Thursday, January 28, 2016

Refugees and Cultural Clashes: The German Experience


Cultural clashes are well known to all of us. One does not have to travel very far from home to experience cultural clashes. Sometimes one can experience such clashes with a next door neighbor who hails from another country. Fifty percent of the population of Toronto, for example, was not born in Canada and thus clashes happen. Cultural clashes can even happen within a marriage.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that refugees experience cultural clashes, and that these clashes can have serious consequences for both the host culture and the refugees themselves. What can be done about such clashes? They may be inevitable, but how do we avoid disastrous consequences or, at the very least, mitigate them?

On New Year's Eve, more than 1,000 migrants, many of whom were able to speak German, sexually assaulted many German women outside the main train station in Cologne, Germany. Dozens of women were molested and, reportedly, raped, and dozens of men were assaulted and robbed.

One victim, 28 year old 'Katja L' described how she, together with two other girls and a boyfriend, tried to make their way out of the railway station when they was met by a group of "exclusively young foreign men." She explained what happened:
We then walked through this group of men. There was an alley through [the men] which we walked through. Suddenly I felt a hand on my buttocks, then on my breasts, in the end, I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and beat them, the guys did not stop. I was desperate and think I was touched around 100 times in the 200 meters. Fortunately I wore a jacket and trousers. a skirt would probably have been torn away from me.

The Cathedral (center) and the Main Train Station (right) in Cologne

Katja L, and other witnesses who have since come forward, said the men laughed, pulled hair, hurled shouts of "ficki, ficki" (fucky fucky) at them, and called them "sluts." There had been so many men groping her, she added, that she would have been unable to positively identify any of the perpetrators to the police.

Even though the area in front of the railway station was comprehensively monitored by CCTV, and having thousands of potential suspects, A few days later, Cologne police arrested five men, but it was not clear that they were connected with the earlier crimes.

The police were severely criticized after it emerged that just ten officers had been dispatched to the station after the report of a sex assault in the early hours of the morning. As well, there were unverified accusations of officers ridiculing victims for not having been vigilant enough to avoid being attacked.

Many people accused the national media of engaging in a cover-up due to the ethnic background of the criminals, with many pointing to the fact that the details of the story did not reach national and international attention for several days.

According to the police, "The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world." But the police also insisted that many of the men had been known to them for some time and that they were not a group of newly-arrived refugees.


Some Germans later worried that the attacks would lead to a backlash against refugees. On Twitter, one wrote, "it makes me sad that the refugees who really need protection will bear the brunt of the hatred because of Cologne. We need to be able to tell the difference."

Official figures suggest that refugees are no more likely to commit sexual crimes than other sections of the population. But there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence of sexual crimes committed by new arrivals bubbling up from Germany's regional media.

In November, a club in Bavaria started turning refugees away after a string of complaints of sexual harassment from female clients. In Baden-W├╝rttemberg, one hospital has hired guards to protect nurses who feel intimidated by the refugees they treat.

The Woman’s Council in Hesse claimed in an open letter to the state parliament in September that they have substantial evidence of sexual abuse, including forced prostitution, in refugee shelters. In North Rhine-Westphalia police reportesdly covered up the rape of a 13-year-old girl by a refugee. Authorities have been accused of playing down or even hiding cases of rape at refugee shelters.

According to the German daily Die Welt, most of the crimes committed by refugees are related to travelling on public transport without tickets or theft. Less than 1 percent of the total crimes committed by refugees are sex crimes, contradicting rumors that these have become more common with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees. However, the rate of crime in refugee reception centers has gone up quickly.

The choice facing Merkel

The seriousness of the crime in Cologne and the fact that it has happened to German women rather than refugees could signal a change in the national discussion. A friend who lives in Germany clarifies the problem posed by the newly-arrived refugees.

Over 1 million refugees were admitted to Germany in 2015.  Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is confident that her country can survive this influx. Wir schaffen es! she said (We will make it!). She is under pressure to better control the borders in order to limit refugees, improve processing, integration, and repatriation. Merkel wants to maintain her stand to keep the border open, although she is in favor of reducing the overall numbers by repatriating economic and criminal refugees.  

With increasing numbers of refugees and cultural clashes that followed, fear has overtaken discomfort for some Germans. Recently one town’s swimming pool was temporarily closed to recent refugees in order to protect female bathers. There is now more pressure to disclose the more frequent sexual attacks in and around refugee accommodations. 

Germany has faced the problem of integration before. In the 60s Germany employed Turkish guest-workers who were largely Muslim. Many of these men did end up staying, and bringing their families into the country. Although Muslims and Germans did business together, integration was not achieved. Multiculturalism was declared a failure and proclaimed dead.

Merkel is now renewing efforts to bring about integration. This includes a better understanding of German rules and practices by Muslims. Programs are in place at the aforementioned swimming pool and in other places. But will merely understanding these rules and practices be enough to change their behavior?


