Earlier this year I visited Sutton Hoo, a series of ancient burial mounds in eastern England, yet somewhere that was as rich in stories as Stonehenge or the famous Somerset Roman baths and that made me think a lot about immigration, a massive issue in the UK recently, as seen by Brexit.
The story of Sutton Hoo is around the arrival to England of Germanic Anglo-Saxon immigrants post-Roman Empire and how they established kingdoms there to rule the existing inhabitants, assimilating them into Germanic ways. Sutton Hoo, as one place where such rulers were buried, tells that they stayed until they died, subsequently irreversibly changing the language and culture that existed before they came, with effects to this day. In terms of English history (in the strictest sense), it’s pretty close to Year Zero. Yet this ancient tale of Germanic invaders overtaking England had particular resonance at the time it was discovered as a significant site. It was summer 1939, just weeks before outbreak of World War Two!
The original Sutton Hoo had been a series of burial mounds of Anglo-Saxon kings, containing vast treasures to accompany them into afterlife. Most were looted in Tudor times but one remained untouched. The reason why is interesting, but doesn’t set a good example. Looters excavated into the centre of each mound, where they knew the treasure was placed. However with this mound, a former farmer had ploughed through its end, thus reducing its length, giving looters the wrong spot to dig. The treasure was missed by a few feet and is now well worth seeing in the British Museum. I don’t normally encourage cultural vandalism but this time it worked!
What did I learn about immigration? There were two principles, one may please the Brexiteers and the other, more so the Remainers. But we need both for balance:
Firstly, for Remainers, the idea that any peoples own a country is only an illusion. Before the Anglo-Saxons, there were Celts and Roman Britons and before them, undoubtedly others. I’m sure each felt aggrieved when one group came in and took over what was theirs, yet in time, it is all forgotten. Thus there is no basis to say that a particular country belongs to “us”. From a faith perspective it reminds me of Psalm 24, that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…”; ultimately it is God’s and we have no right to any part of it above anyone else. The land we “own” is here for sharing.
But for Brexiteers comes the next part of the Psalm: “…the world and all its people belong to him”. When one people comes and reduces or removes the culture of another, then something of value is lost, a loss to us all of a gift to us all. From a faith perspective, that gift is from God. Immigration can be enriching, as seen in the new foods it introduces, but not if it is at the expense of existing cultures. I like what I hear of the German approach, placing refugees in small towns to build relationships with local people, rather than being in self-contained communities in cities with little contact with locals. Brexiteers may say that this shows that immigration must be controlled. This has not always been so before, which makes it important to connect potentially self-contained communities and older cultures around them, to reduce fear and mistrust in each. This work can benefit us all.
These principles make me feel a bit uncomfortable, that things are not as certain as I would like; neither are they easy to implement. But the rest of this Psalm gives me hope. It describes how any people can have access to God, regardless of nationality, even though written in pretty nationalistic times. For me, it is this that gives me grace to work together with and appreciate cultures that may be very different to my own.