According to the Henley Passport Index, I am in possession of the world’s seventh most powerful passport. Henley measures the number of countries I can travel to without a visa (184, in case you’re interested) and compares my freedom of movement with other passports from around the world. At the moment my passport, an Irish one incidentally, has a burgundy cover, the same as most of the EU countries including the UK. If Brexit happens however, the UK’s passport cover will change to blue, and because this indicates a return of national sovereignty, it is apparently a very big deal. For some.
The passport I carry affords me certain rights which are complex but clearly outlined and honoured, for the most part, across national borders. I live in the north-east corner of the island of Ireland - the part which is actually part of the United Kingdom but, since I pay my income taxes here, I have access to the magnificent privilege of the National Health Service, our version of universal health care, free at the point of need. I know that many at home and abroad criticize the NHS, but not me. Eleven years ago this summer I had open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve, and each year I go through a battery of tests checking the functioning of the new valve. Other than the bus fare to get to the hospital (we have great public transport too), it doesn’t cost me a penny.
These are some of the taken-for-granted privileges of national belonging. What is less clear though, and not often talked about, are the responsibilities that come with this belonging.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in June 2016 the rights that accrue to me by national belonging have come under scrutiny. You might just have heard of the Brexit referendum where citizens of the UK voted narrowly in favour of exiting the EU club of nations. Brexit has proven far more complicated than even the most critical observers expected, and we are still no clearer on how or when it may happen.
And whilst it was not expressly a question in the referendum, the issue of immigration became a decisive matter during the campaign and remains a core element in the debate right up to today. The UK government’s own statistics show that in the years up to the referendum reported hate crime had been declining, but in the year after the referendum such reported incidents rose by 17%. Brexit has brought belonging to the forefront of our national debate.
For the last year I have been engaged in a civic conversation project around the issues of borders and belonging in an attempt to engage people in the UK and Ireland in a discussion about the kind of society we aspire to be on the far side of Brexit. To date more than 3,000 people have participated in what have been endlessly surprising and challenging encounters.
These conversations have circled round a story that is embedded in the sacred texts of both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. The biblical book of Ruth opens with a family forced to flee across national borders because of famine, then experiencing further great personal loss despite finding a welcome in the new place. As the narrative unfolds the reader is exposed to the challenge of surviving in an unfamiliar location with unfamiliar customs and traditions. The social protections afforded by the host country need to be navigated and deciphered and whilst they provide temporary relief from poverty, there is no permanent answer to the plight of those who are marginalized without legal and structural change. This is achieved by the end of the story, but not without danger, risk and then public support for change. The reader is faced with the possibility that a community which opens itself to the outsider is a community which can renew itself, honour its history and secure a future for all of its citizens.
There are big questions in the book of Ruth about the basis upon which one can belong to a people group, but also about the social responsibility that attaches itself to national belonging.
The book uncovers for us the startling possibility that belonging can come not simply by blood but also through character, indeed it suggests that belonging by behaviour may even trump belonging by blood. It opens for us the consideration that belonging can be a chosen thing and not just conferred on us by location or blood heritage.
Ruth becomes legally part of the community of Bethlehem on the basis of her demonstrable compassion, kindness and good character towards a vulnerable citizen of that town who had fallen on hard times. What is also true in the story is that the wealth, privilege and belonging of Boaz, the key male character in the story, automatically means he has responsibility for both his distant family member Naomi and the foreigner Ruth.
The dramatic tension of the story rests on the question of which vision of society will prevail. Must this startlingly kind and generous newcomer face an endless struggle to survive and be utterly unable to escape her status as the ‘other’? Or will the community find within itself the capacity for kindness and generosity to open up belonging to the stranger? The narrative alerts us to a kindness that is conferred automatically upon kin, but also to a more complicated and difficult kindness that is extended to the stranger and the foreigner. The latter is a more costly kindness.
Our conversations throughout these islands confirmed for us what we had anticipated: that austerity and economic uncertainty have reduced our store of compassion and hollowed out traditional kindnesses, particularly towards those who are not born here. It may very well be that the dimension of the pro-Brexit vote that was characterised as anti-immigration is fused with a great degree of economic and social marginalisation.
Regardless of the outcome of Brexit there is a generational project for the healing of the wounds of this political, social and cultural upheaval. It will not be served well by a restatement of British nationalist values nor by hasty calls for Irish unity. Nevertheless a programme for national and community reconciliation is required; one that extends beyond a simple resolution of the argument about Europe or the border on the island of Ireland. It must restore faith in politics, address issues of social and economic inequality, and heal the divisions that have bedeviled the island of Ireland for centuries now.
That process can begin now with the moderation of language used about the ‘other,’ whether those on the other side of the identity question here in Ireland or on the question of Brexit in the UK. It takes courage to believe that compassion and kindness in our relationships towards one another can have a powerful, positive political impact.
We must also turn ourselves more diligently and honestly to the issue of the stranger among us.
In our various jurisdictions, law is formed for the benefit of those who claim citizenship. However the significant increase in migration in recent years has placed a strain upon all wealthy countries both economically and culturally, but also on the structures and institutions of the state. The lesson from Ruth is that the intent of the law matters more than its application and where the application of a law of the land results in an unintended unkindness this is a bad law which must be changed.
I’m not necessarily making a call for fully open borders, but it is, at least, a plea to ensure that the way we treat those and speak of those who come across our borders is honest, transparent, compassionate and kind. There is particular responsibility on the shoulders of those who have access to public platforms not to demonise or dehumanise others. In this way we can at least raise the tone of the national debate and possibly even find a better way of being ourselves at a local, national and international level.
There is a profound responsibility for kindness and generosity that comes with the immense privileges of having a passport at all, no matter whether its cover is a burgundy, or blue.
Glenn Jordan is Public Theology Programme Manager at the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland.