Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What would Jesus do in response to the Syrian refugee crisis?

A few decades ago, as you may remember, some Christians wore bracelets marked with the letters WWJD, meaning, What Would Jesus Do? Although no one can claim to know what Jesus would do in every situation, the Bible does tell us much about what Jesus said and did, and that should be enough to guide us in determining what Jesus would do in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Yet why are Christians so divided on the issue of Syrian refugees? Even before the Paris bombings, people were already divided. The flood of refugees fleeing the war in Syria made many people, especially those in Europe, apprehensive. There were too many refugees and not just Syrians. Thus, some pleaded for the borders to be shut while others wanted to welcome the refugees with open arms.

After Paris, the division became even worse. Apprehension crossed the Atlantic and intensified during the crossing. In the US, the two sides are readily apparent in a video put out by The Young Turks. If Fox represents one side of the debate, TYT is clearly on the other about what to do with Syrian refugees.

Fox accents security while TYT advocates love, yet both claim to be Christian. Politically, however, they find themselves on opposing sides. Thus, it  is not surprising that they would give diametrically opposing answers to the question of whether Jesus would take in Syrian refugees. They certainly do.

Fox represents a conservative brand of Christianity, the latter that of a more liberal/progressive form of the Christian faith. While there is room for Christians to disagree on many matters, love ought be central in what drives us in living the Christian life, not fear and certainly not hatred.

Most Christians would lean to one side or the other in the Fox-TYT debate and, therefore, answer this question very differently. In discussions with friends and acquaintances since Paris, I have heard both positions presented eloquently and passionately.

Many are concerned with security. They are genuinely afraid of terrorists gaining admission to their country by concealing themselves among this flood of refugees. It is not that they are lacking in compassion; many have become increasingly concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, although often their compassion does not extend to Muslims since many equate terrorism with Islam.

But fear seems to trump love, even when that fear is disguised by appeals to delay the admission of refugees. However, I found that I was able to refute some of those who were concerned with security. They were open to my arguments that their fear was misplaced and that they should, instead, place their trust in God.

My position is no secret to those who follow my blog. In the two previous posts, I have argued that as Christians we must welcome the stranger and not be afraid of the refugees/strangers in our midst. Everything we do should be motivated by love, not tolerance but genuine, heartfelt love. Love of God and love of neighbor canot be divided, and neither should we be.

According to President Obama, the US will accept only 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. Even this number is too many for the Republicans in Congress who, in response to what happened in Paris, have voted to make it more difficult for them to enter the country. I would ask them where their love is.

In addition, more than half of the US’s governors have stated they will no longer provide placement for Syrian refugees, arguing that they pose too great a risk to national security. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie said that his state will not take in any refugees,"not even orphans under the age of five." Similarly, I would also ask them where their love is.

The American backlash against refugees is based largely on the fear that a Paris-style attack could be replicated in America if the US began to shoulder its burden of the refugee crisis. But they should first become aware of this important fact: of the 784,395 refugees admitted by the US, only three have ben arrested on terrorism charges.

Another article uses an even larger base figure but arrives at the same conclusion: three. It also argues that we should distinguish carefully between refugees, who are vetted extensively while still overseas, and asylum seekers, who are vetted only after they arrive. Terrorists are not likely to wait in a refugee camp for three years while waiting. Instead, they will find other avenues to enter a country.

A similar backlash exists in Canada, where newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by December 31. One premier of a Canadian promise has articulated the mood of many Canadians when he urged the federal government not to bring in refugees to hastily out of fear of the threat of terrorism.

But such a fear is misguided because the process of relocating refugees to North America is very different from the way that refugees currently arrive in Europe where vetting takes place upon admission. The Syrians who are flown to the US and Canada will be the most heavily vetted group of people that are currently allowed into both countries.

Even then, a majority of Americans do not approve of more Syrian entering the US. The breakdown by parties is very revealing. Republicans by a wide margin disapprove. They also support the use of overwhelming military force to fight terrorism.

The extent of the division among Christians is apparent in another poll conducted earlier this fall which showed that 42 percent of Protestants in the US approved of admitting more refugees into the country while 54 percent disapproved. Fifty-nine percent of Catholics approved while 38 percent disapproved. America is divided politically, a division that is reflected in many denominations.

In the US, the entire vetting process is expected to last from 18 months to two years. The Canadian process will be much shorter if these refugees are to arrive by the end of this year. Both countries want to vet the refugees while they are still overseas.

Many Canadians have already said that they won't complain or hold it against Trudeau if the process takes a month or two longer, as long as the necessary security measures are in place and the refugees have been properly vetted. Security is their main concern. Note: the Canadian government just decided to admit only 10,000 by the end of this year; the rest will arrive by February. Loud applause!

The Canadian government has already decided to admit only women, children, and families while single males will be excluded because of security concerns, While this seems like a reasonable tradeoff so that both compassion and security can be rightfully expressed and dealt with, it is not since these single men are also fleeing war and very few, if any, are potential terrorists.