No to racism and no to sexism, reads this sign in front of the train station in Cologne

According to my friend, multiculturalism in Germany has not failed entirely. She cites the 100,000 Hindus living in Germany who also experience cultural clashes, yet many do want to integrate. In contrast, one journalist question to intention of some Muslims: 
While the main activity of the Hindu societies in Germany consists in advancing integration, the main activity of Islamic counterparts in the German-speaking world is to repeatedly ... demand more respect for Islam.
Mutual respect is a prerequisite for a peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society. The question is: Does Islam promote and generate mutual respect? If it doesn't, then the incidents in Cologne and other German cities will multiply until Germans finally toss out all Muslims, just as some presidential candidates in the US have already threatened to do.

But Germans still want to try integration. Some have organized programs that, by way of role-playing and discussion, challenge machismo, instruct in sexual moral conduct with women, and question the notions that Muslim men grew up within their the culture from which they stem. These programs are intended to facilitate the integration of new asylum seekers and refugees. Such programs are a start, but more is needed.

From the Muslim side, there must be a willingness to adapt to the host culture and try to integrate in the country that they and their children now call home. That means, among other things, that they no longer perceive of all Western women as "sluts" whom they can use as they want. Sexual harassment is a crime in Western countries, and such behavior is no longer tolerated whether in public or in private.


"What would have become of the small Aylan had he grown up?" asks  the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, with the cruel and insulting answer at the bottom: "ass groper in Germany"

One more point, the media must no longer attempt to cover up such behavior even at the risk of being termed "racist." Only racists pretend not to see racism. Instead, the media should do their duty and speak to truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

Then and only then can Western countries begin to deal with the cultural clashes that an influx of refugees makes inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is that these clashes drive the host cultures and the refugees further apart. 

Behavior, such as happened in Cologne on New Year's Eve, cannot be tolerated. All of us need to work together to end such behavior and create a new culture where such clashes no longer happen. That means a form of integration in which all cultures learn to accept and respect each other. 

Germany is not the only country that has this problem, but it has accepted more refugees than any other Western nation., which only serves to intensify an already tense situation. Merkel has done a remarkable job of dealing with the problem in the aftermath of the Cologne assaults, although she has been criticized from all sides.

Other Western countries can learn from the German experience, both positively and negatively, especially those have admitted a large number of refugees. Canada, which has an official policy of multiculturalism, can also offer its experience. Cultural clashes will contunue as long as there are refugees, but the effects can be mitigated. The goal, eventually, should be to integrate refugees to such an extent that extreme cultural clashes, such as the one in Cologne, become a thing of the past.
     

Friday, January 22, 2016

Generous Orthodoxy: Living our Faith



We all know the type: people who believe that they, and only they, are right. In addition, they use their faith to justify their behavior. These people are found everywhere: among people of every faith and, indeed, every branch of every faith, as well as among those who insist they have no faith at all.

The question is: how can we deal with such people -- those who claim that their belief is right and permits them to do whatever they want? Don't we all believe that our faith is the correct one? And doesn't our faith influence our behavior? The issue here, however, is the misuse of faith.

Examples of such misuse abound. A short list would include jihadists such as the Islamic State who kill in the name of Allah because their interpretation of the Quran mandates death for infidels and even Muslims who stand in the way of resurrecting the caliphate. There are other groups as well, notably al-Qaeda, and indeed, many more. Violence is characteristic of all these groups.

On that list, there would also be Christians ranging from some who would kill so-called abortionists for the sake of protecting the lives of the unborn to others who have such an implacable hatred of President Obama that they reject all his policies out-of-hand to yet others who hate homosexuals and Muslims, not necessarily in that order. Again, the lives of many such groups are marked by violence.

Hindus, Jews, even Buddhists have also been known to kill people of other faiths or even their own. Atheists deserve to be listed as well since they are not immune from killing either or from expressing their disdain of those who disagree with their agenda. Every religion, it seems, has its violent, extreme fringe.


Admittedly, these are extreme examples, but others that are closer to home can be adduced as well. Racists can be found everywhere in the world, as can people who are sexist or who reject others for other reasons. All of them are convinced that their beliefs are justified and correct, and many are not afraid of using violence.

How should we deal with such people, who seem thoroughly reprehensible? One can argue with them, but they will refuse to budge from their iron-clad convictions. Yet there are others who are not quite as objectionable and yet remain unshaken in their beliefs, whether it is about the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, gun-control, or whatever, including their political stance.

The solution I suggest is this: "generous orthodoxy." The term is not original with me. In fact, it stems from a quotation by Hans Frei, an American postliberal theologian who taught at Yale University: "Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing." 

Frei's comment has been critiqued for its limitation of true generosity to those who espouse "orthodoxy," but I doubt that was Frei's intention. It is the second part, however, that intrigues me. If we want to be "orthodox," we must also be "generous." That is a thought that we can all learn from.


