On Monday 22 November we had the annual evensong for Amnesty International. We are delighted to work with Salisbury Cathedral on this event, which has been running for a number of years now, especially as it ends in the Trinity Chapel where the Amnesty candle is situated and under the Prisoner of Conscience window.
All the celebrants are given a candle and carry these through at the end of the service to the chapel. Canon Robert Titley spoke during the service and he said:
This evening we hear one of the uglier Christmas stories. When the wise men visit local ruler Derod, they say the are looking for ‘the King of the Jews’, and he realises that they don’t mean him. Herod judges – rightly – that Jesus, the child they seek, is a threat to his kingdom and to his way of doing power. And so, says Mathew the gospel writer, Herod begins some targeted slaughter to neutralise this potential source of rebellion, and Jesus and his family must escape as refugees.
Herod’s way of doing power is of course still alive and kicking. Mathew would find present day Syria – where innocents are killed as a means of neutralising so-called ‘rebels’ – very familiar. He does not describe the experience of being a refugee, though it is unlikely that things were so different then:
- the indifference of some of the native population in the land you come to
- their understandable caution
- their fear of the threat you might pose, especially if there are a lot of you – a ‘swarm’ perhaps
- a tendency to talk about you as part of a lump, a collectivity, an issue, a problem, not a person with a story.
He then went on to talk about Amnesty today;
Throughout its 55 years, Amnesty – to the vexation of the Herods of this world – has tirelessly brought into the light the stories of people whose rights are abused, people like a teacher in Indonesia who we are supporting with our prayers during this month.
Groups like Amnesty International patiently and persistently bring to the minds of rulers and their representatives the stories of people they would rather forget. And now, as our continent faces the severest displacement of people since Second World War, refuges are at the top of Amnesty’s concerns.
On Amnesty’s website you will find a short film called A Powerful Experiment. According to the psychologist Arthur Aron, four minutes of eye contact is enough to bring people close together, even to fall in love. And so, in a bare factory space, a group of native Europeans – women, men, and one girl – each sit with a refugee for four minutes.
In that space and time the ‘issue’ acquires a human face: Samira from Syria and Danuta from Poland and Fatima from Somalia: they open their eyes and at first just look at each other. Soon the are smiles – warm or perhaps shy – some tears, then words ‘nice moustache. I’m sixty-five. Are you new in Berlin? Eight months. And are you alone here or with your family? Alone. And finally, touch – a handshake, a hug, a game of It, and that word ‘refugee’ is made flesh.
In just four weeks’ time, we shall proclaim again the good news of the word of God made flesh and the birth of Jesus. The Christmas stories will remind us how glorious is the full ness of God: how infinitely treasured is each human life, made in the image of God.
And tonight we give thanks to God for Amnesty, for the patient, persistent work of its staff and volunteers in reminding the powerful of this treasure and how blasphemous it is to deny it; and reminding us all that the refugee glimpsed on a screen or news page is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, that each one, like each of us, has their story to tell.
Around 80 people attended which is fewer than usual but the bad weather would have deterred many. Our thanks to Cathedral staff for their help with this event.