Many Christians in Canada will be pleased that their government is committing to bring in 900 refugees per say from Syria. These refugees are currently in camps in Lebanon, where the vetting process is taking place. These exiles will then be flown primarily to Montreal and Toronto.

The cost of resettling them is estimated to cost 1.2 billion Canadian dollars (about $900 million) over six years. This cost is reasonable, at least considering the large number of people who need to be processed, airlifted, and resettled. Canada has already resettled 3,089 Syrian refugees between January 1 and November 15 of this year.

Those who do arrive will immediately receive the health benefits that all Canadians enjoy. They will not be labeled refugees but newcomers and made to feel at home. Canada is a country of immigrants and it enjoys a good and longstanding reputation for showing hospitality for people from many countries, notwithstanding the actions of the previous Conservative government.

Yet even the 25,000 Syrians coming to Canad is only a drop in the bucket as compared to the number of Syrians still in the Middle East. Nearly 80,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in the EU so far this year, but this does not yet account for the large number who want to move to Europe. So far this year, Germany registered the arrival of 243,721 asylum seekers from Syria. That country expects to receive more than a million asylum seekers by the end of 2015.

What most people in Europe and North America are unaware of is that Syrian refugees are generally afraid of exactly the same thing that Americans are: Islamist terrorism. Many are fleeing areas held by the Islamic State, and they are doing so in contravention of ISIS which has repeated condemned refugees for fleeing ISIS-controlled areas.

So, I urge not only Canadians but also Americans as well as citizens of other countries to urge their respective governments to do even more so that many more Syrian refugees can find new homes where they can feel safe.

These refugees want security as much as we do. But their security must not become the price they have to pay for our own security. That would be selfish. Jesus was anything but selfish when he became one of us so that we might be united with him. He emptied himself of his heavenly glory so that we might inherit that glory together with him our brother (Hebrews 2:9-11).

There are at least twelve verses from the Scriptures about loving immigrants, refugees, and displaced people. These are verses that all Christians should take to heart when confronted with the issue of Syrian refugees. From the verses alone, it is clear how Jesus would respond to this refugee crisis, or any other for that matter.

We are commanded to love our neighbor, but what does that mean?  Galatians 5:14 explains: "For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself."  If we ask, as the teacher of the law did in Luke 10:29-37: "And who is my neighbor?"  We read that Jesus responded by saying:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise." 
If you disagree with Jesus, please let me know. Of course, you may disagree with my interpretation of how he would respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, but you may not disagree with him. For me, the answer is crystal clear.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What should we do about the jihadists in our midst?

How do we deal with those who are responsible for the Paris bombings in which 129 people died and another 352 injured, some very seriously? The Islamic State has already claimed responsibility in an online statement that appeared in Arabic and French. Although it appears to be genuine, it was not immediately possible to confirm its authenticity.

The ISIS statement mocked France's involvement in air attacks on suspected ISIS bases in Syria and Iraq, noting that France's air power was "of no use to them in the streets and rotten alleys of Paris." What lies behind this defiant language? What motivated this outrage? And why Paris?

Are these bombings simply a response of ISIS to the coalition bombings in the Middle East or is there more involved? I suspect that there is more. The goal of ISIS is not simply punitive, but it wants to generate division, discord, and fear in Western countries.

ISIS wants to up the ante in this war by bringing it to Paris, the capital of France and an iconic symbol of the struggle against ISIS. Almost 1,500 of the coalition troops in the Middle East are French, which is the largest European contribution.

According to French prosecutors, eight terrorists were killed, seven of whom were suicide bombers, A total of three groups of extremists mounted the attacks. Authorities are now investigating a fourth band of terrorists who may have fled Paris and may be hiding in Belgium.

The French newspaper Le Monde reported that one terrorist has been identified as a French citizen in his 30’s. Meanwhile, a Syrian passport was found on the ground at the French stadium, one of the seven sites hit by attacks. The passport belonged to a migrant who was registered as a refugee in Greece in October, according to Le Figaro, another French daily.

A Belgian official said two of the seven people wired with suicide vests were French men living in Brussels, and among those arrested was another French citizen living in the Belgian capital. The new information highlighted growing fears of homegrown terrorism in a country that has exported more jihadis than any other in Europe. All three gunmen in the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket were French.

Francois Hollande, President of France, declared three days of national mourning. He squarely put the blame for the attacks on ISIS, The visibly shaken Hollande called the carnage "an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army against France."

The war with ISIS is not a conventional war, but something much more dangerous; this war involves jihadists who are living in our midst. They are intent upon destroying the influence of Western society, which they perceive as decadent and evil, and establishing a caliphate in the Middle East. They cannot be fought in conventional ways, with armies, but 

ISIS is prepared to use whatever tools it takes in order to accomplish this goal. Suicide bombings are a new tactic for ISIS in Europe. In the Paris bombings, ISIS seems to have employed not only Syrians who may have an ax to grind with the coalition but also French citizens who can blend in well since they speak the language fluently and not attract unnecessary attention.

