Moving beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’

Published on: 1 March 2019

When people in Norfolk ask the Revd Philip Harvey where he's from, he pauses. The pause accounts for the fact that he left Australia in 2002, then lived in Germany, Oman, Luxembourg and, since July 2017, in Sprowston (north Norwich) as curate. He shares his thoughts on the perspective this physical and spiritual journey has given him.

My Antipodean roots, travels, second (EU) citizenship and unfolding faith journey have given me a comparative set of lenses on the current political turbulence in the UK. Certain places along the road have highlighted the concept of ‘us and them’ which afflicts many nations (my home country included). It’s a concept worth struggling against with all the resources that our faith can muster.

I lived in the Brandenburg neighbourhood of Kleinmachnow, south-west of Berlin, for three years. This village was previously home to the top party apparatchiks of Eastern Germany, with the Berlin Wall separating it from the neighbouring suburb of Zehlendorf. The landscape still bears the scars of its divided past: slabs of a rust-stained concrete wall in the nearby forest; decaying watchtowers and checkpoints; Soviet military memorials.

As I travelled to other cities in eastern Germany, I encountered a remarkable historical fact. It was church leaders who were instrumental in challenging the East German regime and encouraging the protest movements of 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin wall.

In the autumn of 1989 thousands of east Germans packed churches in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden to join together and hear speeches, then emptied out onto the streets in non-violent protest against a morally bankrupt regime, and against enforced separation from so-called ‘enemies’ in the west.

What was it these faith leaders said that inspired such a widespread following? It was simply their preparedness to stop acquiescing with the lies of the authorities and boldly speak for change. In The Power of the Powerless, the Czech dissident Vàclav Havel observed that societies that live within a lie create a profound crisis of human identity, in which individuals think and act as if they are not responsible for anything other than their own survival.[1] But speaking the truth, and attempting to live within it, can liberate others to take wider responsibility.

Recognising the past struggle in my Berlin neighbourhood challenged me to consider the ever-present political contours of faith. Currently, I meet many people in the UK who speak, and act in the shadow of political marginalisation and apathy, believing they cannot make a difference. But what if we dared to speak truth to power on the basis of our faith, taking the risk to make a positive impact?

My treatment as a foreigner entering Luxembourg was a pleasant surprise, and I stayed long enough to become a citizen. Luxembourg is a postage-stamp-size country that depends on its foreign workforce for its prosperity. Foreigners are found in every office. Foreign exchange and EU institutions are the lifeblood of the economy. Brussels is perceived as a place to do business rather than as a bureaucratic parasite.

Luxembourg has multiple measures in hand to promote the integration of its immigrant workers. Council information is supplied in five languages; Luxembourgish classes are available at low cost and neighbourhood festivals are frequent. I and other residents befriended a family of Syrian refugees that moved into our local village. Their children were accepted in local schools; the youngest became the captain of the village football team. Most Luxembourgers seem to accept the notion of a ‘multi-kulti’ neighbourhood as simply the way things are, and their commitment to the Euro-zone is reinforced by the benefits of borderless trade and mutually beneficial cooperation with neighbouring states.

As I’ve come to live in the UK, I’ve noticed how much wider is the sense of distance from European neighbours. While some blame the geo-politics of the English Channel, I’m wondering if it’s more a reluctance to let go of historic defensiveness.

It’s said that a fish does not see the water in which it swims, but my hope is that Christian faith affords us a capacity for seeing beyond the current murky and divisive politics of ‘us and them’. Ultimately, as the New Testament reminds us, we are citizens of a kingdom in which there are no national or social borders: there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

[1] Vàclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, 1978.

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