
Research has shown that complicity is a structural relationship that cannot be atoned fully, as it exists in multiple, networked forms. We should therefore not simply think of complicity as something to confess in the hope of apologising. We have to consider it as a continuing systemic effect of Britain’s colonial history. The ‘hostile environment’ runs deep, in multifaceted ways, in our historic racial landscape. The ghosts are real: they continue to haunt and mess up our relational life together.
The easiest way out for us is to place the blame squarely on an individual or a political administration. The danger with this is that we might miss the opportunity to be part of the solution to the problem.
I know something about complicity. Besides my own, I have to contend with that of well-intentioned colleagues trying to always excuse ourselves from our relationship with privilege. I find most troubling our refusal to identify, interrogate, hold, and deconstruct our own complicity in upholding systemic oppression. The pervasive nature of the multiple forms of oppression means that none of us escapes its reach. We have to move beyond good intentions and realise that we are not beyond unintentionally yielding to something so deeply embedded in Britain’s history.
In the face of complicity we have to fight two competing temptations. We need to avoid apathy and inaction and the urgency of wishing to “get clean” which somehow turns us into self-righteous ‘do-gooders’ who are bitter at others for their apathy and inaction. And let us not be fooled: a ‘hostile environment’ will not affect only one group: it becomes the environment for all of us. The hostile environment is forcing us to conform to a hateful ideology which is damaging for everyone, creating walls in all areas of our life and community. As Malcolm X put it years ago: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
As a society, we need to make our civil authorities accountable and creative, otherwise they can easily become corrupting and heartless. In moments of social and political upheaval, Christian communities need to be clear about which side they are on: that of abundant life for all must be ours. And to live this out, we must wrestle with the ways we may have and continue to perpetuate some of the cultural norms and practices that feed the impulses around a hostile environment.