The suicide bombers were unable to enter the stadium because of extra security measures

These jihadists are the most dangerous since they blend in so well. They are also the most terrifying since it is difficult to fight against them. All these jihadists are committed to the cause of ISIS, which wants to drive a wedge between the people of France. For them, religion is a weapon to turn the French against all Muslims, making the latter feel even more isolated and open to conversion to the ISIS cause. 

Hollande wisely called for the French people to remain calm and united, explaining, "What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists."

Yet the question remains: How will the French defeat the terrorists? I do not doubt the resolve of the French, but the problem is bigger than France. President Barack Obama described the bombings as "an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share." 

The universal values Obama is referring to are "liberté and égalité and fraternité," these were originally espoused in the French Revolution. They are inimical to everything that ISIS stands for. They are shared by people everywhere, according to Obama, and, therefore, ought to be defended.

Obama promised, "We’re going to do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice, and to go after any terrorist networks that go after our people."

Bringing the terrorists to justice will not be an easy task. Some of the bombers were killed in the attacks and others may yet be captured. But ISIS, as a whole, is difficult to fight.

Let us not begin by casting suspicion on all refugees coming from Syria and thus preventing many of them to be resettled somewhere in Europe or another continent. That would not be an appropriate response. They must be carefully vetted, but they must not be condemned as a group because of the connections of a few with ISIS.

Nor should governments around the world respond by severely limiting freedoms in the name of security. After hearing about the Paris bombings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said as much when he warned that security measures should not detract from the freedoms that Canadians enjoy.

Yet there is a danger that the security forces in many countries will be supplemented extensively and granted powers that would effectively turn these countries into a police state. The French forces were so overextended after the Charlie Hebdo attack only ten months ago that they were unable to prevent these bombings.

Hollande's vow to wage war against ISIS does not bode well for the future of France or for many other countries. In Canada, Trudeau promised to revise Bill C-51,  the Anti-terrorism Act. 2015, which granted enormous powers to Canada's security agencies without the necessary oversight to prevent misuse of those powers. 

Another inappropriate response would be to intensify the coalition bombing missions in Syria and Iraq. ISIS cannot be bombed out of existence, although bombing may limit the spread of ISIS-held territory or even reverse it somewhat.

Trudeau is thus faced with an enormous challenge. He promised during the election to end Canada's contribution to these bombing missions, but now there may be public pressure in Canada for him to reconsider his plan. I hope indeed that he sticks to his plan and pulls out the planes.

This does not mean that Canada cannot provide humanitarian aid. It can and must do that. Also the training the forces of some Middle Eastern countries, which Canada is already doing, should be continued, provided that Canadian forces do do not involve themselves in direct conflict with ISIS.

Personally, I am against Canada's participation at all in the Middle East since the problems there are much too complex and ought to be solved by the people most directly involved. Western involvement serves the cause of ISIS by confirming to all Muslims its claim that it is fighting the evil West. Other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram, make similar claims.

The coalition bombings may help to diminish the territory of ISIS, but at the same time they create new ISIS recruits in Syria when civilians suffer what is euphemistically dismissed as "collateral damage." In the West, the bombings have created support for ISIS as well, especially among some young people.

The proper response should not involve violence. We have to find non-violent ways to deal with the threat of ISIS. We also have to search for ways to provide security without sacrificing liberty. We must learn to make friends with Arabs and Muslims and not vilify them. Vilification is a form of racism.

Racism is also evident in the way the West is treating the Paris bombings. If they had taken place in a city in the Middle East, the world would hardly pay attention. Days before the Paris attack two suicide bombers killed 48 people in a Shiite neighborhood of Beirut, but that event received little attention in the world press as compared to what happened in Paris. That event was dismissed as sectarian violence. It doesn't affect us directly.

The same thing happened after 19 people were killed in Baghdad. Before that there was Ankara, where more than 100 people died. Paris attracts more attention because it brings the war much closer to home. This is now too close for comfort! After Paris, even Canada is no longer safe.

So what can we do? As I wrote in last week's post, we must learn to accept the stranger in our midst. That is the best response to the jihadists who threaten the West. It may seen naive to speak about love in this context, but I assure you that is what we must display. Not a declaration of war.

We must not fear them, because if we do they have won. Instead, we must find a loving way to resolve the problem. Such a resolution involves repentance on our part: a willingness to change our hearts. That will not be easy. There are no easy solutions to the challenge posed by ISIS except to respond in love.

A memorial to all the people who were massacred in the Bataclan Theater 

The words "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy) are found in the liturgy of many churches. What most people don't realize is that mercy here does not refer to justice or acquittal, which is a very Western interpretation, but to God's loving-kindness and compassion for us, his children. In his love, God forgives us, and he expects us to do the same. "Make love, not war!"

If God extends such love to us, ought we not try to emulate this love? Is this not what the love of neighbor means? This is a hard saying, the disciples of Jesus said to him. Indeed, the command to love is a hard saying, but there is no alternative for the Christian.

