4 min read

How a nation opened its arms to refugees

Fascinated by Polish hospitality extended to Ukrainian refugees, Tory Baucum delves into its nature.

Tory Baucum is the director of the Benedictine Center for Family Life, Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas.

A helper in a yellow vest reaches up to a open train carraige window while offering a bottle. The side of the carraige is covered in graffiti.
A Polish volunteer hands water to Ukrainian refugees at Przemyśl, Poland.
Mirek Pruchnicki, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

How does one explain three million refugees in Poland but not one refugee camp? Even the experts find it hard. Dr Marc Gopin of the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and a world expert on refugee crises, says in 30 years of work among refugees he has never seen anything like it.  

In December 2022 I was visiting early responders near the Ukrainian-Poland border. One man (whom I’ll identify as Slawomir) was particularly heroic in his efforts to whisk fleeing Ukrainians to safety. Upon introduction, he asked if I wanted to know how he did it. I replied,  

“What I really want to know is why? Why did you risk your livelihood, even your life, to rescue people whom you did not know? Indeed, even people with whom you share a hard and sometimes bitter history?”  

He had no answer. He could only manage a shrug and murmured,  

“I just had to.” 

This conversation, with variations, could be told repeatedly. By all the accounts I’m aware of Poles are acting inexplicably heroically. It merits investigation and understanding beyond the anecdotal.  

So why then has Poland played such a heroic role in this global crisis? 

One answer I’ve by given Poles, is that they have experienced what the Ukrainians themselves are now going through. Their own history of PTSD has primed them to empathize with effects of the shock and awe of an aggressor’s invasion - indeed, of Russian invaders. A scholar at the Jagillonian University said to me of their two 20th Century invaders - the Germans and Russians - most Poles preferred the Germans. Having just visited Auschwitz I found that incredible. “Oh, the Nazi’s were wicked, but they were civilized in their wickedness. Russians show no constraint whatsoever,” she said.  

Poles also know abandonment, such as when they fended for themselves as the neighbourhood bullies took turns pounding them. The 1944 Warsaw Uprising, ending in the razing of Warsaw, could have been averted if the West had intervened. But Poles were betrayed by those they believed were friends, or at least, allies. We weren’t. So, Poles are constitutionally unable to simply stand by and watch atrocities. But other European neighbours can and still do.  

So what makes the Poles’ response so extraordinary beyond its rarity?  

As we probe deeper - beyond collective experience - we hit Polish character. Character is durable. Ever since the late 18th century when Poland was partitioned by three neighbouring Empires (Prussian, Russian and Austria-Hungarian), Poles have been in survival or nearly survival mode. In the 1770s Swiss political theorist Jean Jacques Rosseau wrote an epistolary tract warning the Polish government that if these empires succeeded in “eating you then you must never let them digest you.” For nearly two hundred years the Poles learned that culture and faith keep a people together when even the state buckles. Culture and faith make a people indigestible. These lessons, learned in the crucible of multiple failed uprisings and even death camps, steel the Polish people to do the truly remarkable deeds the world now witnesses.  

Poland’s long partitioning and occupation baked in their collective experience. At his recent visit to Kyiv and Warsaw American President Joe Biden singled out the Poles for their heroism. It was a first in this particular crisis.  

But can we dig deeper still for an answer to why Poles have acted in such a remarkably generous manner?? For it’s not only singular and durable but it’s also a theological response. This answer requires a little history to absorb.  

Many Polish people possess a heroic - even radical - hospitality. The ultimate cause of Polish homes, hostels and hotels welcoming the stranger can be proffered: their faith in God. The Poles have a saying:  

“When a neighbour is under your roof then God is under your roof.” 

 In the 12th century Boleslav the Bold had Bishop Stanislav murdered while celebrating mass (let the English understand). The Poles turned against their king and embraced Stanislav as their martyr and patron. To be received back into the good graces of his people, Boleslav placed a Benedictine foundation in every Cathedral of the land. Rule 53 of Benedict’s Rule states that monks are to receive every stranger as Christ. The common saying of the Poles (if a neighbour is under your roof then God is under your roof) has its roots in this ancient act of royal penance. This Christian practice of hospitality was the core strategy of the Christianization of Poland. In the history of Benedictine evangelization through Christian hospitality we’ve finally hit the bedrock of the Polish response. 

They understand people need not only justice but also transcendence in order to flourish. Or even survive.

However, it would be a stretch to say the Poles’ extraordinary response to their neighbours in need of shelter is simply the triumph of the distinct Benedictine character or even more genetically of Catholic sensibilities. Nothing this complex is that simple. All these factors are integrated in this moment. But after five visits to Poland since the third day of the initial invasion, I’ve concluded the Poles are, by and large, a uniquely virtuous people. Not morally virtuous - original sin is distributed evenly, even amongst Poles. But they are theologically virtuous: they are people shaped by faith, hope and love. They understand people need not only justice but also transcendence in order to flourish. Or even survive. 

Their great 20th Century saint, Pope John Paul II, during the Stalinist occupation, taught them the practices of Domestic Church. The domestic church is nothing less than the family faced outward in love. Christianity began as a domestic movement. Writing to residents of Rome, St Paul greets the Christians who gather weekly in each other’s homes). In moments of great distress Christians have been known to revert to these root realities, these primal instincts. Not always, of course. But in February of 2022 and for the many following months they have. In Poland.  

We are sitting on the most amazing story the world has mostly not heard about. I’m grateful to tell the world what I’ve seen unfold before my very eyes. I wish my telling was adequate to the Poles’ heroism. For as they modestly tell it “we just have to.”  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?