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Why are our migration officers “religiously illiterate”?

A recent op-ed by a theologian in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers describes the “religious illiteracy” with which the migration office here addresses the cases of asylum seekers who have changed religion since arriving in Sweden.

He argues that as a country which has religious freedom enshrined in its laws, and a high value for human rights, those who act as judges over the legitimacy of asylum applications should at least have basic competencies in understanding religion and religious journeys.

Unfortunately, it is usually the opposite, with migration officers having little more understanding of conversion processes than your average non-religious Swede.


At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 I carried out fieldwork among unaccompanied refugee minors who had converted to Christianity in the Church of Sweden.

In the lead up to this project, I had conversations with many friends and acquaintances on the research I would be doing and I noticed a surprising trend. Almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing:

“Aren’t they converting so that they can stay in Sweden?”

It didn’t matter where the person came from or what their level of academic expertise, the question seemed to come up in every conversation.

Over time, I began to feel outraged at this default assumption, since conversion journeys have been shown to be much more complex than this in both academic literature and my own experience.

The young men I interviewed and spent time with for my study struck me as more genuine than most young people of their age I had met from Europe. They were devoted members of their churches and had often been part of the churches for several years before they were able to be baptised and be considered officially part of the congregation. By the time they were baptised, many had already received their residency.

Some had been shunned by their families and friends because they had decided to convert. Some had faced persecution from people from their homelands within Sweden. And yet they stood by their decision.


Priests described how these young men had revitalised their ailing congregations. They were extremely committed and very serious about learning the Bible and putting it into practice.

One priest told me that working with these young men had given him a love for his job that he didn’t have before, that he now got to do the things that the church are meant to be doing.


All of this brings me back to an important point. We need to learn to listen to those we judge. To really listen.

And when we don’t understand what we hear, to spend time developing the competency we need to make sense of it.

Because in this situation lives depend on it. We can’t let illiteracy and incompetence lead to the pointless deaths of those who have embraced European life to the full, who have begun to believe that they can decide how they self identify.

I hope that the Swedish migration office heeds this advice and reconsiders how it judges cases of religious conversion.  

The agency of refugees

I wrote previously about two narratives that undermine the way in which we look at refugees: that they deserve help because they might be the next Steve Jobs, and that they should be viewed primarily as victims.

In this post I will point out why recognising and celebrating the agency of refugees could be beneficial to our societies, even when looked at from the political right.


Our European nation states are, by and large, organised according to Neo-liberal ideology, which sees the market as right, the state as better when smaller, and democracy as a worthy norm.

And when we talk about democracy from a Neo-liberal perspective, we’re not just talking about one-person-one-vote and the chance to elect any kind of government the masses desire, we’re talking about a very specific type of government.

It has to be a government that promotes the free market, eschews radical ideology and pushes forward ideals such as gender equality and human rights.

Typically, the further right you are economically, the more you trust the market. In fact, the market itself becomes more than just an economic matter as its rules are applied to everything – people, projects, etc.

Neo-liberalism sees the world as a competition. People compete for resources, the strongest win. It’s like political Darwinism. Those who acquire vast resources do so because they deserve them, because they have worked hard and earned them.

This worldview isn’t really compatible with the victim narrative because, deep down, those who view the world as a competition don’t necessarily believe that they have a duty to help those who are losing the game. When it’s a matter of she who plays best wins, the loser is losing because they’re not trying hard enough to win.


Right now I’m not going to get into the systemic violence which works against many who play the  game. Instead I want to suggest a refugee narrative that might work in a Neo-liberal context.

I want to suggest that we start looking at those who arrive at our borders seeking refuge not as victims, but as winners.

These are individuals who, in spite of having all the odds stacked against them, have made it to a more stable place. They have risked their lives. They have navigated unknown territories. They have been brave enough to leave behind everything they once knew.

They have just competed in one of the most grueling journeys that it is possible to take, and survived. 


If we learn to see these newcomers as intelligent, capable individuals who have already proven their ability to face challenges, we might just reduce the stigma of being labelled a refugee.

