Over the Easter weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke out against the Government’s newly announced plan to send some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Welby called the plan ‘against the judgment of God’; his predecessor, the distinguished theologian and scholar Prof Rowan Williams concurred. Neither the Prime Minster, nor the Home Secretary, were thrilled when Welby called the UK plan to send away those arriving via small boats across the English Channel ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. Rumours suggest Boris Johnson criticised Welby harshly for the comments.
There is important historical context for Welby’s claim against the Prime Minister, but it might go unnoticed because of the current public verbal jabs. If one goes all the way back to when the biblical statements on the treatment of people seeking asylum on which Welby builds his argument were written, one can see clearly that Johnson’s government closely resembles the imperial, colonial programme of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that oppressed the authors of the relevant texts in the Bible. This parallel matters, whatever one makes of Welby’s Christian faith.
The Hebrew Bible—as scholars call the anthology of texts central to Judaism and Christianity, known most widely as the Old Testament—was written over a period of 500 years or more, but the critical historical period that motivated them lies between about 800 BCE and 500 BCE. In that period, two imperial powers from Mesopotamia (the area we now know as Iraq and Iran) ruled over the whole ancient Near East. Both powers pursued policies of forced displacement that treated those outside of an elitist, learned, narrowly privileged class as human resources who could be moved about like chess pieces on a gameboard. The Assyrian kings of the 9th to 7th centuries BCE routinely ‘resettled’ people, as did their Babylonian successors in the 6th century BCE. Some skilled craftsmen (in the ancient world, they were all men) were brought to Assyria’s burgeoning heartland to assist with its economic development and immense urban building programmes. Many, many others were systematically relocated according to plans crafted by a small group of government officials. Those who were forcibly moved were ‘distributed’ in ways that were economically profitable to the Assyrians, often with populations being swapped in order to achieve this economic goal. All of this had the aim of ‘Assyrianising’ the population and minimising the chance of rebellion against the Empire.
One can be forgiven for thinking this all sounds familiar. Announcing the recent British scheme, Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that it would ‘provide human capital opportunities for migrants and the host community’. Just days after the scheme was announced, it emerged that the UK would ‘resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom,’ a contemporary form of population swapping expressed in politically correct bureaucratic language.
Consider, for contrast, the Hebrew Bible: this anthology is the product of the society most know as ancient Israel. Despite being far more familiar to most than Assyria or Babylonia, ancient Israel was a small, marginal, and colonised society. Its attitude towards migration was shaped by the ever-present threat of being forcibly displaced by the Assyrians or Babylonians—a reality that came to fruition in waves of conquests and displacements in 722, 592, and finally 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled many of its residents.
The Hebrew Bible speaks about migration from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It may be no surprise then that a frequent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is that one should establish justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger—the final term meaning something very close to what we mean by migrant or think of with regard to a person seeking asylum. In fact, the logic for this behaviour is that the ancestors of Israel were themselves ‘strangers’.
Just a few sentences after the famous command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) that became the touchstone of what Jesus of Nazareth taught (Matthew 22:34-40), one finds the command on how to treat the alien—an archaic translation of a Hebrew term better read as migrant since it connotes a foreigner who wants to settle into their new host society. ‘When an alien resides with you in your land,’ the command goes, one ‘shall not oppress the alien’, but treat them ‘as the citizen’ because one’s ancestors were themselves such migrants. Since the society that produced the Hebrew Bible experienced the world as colonised, and disempowered on the international stage, under threat from larger powers, and as involuntary migrants snatched from their homeland, it spoke with openness, compassion, and an attitude of acceptance about those who wanted to settle in its midst, whatever their background.
One might legitimately differ on the theological point made by Archbishop Welby that Johnson and Patel are acting in an ungodly fashion, but it is impossible to deny that their policy resembles that of the imperial, colonising Assyrians. Indeed, that might be the most important insight ancient history provides for us: whatever one makes of the UK-Rwanda pact, it reveals an imperial mindset that is at ease with treating people on the move as a disembodied ‘human resource’ that can be distributed and redistributed according to the plans of a narrow elite. The present case, like its Assyrian forebearer, seeks to protect national identity (read ‘British values’ for ‘Assyrianisation’) and minimise the chance—however small it be—of any unrest. The entire ‘hostile environment’ policy that the Home Office has pursued for years now has the hallmarks of a modern incarnation of the Assyrian programme for establishing and maintaining power. An imperial mindset is hard to shake it seems.
If one reframes the dispute between the Archbishop and the Prime Minster in historical instead of theological terms, it is clear what perspective the two represent. Johnson and his ministers are thinking and acting like the ancient imperial and colonising elite; the Archbishop has articulated the view of the colonised, those being forced to migrate, whether he knows it or not.
Rev Dr Casey Strine is Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield. He studies the history, literature, and cultures of the ancient Middle East, with a specialization in ancient Israel and Judah, the two societies that produced the texts known widely as the Old Testament. Strine is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the world’s oldest organisation for the scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Holy Land’.
Cover image: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. Credit: UK Home Office