Therefore, I propose that we use diplomacy. Instead of revving up the coalition bombings, let us seek alternatives. I realize that this flies in the face of what many voices are crying for today: to escalate the war. But that is not the solution that I wish for as a Christian.

We can best respond to the jihadists in our midst by showing love to Arabs and Muslims, not by further alienating them. We can begin by welcoming the refugees that are already banging on our doors. The war in Syria, in which many Western nations are now involved, caused the flood. Thus, we must welcome these refugees for that reason alone. But our primary motivation must be love.

Proper screening will be necessary, but that should not deter us from issuing a warm welcome to them. If we lock our doors, as some countries have already, we demonstrate our lack of faith in God in whom alone we must place our trust. God is our security, not our armed forces. He alone can drive away our fears and the darkness that surrounds us.

May God bless France and the rest of the world and grant us his peace!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcoming the stranger: a religious perspective on the migrant crisis

How should we treat migrants and refugees? This is not an abstract question, but it is one that everyone must ask themselves today. Ever since the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi seared itself into our memories, the problem of what to do with the flood of men, women, and children who are entering Europe on a daily basis needs to be addressed. Even those of us who live far away from where this crisis is playing out must answer this question. All of us must welcome the stranger who appears in our midst. This is what our faith teaches us; indeed, every religion does. Today I want to offer a religious perspective on this crisis.

The Problem

The refugee crisis in Europe shows no signs of lessening up. A daily flow of about 8,000 refugees to Europe is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the United Nations warns. More than 5,000 refugees and migrants -- the majority of them from Syrian -- arrive every day on Greek islands close to Turkey. That flow could continue during the winter if the weather remains good and the borders open.

About four million Syrian refugees are still stranded in squalid camps in the Middle East. Many are in dire poverty and many are longing for a new life in Europe. Some are economic migrants, but all of them are fleeing the never-ending conflicts in that part of the world.

About half a million migrants -- mostly from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa -- have already arrived in Europe this year. Deep divisions surfaced in the EU recently when ministers agreed to relocate about 120,000 refugees across Europe.

Several countries dispute the proposed distribution plan. Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia voted against it. They resent the imposition of quotas, arguing that they are ill-equipped to integrate non-EU migrants.

Note that the total is approximately 120,000, which is nowhere enough to deal with the current crisis

Many of these migrants are Muslims. Hungary, for example, claims that it cannot admit more Muslim migrants because it doesn't want them to threaten its Christian character, which is ironic since it and many other Central-European countries are thoroughly secularized.

Many refugees are determined to reach Germany, whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has urged EU partners to take in more refugees. Germany promised to admit at least 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of this year, but many Germans oppose this plan. The citizens of many other EU-countries are also opposed to the migrants.

These Middle Eastern migrants are only the most visible tip of an humungous iceberg. There are also thousands crossing the Mediterranean from Africa. Millions are on the march from many countries. They will be joined by millions more in the next few years.

These are not just numbers. Behind every number is a man, woman, or child. Whether they are migrants or refugees doesn't matter. Each of them has experienced the horror of fleeing the country of their birth whether for reasons of violent conflict, poverty, or the opportunity to advance themselves.

The Solution

Is this the proper response? Is this how the people of Europe ought to address the plight of the migrants? If their Christian faith still means anything to them, they should know that the Bible teaches a very different attitude to those who are in distress.

Instead of turning them away, all Europeans must welcome these strangers. In case they don't, they need to be reminded of their own history. After WWII, millions of Germans, Ukrainians, Serbs, and other nationalities were kicked out of their homes and wandered for years throughout Europe. Now the direction of the wandering is reversed. The remnants of their faith ought to be revived at the same time. 

All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, agree on how strangers should be treated. In fact, all these religions are united in teaching the importance of welcoming and showing hospitality to strangers, and they prohibit mistreating or oppressing the strangers in their midst. According to all these faiths, doing good to strangers is considered an act of righteousness.

The Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, commands justice and love for strangers, including giving them food and clothing. It also orders good treatment and love for strangers or aliens as they are also termed. Moreover, it forbids wronging, mistreating and oppressing them in any way.

Let me cite only the following verses, although there are more with the same message:
21 "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 22:20-21)
33 "'When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34).
9 "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'" (Zechariah 7:9-10) 
 Jesus teaches this message too, as do the other New Testament writers after him:
 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'  37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'  41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'  44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'  45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'  46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Abraham welcomes strangers (14th century)

Islam teaches this message as well. In Islam, a stranger is referred to as “Ibn Al-Sabil” (wayfarer). The Qur’an considers it an act of righteousness to give money to wayfarers and it even orders doing good to them.
"Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler…" (Al-Baqarah 2:177)
"Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler…" (An-Nisaa’ 4:36)
A well-known hadith reports that the Prophet Muhammad saying that God would punish those who do not supply surplus water to any travelers they meet. Moreover, alms must be provided even to those who are rich.

Even many secularized Europeans know what the proper response to migrants ought to be. One does not have to be a believer in order to feel compassion for the countless migrants pouring across their borders. Compassion is not exclusive to people of faith. In fact, non-believers can be more loving than many of those who profess to be believers.