The term itself later became the title of a book by Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, in which the author does not try to establish what is and is not "orthodox." Instead, he draws the reader toward a way of living that looks beyond the divisive "us/them" paradigm to the unitive "we."

While McLaren restricts himself to applying this term to Christian theology, I prefer to apply it to the life of every person of faith, whether Christian or not, although my focus is especially on Christians who claim to be orthodox, however that term may be defined.

The word orthodoxy (Greek for "right belief") has acquired many negative connotations. In Western culture, orthodoxy sounds restrictive and unimaginative at best, and oppressive and tyrannical at worst. But it does not have to mean that.

We cannot do without orthodoxy. Orthodoxy exists so that we have a way of testing everything else against it. For this reason, the orthodox faith, at least in the Christian context, should by definition always be generous just as God is generous. Only then does it become a true standard. God is love, and he requires us, in turn, to love others. That is the true measure of orthodoxy.


Christian orthodoxy, therefore, should not be narrow or restrictive but it must always be marked by a generous loving spirit, one that is never fearful but is open to others. The same thing ought to be true of the orthodoxy of other faiths.

Orthodoxy has its counterpart in orthopraxy (Greek for right living). They are two sides of the same coin. If we combine "generous orthodoxy" and orthopraxy, we get a fuller idea of how all people of faith should live.

Right living demands some form of generous orthodoxy. Thus, to be right living, the lives of everyone should be permeated by love and give expression to that love. Generous orthodoxy ought to result in right living. Those who want to practice right living should first adopt generous orthodoxy. 

Those who claim to be orthodox must demonstrate that claim by living generously, that is in a loving manner. If they practice right living, there are some major implications. Here I mention only a few of the most obvious ones. There are many, many more that could be added.


There is no room for any form of violence, much less killing. People who call themselves Christians should not be carrying guns wherever they go, especially not to church. If fact, they should not possess guns at all, except possibly for sport. But that is questionable if it includes killing helpless animals. That too is violence against creatures that God has made.

There is also no room for the lack of charity that persists between denominations or within them. The language that is often used and the suspicion that reigns between various factions of churches is not only inappropriate but much more a denial of the unity that they enjoy in Christ.

A similar remark can be made about the divisions that exist within Islam, Judaism, and other religions. Even more serious is the warfare that has been waged in the past between different faiths and that continue to be waged. There is no place for Islamophobia and Semitism in the lives of people of faith, nor should groups within each faith attack each other whether with hateful words or, even worse, weapons that maim and kill. Hatred spews out of their mouths.

In the public square, people of faith must be equally circumspect. The sort of language that some of the Republican candidates for the presidency have been using is not only inappropriate for people who call themselves Christians but is scurrilous and racist. How can these men square their behavior and their professed faith?


What none of these people fully appreciate, much less understand, the cognitive dissonance there is between what they believe and what they do, in other words, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To some degree, we all have a certain degree of cognitive dissonance between our beliefs and our actions, but in some people this becomes extreme. They may claim to be orthodox, but their behavior proves otherwise. "By their fruit shall you know them" (Mat. 7: 16, 20).

We often have to deal with extremists, sometimes on a daily basis. While few of us will ever be threatened directly by ISIS, all of us have experienced forms of extremism, whether in church or on TV. During election periods. extremists come out of the woodwork, and there are always politicians who cater to them in order to attract votes. This is despicable!

Many of these people may not even seem to be extremists. If you are a gun owner and you are persuaded that the government is going to take your guns away, you may also resort to violence i n order to protect your perceived right to possess these weapons.If you are opposed to abortion, you might do the same in order to protect the unborn.

If you are afraid that the flood of refugees across our borders pose a potential threat to you and your loved one, you may want to expel all people from a certain region or of a certain religion. If you believe that these people worship another god than you do, you may want to silence those who claim otherwise.


If this is what you believe, perhaps you need a new faith. Both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles teach about love: love of God and love of neighbor. The sacred books of many other faiths also speak about love. Love lies at the heart of all human relationships. Without love, humans cannot function.

Hatred has no place in any true religion. If your religion requires that you hate someone, you need a new religion. People like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz deny their Christian faith when they spew hatred. Those who support such people are also not behaving as Christians ought to behave.

Perhaps you are wondering why I did not just write about love, as I have done in an earlier posting. My response would be this: I want to focus especially to those who claim to be orthodox but do not live as they ought to live. If you know such people, please ask them to explain how their faith and their behavior are connected. Put the onus on them: If you are a Christian, how can you hate Muslims, etc.?

Orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxy. If it doesn't, then something is lacking -- love. Without love, their faith is meaningless. It is less than nothing, as Frei puts it. We must live our faith if our faith is to mean anything. As James writes (2: 17), "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."


      

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Has the New American Civil War Started?


Has the new American Civil War started?  A new civil war is not a new idea. Many novels and movies have utilized this theme. In the civil war that I foresee, only a few shots have been fired thus far. Nevertheless, such a war is increasingly becoming a reality.

The Civil War, as it is popularly known in the US, was fought from 1861 to 1865 between the Union and the Confederacy. Would these states remain together as the United States or not? The end of that war decided the question in the affirmative, yet the scars of this conflict are still apparent more than 150 years later.

The phrase civil war can refer to any war to separate one political body from another. Some scholars have called the 1861-1865 war as the Second American Civil War. They refer to the American War for Independence as the First American Civil War since it led the separation of the thirteen colonies from Britain.

Whether this new American civil war will lead to eventual separation or not is still an open question. While it may seem unlikely at the moment, there are signs pointing in this direction. Don't misunderstand me, I don't want this to happen, but I am frightened by what I see happening currently in the US. I have children and grandchildren there and do not want anything unfortunate to happen to them.

The standoff in Oregon is only the latest manifestation of the militia movement, which consists largely of disaffected white people who believe that the federal government's authority is either broadly abused or outright null and void.


They insist the American people must form armed paramilitary groups in order to stand up to Washington and make their voice heard. The movement was active in the early-mid 1990s, but has grown exponentially since President Barack Obama was first elected to the White House in 2008.

Though the group in Oregon is small, the number of similar groups is increasing. This movement includes not only militias but also “common-law” courts, publishers, ministries and citizens’ groups.

There are now more than 1,200 active anti-government groups, including over 276 armed militias (a 37 percent increase over 2014), and sovereign citizen coalitions that do not recognize the US government’s jurisdiction, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks their growth.

This movement would not be as much of an issue as it is if it were not for one of the most contentious issue in the US at present: gun control. Race is probably the biggest. I heard one speaker of the militia in Oregon lament the fact that they could use still more guns and ammunition.

Obama, through his executive actions, has tried to control the spread of guns, but every time he speaks out on this issue, gun sales spike. This illustrates a regional divide in the US, one that reflects the racial divide.

Americans living within or on the margins of cities ravaged by gun violence, welcome Obama's plan. However, those from rural areas, who romanticize about 18th century-styled militias, and view gun ownership as the fundamental constitutional right, his speech -- and tears -- are not a call to disarm, but rather, a call to purchase even more arms.



Other countries do not have this problem to the same degree. The US has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents. None of the 16 other countries that were surveyed came anywhere close to that ratio. Finland was closest to the US ranking with slightly more than two violent deaths per 100,000 residents. Within the US, there is a wide divergence in the number of death per capita. Compare gun ownership and the number of firearm deaths per state in the two charts.

The gun question has accentuated existing divisions and now threatens to lead to civil conflict. How can the two sides of the gun control debate be harmonized? Their positions are irreconcilable, as the reaction to Obama's modest initiatives that center on closing loopholes on background checks on gun purchasers demonstrates.

Americans own more than 300 million guns. Many of them view the possession of guns as their right Guns are not only necessary for sport and self-protection but are guaranteed by the Constitution in the Second Amendment according to most Americans. The US Supreme Court agrees.

In 2008, the Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision ruled that the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to own guns for personal self-defense, despite the amendment’s opening language: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

However, it is now understood by many that this decision is hardly the blanket protection for gun ownership that the National Rifle Association and adamant gun rights people claim. Nor is it the sweeping defeat that those who want gun control lament.


Therefore, a middle ground would seem to be possible between the NRA and advocates of public safety, yet a compromise seems unlikely in the polarized atmosphere that exists in the US on many social issues. Gun control is anathema to many gun owners and is what really makes their blood boil.

But the end of the massive violence that has gripped the US for so long is not possible unless the state begins to disarm gun owners, some of whom have already threatened to resort to violence, if necessary, to preserve their right to own guns. Armed citizens, they insist, should have the right to combat the forces of the state if need be.

When the possession of guns is viewed as a fundamental, constitutional right, the nation is in serious trouble. Aside from the error of interpreting this right in an individualistic manner, which is contrary to the communal intent of the authors of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, who saw the provision of a militia as necessary for citizens together to prevent tyranny, those who defend this right in such an extreme way as to resort to armed violence are potentially advocating treason.

While governments can become tyrannical, citizens must seek to fight such tyranny in legitimate, non-violent ways. But people must not resort to armed insurrection. Then we would have a revolution on our hands.

The depth of the divide within American society cannot be reduced to a conflict that is generated by people who stem from rural or small city communities, are predominantly white, and who feel that they have lost power and influence. That argument does not yet address many other factors such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, growing inequalities, and indeed a host of other things.


These other factors also contribute to the dangerous brew that threatens to destroy the US if allowed to develop further. The Republican candidates for the presidency of the US, led by Donald Trump, are stocking the fire that keeps this horrible concoction brewing.

The divide between Americans has also been described as a culture war. This would not be so serious if not for the way guns enter into the equation. Sadly, even churches and other faith communities are showing signs of the same split.

