Forced to prove the reality of faith

I have just, for the umpteenth time, written a letter in support of one of our member’s application for UK asylum. I have, once again, felt the overwhelming crushing futility of it all.

The system, so far as I can tell, seems deeply flawed. Those claiming asylum on grounds of Christianity are almost always rejected out of hand if a minister doesn’t support the case and confirm ongoing church attendance. For those who do receive a letter, ministers are typically treated as sincere yet deluded. Sometimes, that is sadly true.

In writing the letter, one is conscious of the sort of questions and lines of attack typical of the Home Office. In essence, they want to know if you can, 100% with no shadow of a doubt, confirm that this person is a true believer. Of course, nobody can give that sort of assurance about anybody else; I no more have a window onto the soul than the judge or the Home Office representative.

What is more, we typically run with the same sort of scepticism evinced in the Home Office questioning. We too spend a lot of time wondering whether this person is genuine or whether they are simply seeking to get some baptism pictures to bolster their claim. The sole difference between us and the Home Office is that we have seen these people – week by week, day by day – living out their lives. We can offer a better window into the evidence of belief than a Home Office rep tasked with ripping apart the applicant’s story, no matter how credible.

Unfortunately, we all also know that someone can come to church week by week, engage in evangelism and appear godly for the most worldly of reasons. Plenty of white Brits have sat unconverted in churches for years because of what they get out of the church. Whilst this shows it isn’t a problem unique to asylum seekers, it also makes the question of genuine conversion much harder. If indigenous folk with less reason to attend do so for the most selfish of motives, how are we to judge those who have a glaringly obvious reason to attend?

For this reason, some churches have taken the view that they will not baptise or bring into membership anybody who is awaiting a decision from the Home Office. We have eschewed this position for the simple reason that we refuse to let the UK government act as de facto arbiter of which people can join the church and when they should be permitted to do so. But stories abound of people with credible testimonies, evidenced by longstanding works that appear to be genuine fruit of the Spirit, suddenly upping sticks and leaving the church the moment a positive decision lands in writing on their doorstep. Such people ruin the credibility of churches and ministers standing up for them and do great harm to anybody else seeking asylum, especially those seeking to do so on the basis of conversion to Christianity.

Then there are the guys who claim to be believers who, in time, make it apparent to us that they are not. Whilst nobody else’s fault but their own, and we may not have supported their case, they cause us to be wary of anybody else claiming asylum. There is a constant question mark over those who are awaiting Home Office decisions. Are they jumping through the necessary hoops so that we will lend extra weight to their case? We are faced with something of a Perseverance of the Saints situation. The only guarantee we have that these guys are believers is that they stay with us – or continue with the Lord in another church if they move on – after they have received a positive decision. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

But what do we say to the Home Office? Can I guarantee these guys are Christians? Of course I can’t, any more than you can. Can I suggest, based on the evidence we have, these guys are Christians? Yes. But what evidence do we have to offer? Understanding of the gospel, credible testimony and a desire to obey Christ and serve in the church.

Can you imagine suggesting to any other new convert that they must prove their faith is genuine to us by doing a load of stuff? It is a recipe for legalism and/or fraudulent claims to conversion. Moreover, unlike others who seek baptism and membership, there is a blindingly obvious reason for asylum seekers to try and pull the wool over our eyes. Our only certainty rests in their continued presence with us after a positive decision from the court, much like our only real certainty with any believer is that they continued with Christ until the end.

For these reasons, the testimony of a minister is often batted away. We, it is argued, are more concerned with fluffing our membership numbers than we are genuine belief. That is not the case in churches such as ours where proper discipline exists and people are occasionally removed from membership. Likewise, they think us simple folk who – whilst well-meaning – are too naive to understand that bad people exist and might try to dupe us. As a theologically Calvinistic church, we couldn’t have any concept of Total Depravity. What is more, the Home Office – it is supposed – as a result of reading a story on paper usually written in haste in the aftermath of fleeing a country of birth, know the applicant so much better than we who have lived with them over months and years. More weight is generally put on Christian trivia – often from theological traditions that have absolutely no bearing on our own – than any sense of understanding the gospel or concept of faith worked out in practice.

Most perturbingly, the Home Office regularly try to have their sceptical cake and eat it. Those who don’t engage in evangelism are generally considered to be faking conversion, or at the least able to be a ‘secret Christian’, and thus be safely returned home. Those who do engage in evangelism are deemed to not be scared of sharing their faith – particularly in an area like ours full of Muslim people – and thus cannot be that troubled at the prospect of danger and can thus be sent home. Those who don’t have the support of a minister can’t be genuine because they have no religious ‘expert’ affirming it; those who do have the support of a minister are just duping an unsuspecting do-gooder and it counts for nothing. Those who do nothing in the church can’t be genuine because there is no outworking of their faith; those who do serve in the church aren’t genuine because they know it’s a hoop they must jump through. There are no end of the ways people can be interpreted as simply faking conversion.

In the midst of all this, there are people who genuinely do love the Lord Jesus and have left everything they have ever known in order to escape imprisonment, torture and/or death. It makes one so angry at the chancers who, through their fraudulent claims to faith, make everyone suspicious of all who cite faith as a basis for seeking asylum. They destroy the credibility of churches and ruin the chances of their compatriots seeking safe haven in this country. What is more, they make sceptics out of all of us.

Nietzsche famously averred, ‘I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t  believe you’. In asylum cases, when people lie to us it means we can’t believe them and we struggle to believe anybody else under the same circumstances too. We are then forced to embroil ourselves in fresh handwringing – do we wait until people have their asylum to baptise and bring into membership? Whether we do or don’t, do we support anyone seeking asylum? If we do, how do we evidence it?

In the end, we can only offer the evidence we’ve got. We can only say what we have witnessed and seen. We, like the courts, will get it wrong some of the time. We can only seek to make sure that we have systems robust enough to, on some level, weed out those who would pull the wool over our eyes. Those same systems should be the ones governing entrance to church membership for all; asylum seeker and non-asylum seeker alike.

You may be thinking – in your predominantly white British church – this has nothing to say to you. The question for you, as for us, is how robust are your systems? How confident are you that your members are, in actuality, Christian people? Tim Farron, in his recent theos talk, reiterated the old challenge: if Christianity were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Just as our asylum seekers have to ‘prove’ the truth of their faith, and we must offer evidence on their behalf, what evidence have you got – church leader – that the people in your church truly trust in Christ?