Although they know better, the nominally Christian countries of Europe and the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East can and must do much more than some of them are currently doing. The same can be said about many other nations elsewhere in the world, regardless of the development. In response to the current crisis, all nations ought to as much as their circumstances permit.

People of faith ought to be ashamed of what some of them are saying and doing. Would that these verses from the Bible and Qur'an fan the tiny flames that might still remain in their otherwise cold hearts and make them burn passionately to provide the help that is needed. This is what God requires of them.

My own nation, Canada, is not doing enough. The former government's promises to bring in more refugees rang hollow, largely because of the stringent security screening that was required. The new government is expected to admit more refugees. Even if it is unable to bring in the promised 25,000 by the end of this year, that will probably happen by early 2016. Yet even that amount is a drop in the bucket.

The majority of Syrian refugees are currently living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  These countries are unable to accept them long term. So where can they go? Many of them would either like to return home or move elsewhere. Yet, until the conflict in Syria ceases, they will not be able to go home. If they do emigrate, what country will welcome them?

Less than 1%

The alternative that many have chosen is to go to Europe or some other part of the more highly developed world. Is it unreasonable to ask these countries to admit 0.5% of these people? The combined population of these countries is about 1,25 billion. Surely, they can help them!

If every country took in an average of 0.5%, that would amount to 6.25 million migrants. That sum would likely be spread over several years, but it should take care of the current crop of migrants. Less developed countries would also take some of them, and many would return home.

In succeeding years, with more migrants expected to come from elsewhere, the more developed countries might have to create additional room and admit a further 0.5%, again spread over several years, for a total of perhaps 13 million. That doesn't take care of all migrants, but it provides many with a new home. For Canada, that would represent a total of 350,000 migrants. Currently, Canada already admits more than 250,000 immigrants annually.

In addition, efforts should be made to put an end to violent conflicts in many parts of the world and to raise the standard of living in many countries from which the migrants stem. These are the primary ways of stopping the constant flood.

But as long as the flood of migrants continues, other countries must welcome them. They are strangers who ought to be welcomed with open arms. That is what all religions teach, and now their adherents must put these teachings into practice when migrants arrive at their borders.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Stop partisanship!

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28 ).

Partisanship is, without doubt, one of the most serious political problems. This term describes how political parties and politicians rip each other apart, especially at election time. Unfortunately, this problem is getting worse. In some countries, it is endemic and never seems to stop.

Partisanship is so serious that it threatens democracy itself. Democracy cannot function in a toxic environment that is marked by hatred and enmity. Compromise is what makes politics possible, but the type of hyperpartisanship that exists in certain countries preclude even the possibility of compromise.

In the recent Canadian federal election, partisanship played a prominent role and contributed to the defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservative party which has practiced it for a long time. A majority of Canadians voted against partisanship and for a return to a healthier politics.

Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal party which won the election, rejected the negativity that marked the campaign and promised a new attitude. While the Conservative campaign focussed on dividing Canadians, the Liberals preached unity.

Many Canadians have remarked, even before the new government was installed, that they already discerned a new spirit in the country. The divisiveness that marked the Conservative era seems to be gone. Trudeau set the tone in his victory speech on election night.

Harper's entire tenure as prime minister was marked by partisanship. Everything became politicized: it was always us against them. Politicians from other parties were regarded as the enemy. In fact, anyone who disagreed with Harper was treated the same way.

Harper also turned ethnic groups against each other. This is illustrated best by the niqab issue directed against Muslims. At the end of the campaign, he associated himself with the infamous Ford brothers in Toronto, who are noted for being hyperpartisan.

Harper, in desperation, hoped that the "Ford nation" would align itself with the Conservatives, but this did not happen. Instead, many Muslims and other ethnic groups rejected partisanship and voted against the Conservatives.

This sort of partisanship is largely imported from the US. While partisanship is not unknown in Canada, this fierce hyperpartisanship is foreign to a parliamentary system that allows for many political parties to be represented in Parliament, unlike the presidential system in the US where two parties are dominant and voters register as one or the other, although independent is also an option.

Any political system is adversarial by nature, but it does not have to be partisan to the degree that is evident especially in the US. The Canadian Parliament seats parties opposite each other as much as possible.

In Canada, as in Britain, the House and Senate chambers are separated by an aisle that is two sword lengths wide. Such a martial spirit is not common in Canada, where the only duels are fought with words.

Partisanship in the US has reached such heights that Congress has become largely unfunctional. The Tea Party is perhaps the most extreme example of partisanship since they not only refuse to cooperate in any way with Democrats but they reject any Republicans who do not endorse them.

The 2016 election is still more than a year away, but the Republican swords are already out for Hilary Clinton. The House Select Committee on Benghazi has met for 18 months now and they are relentless in their grilling of the former Secretary of State and leading Democratic candidate for the presidency.

The enmity between these two parties is palpable. This partisanship is due in part to the US having only two parties that count. But that does not explain the vehemence involved, especially on the part of Republicans.

