- 05 Dec 14
Just because December 25 is upon us doesn’t mean the season of peace and goodwill to all is here. In fact, if you look closely you will see the picture is very different.
Hog Tower is a haven for atheists, for unbelievers, for infidels. That being so, rather than Christmas, we mark and celebrate midwinter. Partly this derives from our belief system, partly it’s a rejection of religious devotion and partly it’s a reaction to the crassness of much of modern Christmas.
And yet, we acknowledge much common ground. We don’t mind being wished a happy or merry Christmas. We can delve into the spirit of things. Life’s too short to be sour, trust me.
We also acknowledge the power of the original Christian nativity myth. Forget the hosts of angels and wandering kings. The core is compelling: a poor family, outsiders, the husband is not the father of the child, they pitch up in a crowded town and can find nowhere to stay and where the mother might give birth. They are not homeless, but as the child is born they have to take refuge in a cattle shed.
Not surprisingly, people connect their plight, all of two millennia ago, with that of those who sleep rough on our own streets and in our parks today, tonight, tomorrow, next week. It’s not just about poverty and exclusion either. To sleep in a barn nowadays is luxurious compared with the doorways and alleys of our city streets and a great deal less risky.
Statutory and voluntary homeless services are at the pin of their collective collars. But it’s not enough. That is, it’s not enough to counter the range of forces – mental health issues, drugs and alcohol, economic ruin, family breakdown – that are driving homelessness.
The most senior decision-makers talk constantly of “joined-up thinking”, as though this is what’s missing and would, if practised, solve the problem. They fail to understand that joined-up action is far more necessary and that this follows from firstly, a broad social consensus and secondly, a consequent understanding of how policies and actions intersect with and influence each other.
For example, while the policy of moving mental health patients out of hospitals and into community support looks good, without necessary supports the patients are likely to slip backwards.
The very high levels of metal health problems among the homeless (and among drug abusers too, the two groups overlapping to a large degree) mean that housing and mental health services need to be entirely in synch. But they aren’t.
Far starker challenges arise when we turn to the issue of migration into Europe. So how then do we square Ireland and Europe’s response firstly to migration in general and secondly to the humanitarian crisis constantly washing up on beaches in Greece, Spain and, especially, Italy?
European countries have, to a disgraceful degree, averted their gaze from what is happening in these countries. There’s a vast tide of humanity trying to make it to what is perceived as the safety of Europe and especially the United Kingdom. They come from the east and the south, driven by war, famine, disease, despair – and hope.
There are parallels elsewhere – the US border is the destination for those moving northward from south and Central America, as Australia is for those fleeing east from Afghanistan and other Asian war zones.
Few appreciate the scale of the problem and therefore the extent of what first receiver countries do. For example, writing in the Guardian some weeks ago, Emma Graham-Harrison noted that in 2014 alone more than 3,000 people died in the Mediterranean, after boats capsized. In addition, tens of thousands have been rescued by a huge Italian navy operation.
That Italian operation is being wound down and they are demanding that the rest of Europe share the burden. It is a fair request. But right now The EU has only seven boats and three aircraft to cover almost three million square kilometres.
Instead of squaring up to the problem, many European countries do the opposite. Britain, for example, announced (on October 27) that it will not contribute to any rescue effort because doing so only encourages more people to set sail. This echoes the Australian response to asylum seekers and that of the US which is, strange as it might seem, much more draconian than ours. Which is saying something. Our system is massively dysfunctional. Asylum seekers are left in limbo for unconscionable lengths of time.
Other than traffickers, nobody wants to actually encourage asylum seekers to risk life and limb to get to our shores, but when they do arrive they deserve to encounter a system that is compassionate and efficient. That they don’t makes a mockery of our inflated self-regard as generous donors. Charity begins at home.
This must all be set against the increasingly sinister developments across Europe manifest in the rise of Ukip, Marie le Pen in France and anti-immigrant and racist parties. All these profess to espouse traditions and old ways of life and bemoan the fact that Europe has open borders.
One is consistently struck by the fact that those who are most vehement about immigration in general are also the most religiously conservative, that is, the most likely to assert their Christianity and reference Europe’s Christian heritage as a basis on which to resist or restrict immigration. Well, as well as having been homeless, the first Christian family were migrants, were they not? They were refugees as well, when they fled into Egypt.
Emma Graham-Harrison ends her report on the Italian sea mission to rescue trafficked migrants with a quote from Fabio Dimaggio, a pizza chef on the island of Lampedusa. He used to work in a centre for new migrants and is enraged by the indifference of politicians. “What do they mean to do? They mean to let people die in the Mediterranean sea like birds or animals? Well, I don’t agree with that.”
Atheists we may be here in Hog Tower, but we’ve no problem in saying amen to that.