The magazine of my own denomination carried an article last year entitled, "Should Christians Carry?" This was not about abortion, as I first naively assumed, but about gun control but about Christians carrying guns.

I do not have the answer to how to stop this deepening division, except to say that I can only appeal to people of faith to speak out boldly and resolutely in defense of those who want to put an end to this madness that may yet culminate in a new civil war.

For people of faith the choice between owning a gun and trusting in God is very clear, at least in my opinion. You would think it is for all Americans since they write "In God We Trust" on their currency, but apparently that is not the case. Guns are what they need for protection.

Obama's tears in his townhall address were genuine. in spite of claims by Fox news to the contrary. The ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion he announced is likely to widen the cul­tur­al chasm between the parties make it likely that gun control will play a major role in the 2016 race.


The split is most ap­par­ent when look­ing at the ques­tion at the core of the gun-con­trol de­bate: wheth­er it is “more im­port­ant to pro­tect the right of Amer­ic­ans to own guns or to con­trol gun own­er­ship.” More strik­ing than the slight tilt to­ward gun con­trol in the latest poll was the sharp di­ver­gence between the groups that each party now re­lies upon most.

Gun control joins gay mar­riage, ac­cess to free con­tra­cep­tion un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act, leg­al status for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, leg­al­ized abor­tion, and ac­tion against cli­mate change as cultural values shared by many Demo­crat­s but rejected ­by con­ser­vat­ive groups of older, blue-col­lar, and non­urb­an whites who mainly vote Republican.

Yet such party alliances and allegiances do not define the split in American society. Nor do such labels as liberal or conservative, left or right, or even Democrat and Republican accurately describe the gap between these two groups of Americans. With one group committed to public safety through effective gun control, while the other is afraid that the government will take their guns away, there is little chance of reconciliation. No middle ground is left.

On the one hand, a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress after the November election will only worsen the current stalemate. On the other hand, if one of these parties controls both of these arms of the government, then the situation may get out of control entirely. 


If I had my way, I would abolish the possession of guns, except possibly for sport. The possession of handguns, however, should be eliminated entirely. But this dream is just that; it is unrealistic, especially in the US where a bloody civil war is now a possibility.
Could the culture war turn into a real war? Some people actually think so, and it seems the US military has been planning for the scenario, too. The Pentagon has prepared a report on how to deal with such an insurgency if it should happen in the next decade or so.

I pray that another civil war in the US will never happen! Please pray as well!
         

Monday, January 4, 2016

Some prayers at start of 2016


As the world welcomed in 2016 at the stroke of midnight on January 1, celebrations quickly gave way to the sobering realization that the problems the world faced in 2015 had not disappeared with the turning of the calendar. 

Overnight, the war in Syria had not ended, the Islamic State had not gone away, refugees continued to flock into Europe, not to mention the myriad other trouble spots around the globe that have not stopped festering. There is no part of the world that does not have problems.

Then there are the personal problems that everyone in the world is burdened with. Often these are unknown to others except for a few people who are close to them. These problems are just as real as the major problems of the world and may stem from them. Solving the world's major problems may also help to alleviate these more personal ones. 

Just as I concluded 2015 with some prayers, I think it appropriate to offer some prayers at the beginning of the new year as well. I am well aware that prayers by themselves will not make the world's problems disappear, but prayers are a crucial step to resolving every problem.


Unless we are willing to invoke divine help, no solution is possible. This is a statement of faith on my part, but this commitment to the necessity and power of prayer is shared not only by 2.2 billion Christians but also by 1.5 billion Muslims and the many billions of adherents of other religions.

Although the prayers I cite here are Christian prayers, they can be modified by those who are not Christians. The intent is clear; these prayers are cries of the heart for peace and justice in a world where both are a rare commodity. 

We live in a world where some leaders want to bomb IS out of existence, but that is a pipe dream, as anyone who is knowledgeable about the Middle East can verify. Justice is an equally elusive commodity as those who strive to correct such wrongs know only too well.

What then? Prayer is the answer, but not just prayer by itself. Prayer must be acoompanied by work. The powerful phrase, Ora et Labora, which translates into "prayer and work" in English, was used primarily in monastic life for centuries. But the phrase doesn’t just apply to monks. 


This phrase could be applied to anyone. As human beings, we are called to work just as we are called to pray. Work and prayer belong together. They are inseparable, in spite of the protests of secularists. If God is no longer part of the picture, what is the efficacy of prayer? 

Thus at the start of 2016, it is not only appropriate but also necessary that we offer our prayers to God. No matter what our conception of God is, through prayers we acknowledge that our problems are often intractable and that we need divine help to deal with them.

Prayer is an admission of helplessness when confronted by our many problems. Just as I concluded the past year with some prayers, I want to begin this year with some prayers as well. The challenge to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:13) remains true throughout the year and not just at the beginning or the end, but these are markers, nevertheless, that urge us to pray. 