As a person of faith, what concerns me, in particular, is the way Christians (and some people of other faiths) support and even encourage partisanship. It makes me wonder where their true allegiance lies: with the party or their faith?

Fortunately, there are always people who transcend partisanship. They are capable of forming friendships across party lines. That is the way it should be. Political opponents should not be treated as the enemy, but rather as colleagues who together can craft legislation that benefits the entire country.

When partisanship reigns supreme, there is no room for beneficial legislation. Instead, narrow interests driven largely by ideology or economics are the only beneficiaries. Obamacare is vilified by some Republicans in part because they despise the president. In this case, there may even be an element of unacknowledged racism that lurks under the surface.

Conservatives espouse small government, but this should not come at the price of cutting necessary services. A belief in low taxes must not benefit the wealthiest most of all. Instead, the poorest must be taken care of properly, not just those who contribute the most to political campaigns.

Where is the love of neighbor that Jesus teaches? However, Jesus goes further. He commands us to love our enemies, to bless them, and to pray for them. This is unheard of today!

Love does not leave any room for the sort of partisanship that is evident in the US and is now being exported to Canada. Hyperpartisanship is impossible those who sincerely want to obey this injunction.

Loving our enemies is difficult, but it is the only way for people to live and work together, especially when they are in close proximity, Justin Trudeau realized that when he in his victory speech he said, "Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbors." If our political opponents are also our neighbors, then the partisanship that we witness in both the US and Canada should be ended.

Stop partisanship! That ought to be our cry today. Stop treating those who have different political views as the enemy. Instead, we should love them.

Admittedly, the word "love" sounds strange in the political arena or many other areas of life today. Such language is foreign to most people, but it is the language that is required in a pluralistic society where people of different faiths, different ethnic groups, different languages, and different political opinions live side-by-side. We must love each other. There is no other way to survive.

"Stop partisanship!" For the US, that means, for example, stop the Tea Party, Donald Trump, and others from dominating the political platform. These people are extremists who do not deserve much public support since their message is a negative one that is focussed on fear and even outright hatred.

Within one year in Canada, the political tone changed with the defeat of Rob Ford, as the mayor of Toronto, and Stephen Harper, as the prime minister of Canada. Trudeau has earnestly promised to usher in a new era that is marked by unity rather than divisiveness. 

In saying this, Trudeau follows in the footsteps of the late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party whose quote has become iconic: "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."

Layton's closing triad is similar to St. Paul's even more famous one: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

If we truly want to change the world, let us begin by eradicating partisanship. The only way to do that is through love. Am I being too naive when I cry, "Stop Partisanship!"? I hope not! And I hope you agree!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wanted in Canada: A Good Leader!

I want to apologize to my readers who do not live in Canada for the numerous times that I have dealt with the Canadian election in my blog. The election will be over by next week as I am writing this, so bear with me one more time as I ask Canadians (who constitute about 7% of my readership) to vote for good leadership.

On October 19th, Canadians are going to the polls. Everyone, not only the politicians, is worn out by a 78-day election campaign in which many issues were raised, but many other issues were ignored. However, there is one issue that is paramount because it lies behind all them, and that is the issue of leadership.

During this campaign, the leaders of the main political parties have revealed their leadership abilities or inabilities. In this election, Canadians will indicate their preference for who should lead Canada for the next term. They should vote for good leadership as well as the programs offered by each party.

If you have not yet made up your mind about whom to vote for, I suggest that you consider the crucial issue of leadership in this election. And if you have made up your mind, perhaps you should consider this issue as well. You may yet change your mind if you do. In either case, go out and vote!

What is good leadership? I am not an expert in this area; thus I rely on others who have variously defined leadership. I have added a few of additional traits. Some of the major traits of good leaders include the following list. Evaluate each of the leaders carefully using these traits as your criteria.

The leaders of the three major parties: Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau

These traits are not in any particular order, but all are important even though no one person will possess all of them or to the same degree. Neverthless, a good leader has many of these traits.

  • Honesty/integrity -- able to be ethical and convey it to others 
  • Focussed -- able to think ahead without being distracted
  • Visionary -- able to create a vision and impart it to others
  • Flexible/Adaptable -- able to adapt and adjust to new situations
  • Good Communicator -- able to listen and understand others 
  • Respectful -- able to treat others with respect 
  • Empathy -- able to feel what others feel
  • Quiet Confidence -- able to be sure of oneself
  • Humility -- able to have a modest view of one's abilities
  • Enthusiastic -- motivated and able to motivate others
  • Open-Minded -- able to consider all options and input from others
  • Resourceful -- able to utilize resources and create access to new information 
  • Rewarding -- able to recognize efforts of others and reinforce these efforts in others
  • Well Educated -- able to know issues and act accordingly 
  • Open to Change -- able to be willing to change 
  • Evaluative -- able to evaluate and reformulate ideas or programs if need be
  • Organized -- able to be well prepared and do things efficiently
  • Consistent -- able to be coherent and not contradictory
  • Accountable -- able to take responsibility for one's own actions and those of others 
  • Delegate -- able to recognize talents and delegate responsibilities accordingly 
  • Initiative/creative -- able to formulate and start new ideas and programs
  • Wisdom -- able to discern the best thing to do at all times
  • Unifier -- able to unite people and not divide them 

This list is not exhaustive nor is it intended to be, but I provide it not only as an example of what traits characterize good leadership but also as a standard to judge leaders, or those who aspire to become leaders.

