This evening, Michael Scott brought to an end his short history of Sicily on BBC4. Subtitled The Wonder of the Mediterranean, it is a treasure of a program. Amongst many other wonderful things, was this quote from an elderly Sicilian academic talking about the fact that Sicily has, without making much of a fuss about it, and exhibiting not much in the way of intolerance, taken in 400,000 immigrants from North Africa in recent years, simply out of a humanitarian desire and because they were asked to by the Italian government.
Also, of course, because the Sicilian island of Lampedusa is stop number one for Tunisian and Libyan migrant boats. But in challenging the attitude from some Italian politicians for whom fear is a weapon to stir up intolerance, he said this:
Welcome is the best guarantee of safety.
There is something so profound about this that it forced me, immediately, to ponder it. It raised a whole range of questions about ourselves, myself, my attitudes, and about the cultural position of welcome in the UK. Welcome is quite a conditional thing with us. It can be summed up, probably, in Mrs Ogmore Pritchard’s quote in Under Milk Wood: “Before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes.” Standards, usually our own economic standards are placed at a higher level than our common humanity. I hope that this is not the case, but the evidence rather suggests that it is.
Scott’s program highlighted the pride that Sicilians take in learning from each of the migrations that have flooded across the island – Greek, Roman, Punic, Arabic, Norman, Spanish and Italian. There appears to be a rich awareness of the range of what it means to be Sicilian and therefore an appreciation of a wide variety of Sicilian-ness. This obviously helps them appreciate the newcomer as somebody to be learnt from. Sure, the Mafia and others despicably use the migrants and not everything in their experience is good, by any means. But to live out a culture that welcomes the stranger first and asks questions later, seems to me to be a godly thing, a mark of holiness in Leviticus 19:33-34:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
Welcome as safety…this should, if adhered to carefully, provide safety for the foreigner (see the provisions made in the rest of Leviticus 19) and for ourselves, because it makes us more open hearted toward the stranger, which in turn lays siege to our self-centredness and (here’s the rub) pride. Oh no, we say, we have not been invaded for nearly 1000 years. We are an island race, we say. We have the sea to protect us and keep us separate from Europe….
But what if we had been invaded repeatedly since then? What if that helped us appreciate the people we really were? What if we revised our Whig view of history and began to see how influenced we actually have ben by other cultures and nations?
Welcome as a means to our own safety has much to offer us. Brexit came about partly because although the perception of open borders was very strong, the welcome offered to those who had come was very weak, and therefore we began to feel unsafe. The fact that Angela Merkel opened her borders to so many migrants in 2013-2015 worked because they were welcomed. New problems arose, but every German friend I have spoken to about this, talks of the sense of welcome – the pride they had – in being a host to so many people.
This is not the whole answer to these difficult questions, but an open welcome to migrants seems to be one answer, which, if we get it right, will mitigate the negative responses to other, harder questions to come.