We all know the Exodus story. The story of the Israelites’ captivity as enslaved peoples in Egypt living under the harsh treatment of the authorities at the time.
We know of their miraculous escape led by Moses through the waters of the Red Sea and of their wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years. 40 years of being on the move. 40 years of hoping for the promised land. 40 years of boring subsistence food and having to live alongside one another with all the tensions that entails.
But do we really know the Exodus story?
It is being re-enacted right here and right across Europe, on our doorstep and in our own communities. For another mass Exodus is taking place with people fleeing the violence and terror of war-torn countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have left everything – homes, livelihoods, gardens, cars and education – to flee in the hope of finding safety, refuge and a new place to live.
Like the Israelites who were led across the Red Sea, many of the refugees have faced huge dangers travelling first through Turkey and then across the Aegean Sea to reach Greece. Many have lost family and loved ones along the way either to the perils of the sea or through separatation from one another.
But many have survived and made it across en-route to northern Europe and the hope of being reunited with husbands, sons and fathers in Germany, Sweden …
… only to be left stranded in the wilderness, stranded in Greece as the borders closed.
They have little hope that the borders will open. The administrative system simply can’t cope. But like the Israelites in the wilderness, life goes on. Some are living in makeshift camps. Many more have registered for re-location or reunification with family and now live in official Government registration camps behind fences and coils of razor wire. Conditions are bad, beyond what most of us could imagine and certainly beyond what we’d want to experience.
Just as the Israelites must have encountered groups of people living in the wilderness – and may even have had help from them – so too the Greek people are finding themselves playing host to a huge number of unexpected guests. And they are rising to the challenge in terms of volunteering with NGOs (Non Governmental Agencies) and churches, donating food, clothing and money as well as taking families into their homes. What started out as helping people on their journey through Greece to elsewhere in Europe has evolved into supporting people who are stranded longer term.
The promised land of reaching family elsewhere in Europe or seeking asylum in a new country in northern Europe seems far off as day to day life is hard to maintain. We heard some who wanted to return.
“In Syria we may die”, we were told, “but here we are dead”.
We have been brought up to celebrate the Exodus story as God’s great work in liberating people and bringing them into a new life as God’s covenant community.
Maybe we too need to celebrate and welcome this new Exodus story as God liberating people from war and terror and bringing them into a new life, to a new community. Only that community is ours. Ours and the EU’s.
Or maybe it is a little more complicated that that. I always felt for the Canaanites in the Exodus story. The ones whose land was occupied and taken over by the Israelites as their promised land.
It is quite a threat to your own identity and sense of community when new people arrive. One or two can be accommodated but if new people arrive in great numbers it means our own community and sense of identity need to change and that can be hard.
Despite the Bible’s rhetoric about claiming the new land as theirs and destroying the Canaanites, we do know that the reality was a far more mixed picture. A mixed picture of different communities coexisting and needing to learn to live alongside one another with all the tensions that entails.
So we are left with a ‘both and’ kind of response.
A need to celebrate this new Exodus as people being liberated or liberating themselves from violence and oppression.
Many of the Greek people told us, the refugees have been a blessing. A blessing in that they have distracted people from their own troubles of the failing Greek economy and enabled people and churches to come together to respond in both a humanitarian way and also in a human, person to person way.
But we also need to begin to change our own identity, our own understanding of who we are. Europe is changing and changing fast. And will continue to change as long as people flee violence and oppression and seek a promised land. We need to become communities that welcome others, that can make space for different cultures and languages and faiths and that is a huge challenge when we know our communities can have many of their own problems.
It means sharing out the resources and each of us having a bit less. But you know, in doing so, we might just gain, might just receive a blessing of encountering another, a blessing from God.
Because until we do, the Israelites are left wandering in the wilderness and tens of thousands of refugees are left trapped in Greece. For only we the public can petition Governments and the EU to change policy. And only we the public can make our communities places of welcome and hospitality.
I wonder what would have happened in the Biblical story if the Israelites had never reached the promised land? If they were left still wandering in the wilderness …
Photos: Esme Allen and Clare McBeath