It might be easier for us to recognise that while there are ways in which they need help, there are also many ways in which they can help us, and many things which we can learn from them.

Dear Habib

I found this video earlier today that tells the story of Habib, an unaccompanied refugee minor from Afghanistan who now lives in Britain.

It reminds me of some of the young men I had the privilege of getting to know during the research for my master’s thesis.

Many have experienced great loss, risked everything, and faced many challenges since leaving their homelands. They arrive in Europe having invested a lot of their time, energy, and resources in getting here. 

And when they arrive, they are eyed with suspicion by many in society. They are asked to prove their age. They are assumed to be the same as that one person from their country who was in the news for doing something bad.

They are over-represented in the mental healthcare system because of the trauma they have experienced at home, and during their travels. 

And yet they persevere. They go to school, they work hard, they build new friendships, and they do their best to fit in.

What does it mean to belong?

There’s a lot of talk these days about belonging: who’s in and who’s out. Everyone seems to have an opinion. No one really knows who gets to decide.

For some, it’s the immigrants who don’t belong. They’re the outsiders who should go back to where they come from.

For others it’s the racists who don’t belong. Here in Sweden some politicians have articulated that racists are un-Swedish. They don’t belong. But if they don’t belong here, where should they go?

On the level of society, there tend to be two parts to the belonging conversation: immigration and integration. Immigration is about who, and how many should be allowed in. Integration is about how those who are allowed in become part of the bigger group: society.

But the question of integration is complicated, partly because those who have the power to make political decisions have never had to consider the process of joining society.

They were born into a family who already belonged. They learned how to belong simply by hanging out. The norms of society are their default settings, trained into them from birth.

Very few of those making the decisions about how integration should work are experts at integration. Those with immigrant histories are usually far enough removed from the integrational process that they might be considered not to have skin in the game themselves, even though their parents or grandparents did.

When you join a group, you do so by proving to the others in the group that you belong. That’s true of the political elite. To join them you prove to them that you can work together, that you know the rules of the game they are playing and that you can join in without causing too much disruption.

There are so many different ways of looking at what it means to integrate into society. Perhaps it means to learn the local language and get a job. Or maybe it’s to have a mixed group of friends that include those from the host culture. It could involve intermarrying, so that you have families that are blended into the host culture.

We should also ask on what level does integration happen? Is it something that takes place on a micro-level, when someone builds a friendship with one Swedish neighbour? Or is it about the macro-level, gaining citizenship and speaking the local language with a local accent?

Whose responsibility is this process? Should the host be the one accommodating newcomers, acclimatising them to life here? Or is it the responsibility of the newcomers to sink or swim as they try to assimilate?

There are so many areas of contention, so much uncertainty as to the basic definitions of the concepts surrounding belonging to society, that it’s no wonder that progress can be slow.

Are you a ________ or merely a consumer of ________ artifacts?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith encourages us to reflect on the religious nature of the shopping experience by describing the shopping mall as a place of worship:

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that harken back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces designed to absorb all kinds of religious activities […] As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms if we so choose. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through the labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure how it will be fulfilled, and so open to surprise, to that moment where the spirit leads us to an experience we couldn’t have anticipated […] And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. We are invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are invited to take. We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feeling or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible – with newly minted relics, as it were, which are themselves the means to the good life embodied in the icons who invited us into this participatory moment in the first place.

You Are What You Love, p43-45

He argues that the liturgies, or practices, of consumerism are religious activities which shape us in ways that we don’t easily recognise. And they don’t only inform how we relate to things, but how we build relationships and how we approach our spiritual lives.

The pervasive nature of consumerism is challenging because it exists on a level that we are barely aware of. Let’s take an example outside of traditional religious institutions. Let’s say that one day I decide to be a minimalist. The idea of reducing my belongings and the good that would do to my mental disposition and the environment far outweighs the comfort of buying more stuff. So what do I do? I find some blogs which talk about minimalism. I go and buy a book about it. I start choosing which furniture I will buy in my new style of apartment (Muji, maybe?) You see, although I am now a minimalist, I am a minimalist through the overarching system of consumerism – I only really know how to do minimalism as a consumer.