Using this standard, I invite you to examine the leaders of the major parties and see how they measure up. Do not look only at their programs but also examine them as persons. Ask yourself this question: Who do you trust the most to lead Canada for the next few years?

We often select programs that benefit us personally or appeal to us because of our own world view. Programs are alright, but we must never forget the selfishness that motivates many of our choices. That, of course, is what politicians count on. 

Good leaders are careful not to use programs, especially at election time, that appeal to our baser instincts but also in order to benefit the whole country. Selfishness must not drive leadership but rather the common good.

Good leaders also recognize that, while not everyone shares their world view, we live in a pluralistic country where many world views are operative. Thus they will not try to force one particular world view on everyone, but will respect other world views. The current government, under Stephen Harper, has not respected other world views sufficiently and practiced a politics of division instead.

Similarly, as voters we must not just choose leaders just because their view is one very much like to our own, There are other considerations, such as leadership. that need to be considered.

Therefore, before you mark your ballot on the 19th, I invite you to think carefully about who would make the best leader for Canada, and then vote accordingly.

I am not going to encourage you to vote for any particular party. I have mine, as you probably know by now. My preference is still for Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. While he has his faults, as we all do, Mulcair is a man of integrity, which he demonstrated by his willingness to take a stance on issues such as the niqab which is unpopular in Quebec and may yet cost the NDP first place in the election.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals come a close second. Trudeau has shown strong leadership skills, although Steven Harper and Mulcair have repeatedly dismissed him as "not yet ready." He too is not perfect, but he may yet become Canada's next prime minister, following in the footsteps of his late father from whom he, no doubt, learned a lot about leadership.

Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green party, would win the.leadership contest with flying colors except for the fact that her party currently has hardly any seats in Parliament and thus has little influence politically. Ethically, however, May provides an outstanding example to her opponents in this campaign, especially to Steven Harper who is ethically-challenged.

Harper has many more faults when it comes to leadership -- too many to enumerate. Just look at my list and you will see what I mean. That is why many Canadians will vote ABC (Anyone But the Conservatives). They have measured and found him wanting.

Harper has many negative traits when it comes to leadership. His message in this election has been to trust the Conservatives at the helm, but after almost a decade many Canadians feel that it is high time for a change.

I respect your right to choose whatever party and leader you want. But vote wisely. You are voting first of all for your local candidate, but remember that each one represents a party and a leader.

So, when you vote, make sure that this leader is indeed a good leader, and not only that, the best one of all!


Saturday, October 3, 2015

A "routine" shooting in Oregon

Mass shootings have become "routine" in the United States of America. The word "routine" is not mine but that of President Obama.

In a speech delivered soon after the shooting in Oregon, Obama used these words repeatedly: "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We've become numb to this." 

Two paragraphs later, Obama repeated the word "routine""And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation." 

He explained that "routine" response: "Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws."

Then, several paragraphs later he used the word "routine" again: "And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic."

To summarize the President:

Mass shootings have become "routine."

Media reports have become "routine."

The response of the National Rifle Association has become "routine."

And the charges of politicization have become "routine."

Now the question on everyone's lips is: When will these shootings stop being "routine"? Or even better: When will they stop entirely?

Obama put his finger on the problem, but the US is still far from a solution. These shootings will not stop until Americans change their attitude to guns.

Obama concluded his speech with these comments about his hope that change will happen:
I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as President to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as President, I can't guarantee that. And that's terrible to say. And it can change. 
May God bless the memories of those who were killed today. May He bring comfort to their families, and courage to the injured as they fight their way back. And may He give us the strength to come together and find the courage to change.

Obama is more hopeful, perhaps, than many people are, although his hope is tempered by realism. His Oregon speech was the eleventeenth on mass shootings during his term of office. His first was in 2009. In the latest, he said that doesn't want to give any more such speeches, but he realizes very well what he is up against. 

The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, and it is unlikely to change. Although polling, according to the President, shows that a majority of Americans, including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners, understand that gun laws should be changed. Yet this is not likely to happen.

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, "a mass shooting is when four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period." This includes all the people who are shot and not just those who are killed. It differs slightly from the FBI definition, which only counts three or more murders as a mass shooting. The MST listing is wider and thus better.

By their count, in 2015 there have now been 294 mass shootings in the 274 days until the Oregon shooting on October 1. That is an average of more than one a day. There have been a total of 994 mass shootings since Obama's reelection in 2012.

Only in the US have mass shootings become "routine." Other countries by crafting appropriate laws have largely eliminated mass shootings. In Australia, such shootings stopped after these laws were passed.