I urge you to also pray during the Week for Christian Unity which this year is from January 3-10. Then Christians can pray for greater unity so that they can witness more effectively in the world and pray more meaningfully for the world's problems.


Even if you ar not used to praying, I invite you to read the prayers carefully and reflect on them. But if you are a Christian and pray regularly, then pray them and share them with others so that they too can pray.

These prayers come from various traditions. I have selected them because they are contemporary and speak to the concerns I have as the world has entered a new year. Thus, I want to share with you now some prayers dealing with peace and justice, the war in Syria, refugees, indigenous people and the care of creation. Only space constrains me from adding to this list.

Don't forget, the focus of my blog is on the interface between the world and faith. These are not two poles, but they belong together. By separating them, even if only mentally, we make it even more difficult to solve the problems we are confronted with again this year.

If you have other prayers that you want to share, please send them to me and I will try to include them in a later posting.


Peace and Justice

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
We come before you, Lord,
crying out in a violent land,
crying for peace.
Conflict is tearing people apart.
Our brothers and sisters suffer around the world.
We share their pain.
As refugees search for a home in foreign lands, guide them.
As world leaders try to dialogue peacefully, give them wisdom.
As strangers knock on our doors, help us to welcome them.
You are the Almighty, the Prince of Peace!
Give us hope for tomorrow.
May your peace flow like a river through a dry land.
Amen.

Lord, you give us the unwavering call to do justice.
You tell us to defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow.
To love the foreigner residing among us.
To provide for the hungry, thirsty, and naked.
To love our enemy.
But Lord, it is overwhelming.
Do you not know that we are only human?
May your Spirit fill us with hope.
Remind us that we are good enough for you,
so that in all things, we will follow your will,
and take up the call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you.
Amen.
—Erica VanEssendelft, Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church

Prayers for Reconciliation and Peace in Syria

God of history,
witness of the struggles within families;
we pray for the divided family of Syria
as brother fights against brother,
and sister rejects sister.
We pray for those whose love of neighbour
has been destroyed in the bitterness of enmity.
May fear be submerged in compassion.
May distrust be diluted by hope,
as a vision of peace illuminates
darkened minds and hate-filled hearts.
We pray in the name of Christ,
our source of light and love. 
Amen.

Spirit of wisdom and grace,
the power of truth and judgement;
we pray for all who are working for peace
in the tangled conflict of Syria today.
For international leaders holding a thread of control,
for the politicians holding a thread of power,
for the religious leaders holding a thread of authority,
for the fighters holding a thread of influence,
and the citizens clinging to a thread of hope.
Bring unity through the untangled order of justice.
Bring reconciliation through truthful dialogue.
Bring new life through patient diplomacy,
determined mediation and courageous peace-making.
We pray in the name of Christ,
our source of inspiration and confidence. 
Amen.
http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/topical-prayers/prayers-for-syria.aspx


A Prayer of Indigenous Peoples, Refugees, Immigrants, and Pilgrims


Triune God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
we come before you as many parts of a single body.
people drawn from every tribe,
every nation, every language;
some indigenous—peoples of the land;
some refugees, immigrants, pilgrims—people on the move;
some hosts, some guests, some both hosts and guests;
all of us searching for an eternal place where we can belong.
Creator, forgive us.
The earth is yours and everything that is in it.
But we forget.
In our arrogance we think we own it.
In our greed we think we can steal it.
In our ignorance we worship it.
In our thoughtlessness we destroy it.
We forget that you created the earth to bring praise and joy to you.
That you gave it as a gift,
for us to steward,
for us to enjoy,
for us to see more clearly your beauty and your majesty.
Jesus, save us.
We wait for your kingdom.
We long for your throne.
We hunger for your reconciliation,
for that day where people from every tribe and every tongue
will gather around you and sing your praises.
Holy Spirit, teach us.
Help us to remember
that the body is made up of many parts,
each one unique and every one necessary.
Teach us to embrace the discomfort that comes from our diversity
and to celebrate the fact that we are unified, not through our sameness,
but through the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Triune God, we love you.
Your creation is beautiful.
Your salvation is merciful.
And your wisdom is beyond compare.
We pray all this in Jesus’ name.
Amen.
—Mark Charles. This prayer appears in the hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts (#270), available at FaithAliveResources.org.

Unity of All


Hanto Yo
(Hanto Yo means “clear the way” in the Lakota language of the North American Plains.)

