The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
One of the bodies was that of a little girl aged between one and two. There were three boys, perhaps nine or ten years old, amongst the dead, and eight women. Altogether the bodies of 71 people were found. They were in the back of a lorry. The lorry had been abandoned by the side of a motorway, across the Hungarian border in Austria. The lorry had been designed for the transport of frozen goods and offered no ventilation, no light. The 71 refugees died of asphyxiation; the air would have grown stale and given out; in the darkness they died one by one. No one came to their rescue. Identification on one of the bodies suggested that they had been seeking refuge from the civil war in Syria.
The refugees had probably paid good money to the men who promised to smuggle them into one of the countries of the European Union. They and their gang-masters trafficked them to a terrible death. The horror of what they did is almost unimaginable. That happened last Thursday. The refugees were probably dead before the lorry was abandoned. Men have been arrested. But the dead are still dead.
On Friday it was reported that up to 200 refugees were feared drowned after a boat they were travelling on had sunk shortly after leaving the Libyan coast the day before. The boat had capsized in Libyan waters. Many were trapped in the hold of the boat when it turned over. The Libyan coast guard rescued about 200 survivors. They were returned to a camp in Libya. More than 2,300 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe from North Africa this year. But these numbers are tiny compared with the number of refugees from the Syrian civil war alone. By this time last year, the United Nations estimated that, while 6.5 million people had been displaced in Syria, more than 3 million refugees had fled abroad. Lebanon with a population of fewer than 5 million has taken well over 1 million refugees from Syria, Jordan over 600,000 and Turkey well over 800,000. And continuing warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Libya and other parts of North and West Africa - southern Sudan and northern Nigeria - add to the international refugee crisis.
In the meantime, the government of the United Kingdom has been taking extra security measures against migrants, who have made it as far as northern France and are awaiting their opportunity in refugee camps in Calais, to prevent them sneaking on to boats or trains to cross the Channel into this country.
What should be the response of European nations and of the United Kingdom? The Economist, a weekly newspaper generally understood to speak from a moderately right wing perspective, has recently argued that people who have the drive and ambition to get away from troubled states and to run the risk of danger and uncertainty to find their way to a more stable and prosperous nation should be encouraged if only for economic reasons. 'Europe', it says, 'could do with some sprightly immigrants to boost its tax base and pay for its growing army of pensioners.'
One possible response would be to use the law and the security forces as instruments of the law to crack down not only on the people traffickers, as they should, but on the would-be asylum seekers and refugees. The people traffickers are hard to reach as are many of those who find their way into this country. But the law is being used to return many refugees to their home country. We may ask whether there is a better way.
Today's bible readings from the Old Testament, the epistle and the Gospel are all about the law. In the first lesson we heard Moses telling the people of Israel that they must diligently observe the commandments that the Lord their God had given him. 'For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?' The ten commandments, the law of Moses, promote justice with mercy. St James, in the epistle, we heard encouraging his audience to be not just hearers of God's law but doers of the perfect law of liberty.
And our Lord in the Gospel sets a standard that transcends mere obedience to the letter, with a respect for the spirit of the law, the true commandment of God. He accuses his hearers of holding to human tradition and thus abandoning the commandment of God.
We can see more clearly what he means by listening to Jesus speak in another context. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. 'I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' He goes on to spell it out in words that continue to challenge his faithful followers. 'You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.'
And the parable of the Good Samaritan, so familiar to us all, is not about being kind to our neighbours or even our enemies, but about not allowing the precepts of the law to prevent an act of human charity, of mercy. The law required the priest and the Levite, who were going up to Jerusalem in order to perform sacred ceremonies in the Temple, to avoid the danger of contamination from a dead body. So they passed by, lest he be dead. The Samaritan had no such qualms. He it was who was justified. The law must not be used to prevent acts of mercy.
So, there is a better way than using the law against would-be refugees: the way of mercy. During the 20th century, waves of refugees came to these shores, in the 1930s from Nazi oppression in Germany, in the 1960s and 70s from oppression in East Africa. In more recent years, and all the time, people have come from north and south, from east and west to live in these islands, just as over the decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, and still today, people have flocked to the United States and been welcomed. Of the 60 million people who live in these islands, 8 million were born overseas. The great majority of those who have come have greatly enriched our nations in countless ways. Many who were not born in this country are excellent members of our staff team here at the Abbey. But the key point is not our benefit but our common humanity and the duty of mercy. The highest law is the law of love.
'Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."'