Another example. I decide that I want to be a Christian; that’s my new tribe. so what do I do? I go out and buy books about it. I buy myself a Bible, and an introduction to reading it. I find a book about prayer. I start going to church. In fact, I realise it’s not that simple: I need to find a church that suits my tastes. Does it have music I like? How about the teaching? Does it align with my view on scripture?

Do you see what I’m getting at? Because I am a consumer without even being aware of it, it is the disposition with which I approach all of life.

There are products made to cater to this disposition in every type of consumer imaginable.

Salafists who want to be like the original followers of Muhammad can listen to halal music, or put their money in Islamic bank accounts even though neither of these were present during the Golden Age of Islam.

Vegetarians like myself can buy books about not eating meat, or t-shirts supporting the cause.

None of these things actually make a person more authentically Muslim, or a more serious vegetarian. Having seven Bibles and all the latest Christian pop music doesn’t make me a better follower of Jesus.

But all these things can give a person trained to be a consumer the feeling of authenticity. And the alternatives to consuming our way to the identities we want can be demanding. Being a devout Muslim takes discipline and perseverance. Being a vegetarian means giving up meat. Being a minimalist means letting go of distractions and clutter, not replacing them with (appropriately branded) new distractions and clutter.

So how do we move away from consumerism? Smith suggests that we do it by developing practices (liturgies) that train us to approach the world differently.

If consumerism trains us to see ourselves and our personal gratification as the most important thing, we take on practices that train us otherwise.

The challenge is recognising the formative practices that we already participate in and beginning to imagine counter-practices.

On the death of Eugene Peterson

I’ve been able to identify two different ways in which I grieve the passing of Eugene Peterson from this world. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that he is one of my heroes. The second is the fact that while he leaves behind a legacy in the form of books, and disciples, the grounding influence of his presence on the church will be sorely missed.

Loss of a personal hero

Mentors come in many forms. Some are traditional, face-to-face relationships with someone who knows you well and invests in you personally over a period of time. Others write books or create other forms of media that speak to you in ways that are formative. We never meet them, but they still impact our lives for the better.

Eugene Peterson was one of the latter for me. I never knew him personally (though I would have liked to), but his writing about the pastoral life helped to shape me and how I see the spiritual life.

“Earthy” is probably the best word I’ve found to describe the kind of Jesus-follower Peterson was. He chose to never pastor a congregation that was too big for him to know all of their names. He was passionate about making the spiritual life something that people understood to belong “out there” in the world, not trapped inside a church building.

While it might not sound revolutionary, the life of Eugene Peterson was counter-cultural, even to the church. When everything was getting bigger and more “professional” and a famous pastor was more likely to invite an admirer to a conference he was speaking at than into his personal space, Peterson did the opposite. He made space for people, even inviting them to visit him at his home, to pray and eat with him.

He lived slow, had time for people, and practiced the Jesus life in a way that wasn’t distant and removed, but embedded in everyday practices.

The loss of a godly man of influence

When my grandfather died many years ago, it felt like part of the foundation of my life had been torn out. His presence on this earth was grounding, giving context to my own identity and journey.

While I’m not as personally attached to Eugene Peterson as I was to my grandfather, he is certainly one of the grandfathers of the faith for my generation. His presence grounding and his life an arrow pointing out an alternative to the distraction-filled, hyper consumptive lifestyle that has become so normative.

I’m sad for what it means for those of us who follow Jesus to no longer have Eugene Peterson around. We can no longer look to him as an example of what it looks like to live a life oriented on Jesus, an experienced sojourner on the Jesus path.

But his loss is also a challenge to those of us who put him on a pedestal and admired him from afar. Because we can embody the values he stood for and make them a reality in a world that so badly needs them. We can choose to go slow, to listen, and to embody the life of Jesus in the midst of this crazy world. 

When Bono met Eugene Peterson

Six of my favourite podcasts

Podcasts have been one of the ways I have learned about the world over the last few years while commuting or, in the early days of parenting, when I felt too tired to read. This is a short introduction to some of my favorite podcasts.

Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell looks back at stories from history, at something overlooked or misunderstood, and uses them as focal points for discussing something bigger. His recent series on memory was particularly engrossing.

Caliphate from Rukmini Callimachi at the New York Times looks at the rise of ISIS from the inside as she makes contact with a young man who spent time working as a member of the group’s religious police in Syria.

Where should we begin by Esther Perel is a podcast that takes you into the counseling room as a different couple in each episode participates in couples therapy. 

Philosophise This! by Stephen West attempts to give a succinct overview of the history of philosophy. Each episode focuses on a particular school of thought. This is a great way to get an overview of a philosophical concept before you read into it more deeply.

Desert Island Discs from the BBC is the podcast version of their long running interview show in which a well known person chooses eight songs and tells the story of their life. Often very insightful.

The Writer’s Voice is a podcast of short stories from the New Yorker. Read by the authors themselves and beautifully told. I love fiction, and it’s nice to be able to start and finish a story during a commute.

How about you? What are your favorite podcasts?

Deciding to hit publish

I have been on a writing journey.

Having blogged for many years, I started studying for my Master’s degree and began reflecting seriously on questions of source critique and academic authority.

I also hung around Twitter, watching the venom with which people pounce on the smallest mistake or slightest revelation of imperfection.

These two journeys side-by-side made me apprehensive about hitting publish. While I would draft several posts per month, I would rarely end up publishing them for fear of having selected my words poorly.

And now I’m realizing that it’s important to practice putting things out there. Even when they’re not perfect.

Even in a world which likes to pounce on our mistakes.

I’ve been inspired in this by Seth Godin and his challenge to post something every day, and also by Jason Evans whose blog I have followed since 2003 and who still posts regularly

There’s a bit of Boris in us all

Back in 1890, a young Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Burma. The poem, The Road to Mandalay, was written from the perspective of a British soldier once stationed there. The soldier reminisces about the place, an encounter with a local girl, and describes his surroundings with the kind of paternalistic grandeur of someone who believes his empire, the British Empire, to be the ultimate expression of civilisation.

The text is also dismissive of Burmese culture and religion:

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud 
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd

For Kipling’s soldier, this is an uncivilised, heathen place, albeit alluring.

Interestingly, Kipling only visited Burma once, for three days, on his way elsewhere, and he never visited Mandalay.

This lack of experience didn’t prevent him from becoming influential in shaping the perspective of his countrymen on the place. The words he penned on paper describing this destination he barely knew became a go-to text for understanding what Burma is like.

A 20-year-old shaping one people’s understanding of another.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson, who, on a recent trip to Burma, began reciting The Road to Mandalay at the site of a Burmese shrine, while a Channel 4 camera crew filmed him.

The UK’s foreign secretary reciting a poem praising colonialism and dismissing Burmese culture, at a Burmese shrine which he is being invited to visit by his gracious Burmese hosts.

Fortunately, Britain’s ambassador to Burma stopped him before he had a chance to complete his recital and embarrass the UK further, but the episode was a glimpse into the attitude that Johnson has towards the Burmese.

Just days later, at a Conservative Party Conference event, he commented on how the only thing getting in the way of a “wonderful” group of UK businessmen turning the Libyan town of Sirte into the next Dubai was the dead bodies that needed clearing out of the way.

For Johnson, it seems that the British Empire still stands, and he’s happy to brush aside any dead bodies or cultural inconveniences that get in his way.


But this post isn’t just about Boris and his blunders. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the very real ability that we each have to see people who are different from us as somehow less valuable than we are.

And how if we don’t pay careful attention, we can end up using other people’s small ‘incivilities’ as a way of building our own sense of superiority and worth.

In 1978 Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which looks at what happens when this natural human tendency becomes a system of thought. He demonstrates how literature and art shaped the way that Europeans understand ‘The Orient,’ and the effect that perspective has had on justice and international relations.

Orientalism in its essence is about seeing ‘Western’ culture as superior to other cultures, and the actions which accompany such a perspective.