God of surprises,
you call us
from the narrowness of our traditions
to new ways of being church,
from the captivities of our culture to
creative witness for justice,
from the smallness of our horizons
to the bigness of your vision.
Clear the way in us, your people,
that we might call others to freedom
and renewed faith.
Jesus, wounded healer,
you call us
from preoccupation with our own histories and hurts
to daily tasks of peacemaking,
from privilege and protocol
to partnership and pilgrimage,
from isolation and insularity
to inclusive community.
Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call others to
wholeness and integrity.
Holy, transforming Spirit,
you call us
from fear to faithfulness,
from clutter to clarity,
from a desire to control to deeper trust,
from the refusal to love to a readiness to risk.
Clear the way in us, your people,
that we might all know the beauty and power
and danger of the gospel.
—Gwyn Cashmore and Joan Puls, From One Race the Human Race: Racial Justice Sunday 2003, published by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: Churches Commission for Racial Justice, London.
   

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A retrospective on 2015


This retrospective involves looking back over my shoulders at the year that is now over. It seems only yesterday that 2015 began and now a new year is already starting. The years flash by, seemingly faster and faster as I age. My parents learned this a long time ago, and now I am convinced. 

Aging can be a good thing if you talking about a fine wine or cheese, but for people, it means becoming more and more decrepit.  It means aches and pains and frequent doctor's visits. That is part of my story this past year. Dr. Seuss expresses the problem of aging in his distinctive way. Thankfully, my condition is not this bad!


Having already past the "three-score years and ten" milestone, I am only too aware of what the psalmist in Psalm 90 is referring to when he describes people as "dust." This phrase is echoed on Ash Wednesday when the priest intones, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." All of us are mortal. In fact, the mortality rate of the human species is 100%. There are no exceptions!

God, according to the psalmist exists "from everlasting to everlasting." The psalmist writes that for God "a thousand years . . . are like a day that is just gone by, or like a watch in the night." For me, and indeed for the rest of us as well, our lives are over before they have hardly started, just as 2015 has flashed by.

These are not simply the idle musings of an old codger but this is a truth that everyone discovers if they live long enough. Teenagers tend to be blissfully unaware of this fact, but that does negate it. The year 2015 is now history, and one day all of us will be too. In the meantime, let us savor these brief moments.

Permit me, therefore, to engage in a brief retrospection. What happened in 2015? To answer this, I don't want to rehash old newspaper headlines. There were too many noteworthy events to list in this short posting. Instead, I prefer to ask myself: Did any of the things I speculated about early that year actually transpire? More important: Are any of them related? And if so, how?

In January, I wrote about five things that I expected to happen in 2015. Most were relatively safe bets, but I am surprised at how well my guesses turned out. For the record, here are the five I listed (unchanged from last year):
  1. Pope Francis will continue to make waves in the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. The growing wealth inequality in the world.
  3. More racism in the U.S. and some other countries.
  4. More conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  5. Greater progress on climate change.



What I discovered by looking back at the five speculations is how closely connected all of them are. I wrote extensively about many of them during 2015 or at least touched on each one. All of them, as is my self-imposed mandate, deal with religion in some way. Let me briefly describe each of them. 

Pope Francis did indeed make waves and thereby earned the ire of many people both inside the Catholic hierarchy and outside of it. Yet this self-effacing Argentinian -- a first for the Americas! -- has endeared himself to millions of people, whether Catholics or not. Both in his lifestyle and his proclamations, he has clearly affirmed that he stands with the poor of this world. Like Luther, he could say, "Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!"

The growing inequity of income and wealth in this world has been in the news consistently since Thomas Piketty exposed it in best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), Pope Francis, who was elected the same year, has crusaded not only on this issue but also on climate change.

Piketty's book has done much to wake up the world, even if the captains of the corporations who receive the megabucks have not changed their ways. Nor are they likely to do so while the governments of the world remain in their thrall. They are the ones who buy elections for their chosen candidates. And they are the ones who may yet stop Donald Trump from getting the Republican nomination. 




Trump's vision for 2016

Trump's supporters are typically less educated, poorer, white males, who feel that they have been left powerless by the elites who run the country. These men are often racists and are opposed to any form of gun control. They are afraid of terrorists and are thus susceptible to appeals that play upon this fear.

Not only Trump but also former Prime Minister Stephen Harper used such fears in order to win re-election. Harper's supporters tend to be more elderly and rural people who are terrified by the influx of refugees, many of whom are Muslims. A proposed ban on women wearing niqabs defined their fear.

Harper restricted the number of refugees that would be admitted to Canada. In contrast, the new Liberal government has enthusiastically welcomed them. But some European countries, such as Denmark and Hungary, have banned any refugees from entering. Islamophobia is a form of racism nd it seems to be growing all over the world.

There are many other examples of racism such as the wholesale killing of blacks in the US by white police. In many cases, the police have not been criminally charged, although civil suits have been filed. 

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians shows no signs of abating. Part of the problem is the unwavering support that some Western countries provide to Israel while neglecting Palestine. Canada is one of these countries. I hope that will soon be past tense. The war in Syria and Iraq has fed anti-Muslim feelings and thus has exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by encouraging further support for Israel.
Climate change finally got the attention it deserved at COP21 in December in Paris, where more than 190 countries reached an agreement on limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees C as compared to pre-industrial levels. This accord is unprecedented and represents an enormous advance over earlier agreements. 

