Brexit, a word coined to name Britain’s recent exit from the European Union, has stirred conversation on both sides of the pond about economics and immigration. While some may think that Brexit is about a country gaining its independence as an economically strong nation, the aftershocks of the referendum vote have left millions of Brits wondering if this was less about money and more about people.
In recent years, immigration has surged in the UK. According to Vox journalist Zack Beauchamp, “the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has gone from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014. The surge was a result (in part but not in whole) of EU rules allowing citizens of EU countries to move and work freely in any other EU member country.” This influx of “foreigners” in Britain, many believe, is what fueled the vote for Britain to leave the European Union, ultimately closing its borders to other Europeans from “less desirable” countries like Poland. Over the weekend, vitriolic messages against Polish immigrants were seen across the country as presumed supporters of the Brexit used hate speech to terrorize Polish businesses and residents. An increasing number of Muslims have also been targeted with hate speech telling them to “go home.”
Much of this rings familiar to those of us who live in the U.S. as policies and public discourse around immigration has been at the forefront of this year’s presidential election. People of color, especially Latinos/as, have been the target for political propaganda, feeding into the common fear of unfamiliarity. Different than discourse about marginalization based on race, ethnicity is about one’s geographical and cultural association. (PBS does a great job of distinguishing between this, too.) Xenophobia, then, is the fear of people who are not from “my” particular geographic location with a different set of cultural values and identities. Sometimes this fear is aimed directly at people. Often, it is grounded in a fear of losing the significance of one’s own cultural values in a more diverse environment. When people argue for particular ethnic groups to “leave their country,” xenophobia is at hand.
But as a body of believers, we are the legacy of biblical ancestors who were often the “other” in someone else’s country of birth. Scriptural references to the “foreigner,” “stranger,” and “alien” could be today’s refugee, immigrant, and expatriate. As the Children of Israel are consistently reminded, we are to ensure care and fair treatment to the “other” who lives among us because we were once someone else’s “other.” How then might we be called, today, to live differently among our sisters and brothers who live among us in a country not of their birth? How might we be the hands and feet of God in a time when more and more people are being faced with politicized forms of xenophobia?
We are charged to learn.
Misconceptions that fuel xenophobia exist because some worldviews do not integrate the experiences of people from other countries. We are tempted to limit our view of different cultures and ethnic groups so that anything that is not “ours” we call “strange.” Being intentional to learn about other ethnic groups, including cultural norms and customs, can be a first step to broadening our understanding of the world and people around us. Vital conversations and virtual meeting spaces, including members from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Philippines offer vibrant and creative occasions for cross-cultural exchanges. These opportunities and others enhance our intercultural competence, allowing us to see the “foreigner” not as the other but as a sibling also created in the Image of God.
We are charged to engage.
Intercultural competency challenges us to move beyond learning “about the foreigner” toward learning from and with people of different ethnicities. Vital conversations create opportunities for people across differences to learn how to hear one another in meaningful ways. Rather than debate why one culture’s approach or expression is more faithful than another, spaces are opened up in our hearts, minds, and souls to hear the work of God across ethnic difference.
Harmonious multi-ethnic communities are possible. Clarkston, Georgia, touts itself as having the largest concentration of immigrants and refugees in the country, representing over 40 countries in an area of only 1.1 square miles! It might seem impossible that a group with so many different ethnicities and cultures living in one space would be able to get along at all. Yet, the community has fostered support for all people by hosting community rallies, family days, and working together to promote equity and justice for all immigrants and refugees within the city. There is not one culture which takes on the dominant role. Rather, each cultural community has something to offer to support the new community’s values of freedom and happiness for all of its members.
We are charged to speak out.
Our charge to both personal and social holiness calls for us to speak out on behalf of and with those who have been branded “the ethnic other.” Depending on our privilege we can speak out in different, yet equally powerful, ways. Citizens of the U.S., regardless of race or socioeconomic background, hold privilege in a way the rest of the world does not. United Methodists worldwide might hold privileges associated with gender, tribe, geography (rural or suburbs, cities or mountains), or clergy/laity status. Since we all hold certain privileges, we all have the power and responsibility to change the ways unjust systems and policies are created and sustained in our world and in our Church. This is Institutional Equity. Whether we speak up in meetings, explain the differences between voting for and voting against a policy, or refusing to stay silent on the sin of xenophobia, we are called to create an equitable Church and world where people from all ethnic backgrounds are included, welcomed, and celebrated.
With the worldwide cultural splendor of the United Methodist Church we are intrinsically built to ward off the temptations of xenophobia. Our connection-wide bridges of unified mission support mutual partnerships across ethnic and cultural differences. When each caucus and conference and continent is free to bring all of their unique cultural offerings to the Table we cannot help but reach and welcome more people, younger people, and more diverse people. And without even knowing it, we will be building the Kindom of God.