Migration and European Values (Björn Vikström)

The question about specific European values has been raised frequently during the last years. One reason for this is the situation that arouse as a consequence of the high number of refugees and asylum seekers, that came to Europe from year 2015 onwards. Are there specific European values, and to what extent is it correct to call them “Christian”?

What kind of requirements can be expected of those, who want to come to Europe and live here? What is required of those, who seek for citizenship in a European country? Should they sign a statement, where they promise to respect democracy and certain fundamental freedoms and rights? Should they promise to promote equality between men and women? Should they promise to respect the rights of sexual minorities? Should they for example agree not to wear burka or hijab in public spaces, and not to circumcise their children?

These kinds of debates are already going on in several member countries of the European Union. Many of these requirements can be motivated on moral grounds: we should be proud of the development of freedom, democracy and gender equality in Europe. But are we not running the risk of actually betraying our fundamental liberal values, when we are formulating such requirements, and forcing others to adopt them?

As a bishop, I should be happy when somebody says that he is defending the Christian values of Europe. But I have to say that I find it disturbing, that those who want to underscore that Europe is a Christian continent, very often do it in opposition to, what they call, the dangerous influence of Islam. When the European culture is called Christian, it has often very little to do with, for example, attendance to church activities or personal faith. It has more to do with a cultural identity. Many of the populist movements, that say they are defending the Christian Europe, do it in societies that are deeply affected by secularization. Where the knowledge of what Christian faith actually stands for is poor, the possibilities to use Christianity as a political weapon are greater.

It is striking, that the political parties that are most strongly defending the Christian values or identity of their nation, seldom get any strong support from the church leaders of their country. On the contrary, the churches and individual congregations have usually strived to take care of the refugees, both the asylum seekers and the paperless.

Solidarity with the poor, with strangers and with others in need of our support is the core message of Christian ethics. The generous hospitality of God is one of the most central elements in the teaching of Jesus, above all in the parables. His inclusive table fellowship was also one of the main reasons for the many polemical controversies that Jesus had with his critics.

It is sometimes said, that the cultural and moral heritage of Christianity is the idea of a universal human value. This does not, of course, imply that the idea of human dignity or of the sacredness of life, would be foreign to other religions, philosophies or ideologies. But the influence of Christian faith has played a crucial role in the development of the European Culture and its values.

According to Christian faith mankind is created as the image of God. But not as individuals, but as a collective. No single individual can on her own reflect the complexity of God, the greatest mystery of all. No individual can reflect the love of God in all its richness. It is as part of mankind, that we are, or can develop into, the image of God. This means that differences and variations between human beings are not the result of some kind of failure of the Creator or a mistake, but a prerequisite for our ability to fulfil this common task of mirroring God on Earth.

When Christianity spread to different parts of Europe during the first centuries after Christ, it changed the attitude towards women, children and slaves. Many of the first Christians were poor people, that had been marginalized. The killing of unwanted children stopped.

There are, however, many reasons for severe Christian self-criticism on this issue. The hierarchical and unequal structures of the surrounding society affected the Churches as soon as they were given a privileged role first in the Roman Empire, and after that in other empires and kingdoms. It took a very long time before the Christian churches fully understood the consequences of St Paul’s radical message: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) We Christians are still struggling with the question, how this radical equality should be expressed in family and marriage, in society and in the churches.

But it is very clear, that according to Jesus’ teaching the love of our neighbours may not be limited by social, economical, ethnic or religious borders. We shouldn’t only love those who belong to our family or nation, but also the strangers and even our enemies. Love goes far beyond justice.

But love needs justice, as much as justice needs love. Justice without love runs the risk of becoming cold and bureaucratic and faceless; a mere calculation of diverging interests. But love without justice runs the risk of becoming either self-destructive or simply naïve: a love that empties itself in every possible situation will not last. A limitless hospitality will destroy the home.

Justice needs love as a corrective. But you can’t write laws that forces the citizens to love each other. Nobody can be forced to love. The aim of legislation is to build a just and secure and peaceful society. In a just society everybody is given a fair and predictable treatment by the authorities. The resources of the country are distributed to its inhabitants in a way that guarantees a safe living also for those who are sick, old or in need of special support.

Here we face one of the crucial questions of today: who are “worthy” of our support? Or, to use a phrase from the gospels: who is my neighbour? This is certainly not a new question. I will take only one example: After the protestant reformation the responsibility for the care of the poor and the sick was transferred from the monasteries to the society. In each town a kind of a welfare system was to be created. But very soon the citizens wanted to limit their responsibilities.

Who were the “real” poor? How could the “real poor” be separated from those who were just lazy and unwilling to work? Who were really in need of help, and who were simply trying to benefit from the welfare system? Often the citizens didn’t want to care for beggars from other parts of the country.

Today we face the same kinds of questions. Who are really in need of our help? What should Europe do? The decision-making process in the EU is very slow. The idea that all the member states should agree upon common guidelines is ambitious, but it is at the same time a huge obstacle on the road to a common policy concerning refugees and asylum seekers.

On the one hand there are states like Greece and Italy, who have received many of the refugees, and are urging the other member states to carry their share of the responsibilities. The situation for many refugees in these countries is alarming. On the other hand, there are states that refuses to open their borders for these refugees and asylum seekers. Many refugees have been waiting for months at different borders around Europe, and with the winter approaching we are facing a humanitarian catastrophe.

We desperately need a common European politics for how we should handle questions concerning refugees and asylum seekers. But how can this be achieved?

I want to stress three main goals. These are of course well known to all of you, but I still think they need to be highlighted again and again. These are the root causes of the migration, the safe passages for those in greatest need of help and the creation of a more respectful public discussion on issues concerning migration and integration.

  1. We need a strategy for how we could tackle the root causes of the migration to Europe. The Chairman of the EU-Commission Jean-Claude Juncker expressed in his “The State of the Union”-speech the need for a new kind of co-operation with the African countries. This relationship should be built on companionship, not on charity. The migration is a common challenge for our continents that needs to be handled together. This involves common efforts for the building of peace, of enhancing education, economic development and the creation of job opportunities. There is also an acute need for actions that prevent or slow down the climate change and promotes climate justice.
  2. We need legal safe pathways to Europe for those who are suffering from war, persecution or ethnical suppression. The strengthening of the borders of Europe are creating new problems and more dead refugees. The refugee camps, hotspots and the centres in for example Libya, Turkey and on the Greek islands are not providing dignified or approvable living conditions.
  3. The Churches and the NGO:s could promote a respectful discussion concerning these issues in society. The task of the churches is to give a voice to those groups who have been ignored or marginalized. For example the situation of the paperless is something of a non-issue in the EU today. There are practical and legal obstacles that makes a return impossible for many of those who have been denied asylum.

The discussions are all too often polarized. There is a lot of prejudices, fake news and conspiracy theories around, but there is also genuine fear about in which direction our society is developing. All who give their vote to populist parties are not racists or ignorant. Therefore, we need to promote a discussion in the public sphere where these fears are listened to, but where we passionately look for creative solutions and improvements to the current situation.