The support of Pope Francis no doubt contributed to this successful development but there was also a widespread realization that something had to be done to reduce the effects of greenhouse emissions. Even some climate change deniers reluctantly came on board and approved the agreement.

2015 was quite a year! In spite of the way the year flashed by, which may have been just my personal impression, much happened during this year. I was impressed not so much by my own speculations but rather by the way all these things came together. That is the nature of the world in which we live. Events are never isolated from each other but are woven together in ways that only become apparent in retrospect.

For 2016, I am not going to hazard any new predictions. Instead, I suggest that these five are good for another year. Let's wait and see what happens by the end of the year. If my experience is a reliable guide, we will probably not have to wait very long. Fasten your seatbelts! It's going to be quite a ride!

Enough of my rambling! I wish all of you a blessed 2016! 
        

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Some Christmas Prayers


Prayer is central to the Christian life, as it is also for people from other faiths. It is their lifeline to God. The purpose of prayer is not so much to list our many needs (God already knows them, although he doesn't mind our mentioning them), but it is really focused on praising God and listening to him. It is not our will that ultimately matters, but God's will: "His will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

That is what the Christian prayers that I have selected do as well. Sweeping the centuries from St. Ephraim the Syrian until today, they are Christmas meditations dwelling on the significance of Christ's birth. For Christians the Incarnation is fundamental to their faith: God sent his only Son to dwell among us and to restore not only us but the entire world that he loves so much.

As a result of the Incarnation, the Christian Church throughout the centuries has confessed that Christ is both fully divine and fully human. Judaism and Islam deny this, but that difference ought not to be a barrier to Christians, Jews, and Muslims accepting each other. For that matter, people of every faith must accept what they have in common and not accent the differences as is all too prevalent today.

That acceptance is the focus of the last prayer which welcomes all refugees as brothers and sisters regardless of their religion. When we welcome them, we are welcoming Christ whose birth is celebrated at Christmas time and will be in perpetuity, as St. Ephraim writes.

The entire world must welcome strangers and not reject them as some people do, even those who profess to be Christians. I can think of no more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas this year than by welcoming refugees. Do you hear me, Donald Trump?

Again, I wish all of you a blessed Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not. Do not be distracted by the consumerism that detracts from the real meaning of Christmas. And, as you enjoy your Christmas dinner, don't forget to leave a place or two for the strangers in your midst. Welcome them with open arms!


Nativity Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The feast day of your birth resembles you, O Lord 
because it brings joy to all humanity. 
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day. 
Your day is celebrated from generation to generation. 

Kings and emperors may pass away, 
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse. 
But your festival will be remembered until the end of time. 
Your day is a means and a pledge of peace. 

At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled, 
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day 
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt. 

You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth: 
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick; 
Spiritual light for the blind; 
The cup of salvation for the thirsty; 
The bread of life for the hungry. 

In the winter when trees are bare, 
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit. 
In the frost when the earth is barren, 
You bring new hope to our souls. 
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil, 
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb. 
Amen.

St. Ephraim the Syrian (AD 306-373)


Nativity Prayer of St. Augustine

Let the just rejoice,
for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice,
for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice,
For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.
Amen.

St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-440)




Nativity Prayer of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we
made in your image, conform ourselves to it.
In our own strength
we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder
nor is it fitting for us to try.
But Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love
Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.
Amen.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (AD 1090-1153)


Prayer for those who seek refuge in our land



Sheltering God,

You were born in flight,

Your parents anxious and given no rest.

The manner of your birth calls us to
Open-heartedness and sensitivity to the strangers in our midst.
Help us not to flee your challenge.
The violence of the present time teaches us fear of the stranger,
Reluctant to reach out to those who are different.
Grace us this day as we seek
To see you in the faces of those uprooted,
Weary, as they seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Blessed are the wanderers and those adrift.
Blessed are the strangers at our door.
Blessed are the unfed, the homeless on the road.
Blessed is the child crying in pain.
Blessed is the mother working to provide for her children, left behind in her native country.
Blessed are those who welcome Christ to be born again when they welcome these ones.
Blessed are we who struggle to make a place in our hearts for all of our brothers and sisters. 
Amen.

O God,
You welcome all your children,
And embrace the prodigals ones,
Help us open our hearts
And welcome all who come, searching
As our ancestors did,
For asylum and the promise of a new land, a new life.

Root out fear from our souls;
Help us form the words
‘Sister’ and ‘Brother’
As we greet those who seek refuge in our land.
Let us remember that,
With your grace,
There are enough loaves and fishes
To go around
If we come together
As your family.

Give us the courage
And the compassion
To respect the rights of all
In this country of abundance,
To embrace all in
The name of your love. 
Amen.

(Uniya is a Jesuit social justice centre.)