One example from Said is how ‘oriental’ women are portrayed in colonial era literature. They are usually passive, rarely speak for themselves, and are usually there to serve the various appetites of the men around them.1)Orientalism, 1979: 187-188 They are objectified: helpless and inferior.

Said might argue that this way of understanding non-European women has paved the way for our attitudes towards them when they enter our societies. When it comes to discussions like enforcing a Burqa ban, the voices of the women who wear them are usually crowded out by those who choose to speak for them, in the name of justice.

While we would usually offer a European woman (in a similar scenario) the opportunity to explain why she dresses a certain way, the women of the Middle East are still seen as helpless and inferior.


From his many gaffes and blunders, it’s clear that Boris is something of an Orientalist. He adores Britain’s colonial era, and apparently has little respect for other cultures: Britain is best.

But this post isn’t just about Boris and how he is embarrassing the British people.

It’s about how easy it is to view others as inferior, and how much damage that can cause in a globalised world.

Because we each carry a bit of Boris inside us.

We’re all capable of dismissing people who are different from us as weird, uncouth, uncivilised, inferior.

It might be a neighbour. It could be a refugee. It could be someone who votes differently from ourselves.

And in coming to conclusions about people who are different from us before we’ve taken the time to get to know them, we carry perspectives about them which are, at best, naive, at worst entirely false. And we miss the opportunity to promote the kind of understanding upon which justice and change can be built.

(Image by Andrew Parsons)

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Orientalism, 1979: 187-188

What no one will tell you about the Couch to 5K running plan

The wind in my hair. A smile on my face. It was so perfect. Legs supple and strong, covering kilometres effortlessly thanks to my newly developed running skills. Waking up each morning with the urge to JUST DO IT – to get out there and pound pavement – because I had broken through and was now more runner than walker. A natural athlete. Perfect.

At least that’s how I pictured my last week of the Couch to 5K program before I set out. The nine week program promises to take absolute beginners and get them to the point where they can comfortably run five kilometres (just over 3 miles).

After the birth of our daughter in December, and the accompanying sleepless nights (as well as a sleep-deprivation-induced chain of colds), I knew I needed to get fit if I was to be in good mental and physical shape for my new role as a Dad.

I had tried C25K several times before, but two years living in Amman, Jordan, a city built on seven mountains with summer time temperatures of around 40 degrees celsius and cultural associations between running and lack of honour meant that I had all but given up.

But now I was back in Sweden, with no such excuses. So in January I committed to follow the full nine week plan.

The first weeks of C25K are very pleasant. Week one you alternate between one minute of running and ninety seconds of walking for twenty minutes. Week two follows the same rhythm but with longer intervals, ninety seconds running and two minutes walking. By week five you are running for twenty minutes without stopping, and this gradually increases until by week nine you can run for thirty minutes (an average of 5km).

I liked this slow build up because it meant that by the time I was running for longer periods of time, my muscles were ready for it. I didn’t experience the aches and pains I used to when I would run 5km after a long period without running. I was happy because I felt like I was becoming stronger.

However, I still felt worn out after each run and wasn’t waking up with that “I can’t wait to go running today” feeling.

Nonetheless, I persisted – cheered on by the voice of Radio One DJ Jo Whiley, who has replaced the encouraging but slightly less motivating voice of Laura from the first release of the app.

“By week nine, I will definitely be addicted to running,” I assured myself.

But even with the elation of finishing the nine weeks, I finished my last run worn out and didn’t feel more athletic.

That’s when I started talking to the runners I knew who have run half marathons and more. I even spoke to one friend who runs ultra marathons.

What they told me was very helpful: “you become addicted to running somewhere around 10 kilometres.”

All this time, I’d been thinking that the Couch to 5K would get me to that natural born athlete zone, when I actually needed a lot more kilometres under my belt to reach this point!

So I carried on. I increased my running from 5km to 6km, then from 6km to 7km, and now I regularly run 10km, sometimes more. The best part of this is that when I started running 8km and more, I started to feel better when I ran than when I didn’t! I had discovered the tipping point!

(image by Hernán Piñera)