Beautiful Resistance: Immigration Ethics, Arts Projects and Spiritual Life

Image by Ethan Eddins (unsplash.com)

Susanna Snyder is Assistant Director of Catherine of Siena College, and Tutor in Theology at the University of Roehampton

In this post she discusses her research exploring the connections between Immigration Ethics, Arts Projects and Spiritual Life

Migration is an inescapable contemporary reality, and people across the globe—from migrants and those who seek to support them to politicians and border enforcement agencies—are grappling with their responses to this reality. There are currently around 244 million international migrants, including over 65 million forcibly displaced people. We’re probably all familiar with a range of contrasting images in the media. On the one hand, we see harrowing photographs of Syrian refugees making treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean in leaking rubber dinghies—women, children and men desperate to escape violence, and to find food and shelter. On the other hand, we’re presented with pictures of Nigel Farage in front of the infamous “Breaking Point” Brexit campaign posters or Donald Trump on the 2016 presidential campaign trail promising to build a great wall along the US-Mexico border—glimpses of rising anti-immigrant hostility.

I’ve been working on issues of migration and asylum for thirteen years, looking at the practical, ethical and theological responses of Christian communities to those seeking protection—and I have been involved in a voluntary capacity in standing alongside migrants and refugees in both the UK and US. I’ve recently undertaken a research project, funded by the Southlands Methodist Trust, that has sought to explore the connections people experience between their responses to immigration, the arts and spiritual beliefs and practice. How, I’ve been wondering, can the arts affect people’s responses to migration? Do these responses have anything to do with people’s spiritual-religious identities, beliefs and practices?

The impetus for this research project came from a couple of different realisations. First, I had begun to notice over the past few years a burgeoning of arts-related projects relating to migration. Some of these were local; some had international profile and generated controversy. You may remember Ai Weiwei’s giving out of foil emergency blankets at a celebrity gala—which led to a splash of selfie photos plastered across social media or his posing as Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, in a photograph. Or, you may have seen Banksy’s murals on this theme.

Second, I noticed that most Christian calls for responses to migrants had largely been word-based and drawn on deontological or duty-based claims—for example, the command to care for the alien (Leviticus 19:33-34) or to offer hospitality (Hebrews 13:2)—and narrow readings of Matthew 25: `When I was a stranger, you welcomed me’. And while important to outline clear moral teaching, this approach alone has increasingly seemed inadequate as a way to stimulate and sustain compassionate responses to migrants. Telling people what to do—preaching at them—can be dry or come across as judgmental, and all too often action on migration (and other social issues) is encouraged as an add-on to being a Christian rather than a constitutive part of Christian spiritual life.  By contrast, in my own experience, I have increasingly found the links between social action, the arts and spirituality to be palpable and powerful.

So, with funding from the Southlands Methodist Trust, I decided to engage in a qualitative study drawing on ethnographic methods to investigate how other people understood the links between their responses to migration, the arts and spirituality. I viewed, visited and engaged with a range of arts-based projects—from plays to exhibitions to participatory workshops—in 2015-2017, and interviewed 22 people to learn from their experiences and perspectives.  One example was Sea of Colour, by Güler Ates, composed of children’s clothing sewn onto a large piece of fabric; it hung in the Salvation Army Headquarters in London as part of a Stations of the Cross exhibition in 2016. Interviewees including migrants and non-migrants; artists, musicians, poets and theatre-producers; religious leaders and congregation members, and those working in migrant support non-profits.

I have started analysing the data I have gathered, and am noticing some interesting threads. People have talked about how the projects they’ve been involved with have been intended to and did shock them into engaging with the suffering of migrants more deeply. They’ve talked about how engaging in participatory arts has been an important space to process difficult experiences. They’ve talked about how they’re trying to build new intercultural community and to break down barriers through the arts. People have also talked about some of the challenges and dangers that engaging with the arts in relation to migration can present.

I am learning much, and now have work to do bringing their perspectives and what I have experienced myself into conversation with insights from theology and Christian ethics, aesthetic theory, moral psychology, migration studies and studies on social action. What I am already clear about is that there is much to be said for—and much need for—beautiful resistance.