There are an estimated 300 million guns in the US, which is roughly one for every man, woman, and child, as Obama also mentioned in his latest speech.  The US has nearly half the world's civilian-owned guns. It is also home to 31 per cent of the world's mass shootings, despite making up only five per cent of the world's population.

I live in Canada, and I don't own a gun. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, do any of my neighbors. There have been killings here, but very few mass killings. However, the Conservative government has tried to blame all the killings on terrorists as part of a politics of fear that they hope will make their reelection possible.

In the US, most mass killings are caused by white males who have serious emotional and other problems. They are not ISIS-sympathizers or terrorists, as the government alleges in the Canadian killings. 

In the Oregon shooting, Chris Mercer, the alleged killer described himself politically as a "conservative, republican" whose hobbies were "internet, killing zombies, movies, music, reading" and who lived with his parents.

In regard to his religious views, he listed himself as "Pagan, Wiccan, Not Religious, but Spiritual." Not exactly a terrorist, although he had earlier expressed an admiration for the Irish Republican Army.

(Click to enlarge)

Apparently, Mercer told the students and the professor he shot, "I’ve been waiting to do this for years." He specifically targeted Christians. "Are you a Christian?" he would ask them, "and if you are a Christian stand up."  And if they did stand up, the shooter said, "Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second."

According to reports, Mercer had 14 weapons, six were with him during the shooting, while the rest were found at his home. All the weapons were legal. The question that the US faces is how to prevent troubled people from committing such horrendous crimes so that these "routine" shooting might stop.

I doubt that any solution can be found, except to keep these people away from weapons that they can use in these shootings. New laws are needed in the US to reduce these shootings as well as the daily ration of homicides. They have proven to be effective in other countries and they should prove equally effective in the US.

How many more "routine" shootings will it take before such legislation is passed in the US? 

Canada has its own problems. Here nearly all shootings are being blamed on terrorists. I am hopeful that this blame game will stop after the election on October 19. A new government must change this.

However, I am not so hopeful about the US solving its problem with guns anytime soon. Like Obama, I pray for change, but until then mass shootings will continue to be "routine." God help the USA!


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Political lies

"All politicians are liars," or so the saying goes. It is not difficult to list all the politicians you know and then to check for truth or fiction on a truth meter that measures the degree of truth; everything from mostly true to pants on fire.

The truth is many politicians do lie. Just as many of us, do, they lie in order to gain favor, to deceive, to delay discovery, to cover previous lies, and to buy time. Lying is part of human nature, it seems.

But politicians excel at it. A recent university study in Italy on the topic of politicians and lying reported: 
Politicians make good liars because they manage to convince themselves they are telling the truth. And this has also made it easier to hoodwink the public because the best liars are the ones who do not realise they are lying.  . . . it may be that those who go on to become the most successful politicians are those who have most developed the ability to deceive themselves and to believe their own lies.

This is true of politicians everywhere. As Nikita Khrushchev sagely observed: "Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river." In the same vein, in Alaska some politicians built a bridge even though there were hardly any people living there.

This is also true in Canada where the entire nation has had front row seats during the federal election campaign. Now voters don't have to go to Ottawa to visit the politicians, but the politicians actually come to them -- even to their front door, or into their living rooms through clips on the nightly news broadcasts or via the staged drama of election debates.

What voters see of politicians, they don't always like. They witness them attacking each other unmercifully. The truth of H.L. Mencken's remark is evident to everyone: "Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule -- and both commonly succeed and are right." 

No wonder that this proverb of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz has become famous: "Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and all for the same reason." This needs no explanation, as every parent knows.

"A fish rots from the head down," is another proverb that also relates to a need for new and fresh leadership when the old leaders are failing. This ancient saying is, unfortunately, not completely true, since in reality it is the guts of the fish that begin to rot.

The more that leaders have to resort to fiction, the more the state of the nation deteriorates. They may claim that their words were taken out of context but after a while very few people believe them. They are then dismissed as chronic liars. This happens, especially, when they have been in power too long.

This year I witnessed all the election debates between the leaders of the major parties and I found them boring at times and very discouraging. Instead of dealing openly and honestly with the problems that voters face every day, politicians tediously offer their nostrums as if repetition alone would make the problems go away.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, these debates were accessible only to those who took the trouble to find them. Many were available only to those who had cable or used a computer. They were not made available to the major TV networks. Thus, many voters did not see these leaders perform, which is perhaps for the best. Seeing politicians up close like that can be discouraging.

Simplistic, but appealing, solutions are dangled before voters by politicians who would rather not tackle the really big issues that are crying for a remedy but will not win them the election. Populist measures such as a ban on the niqab are vote-getters, not the alleviation of poverty which is too complex and costs too much. By not telling the full truth is one way that politicians lie without realizing it.

Or -- perhaps even worse -- they try to buy support using the voter's own money, as the Conservatives are doing in this election by offering a benefit to the parents of children but which will be taxed back the next year. Are voters that naive? Apparently so.

During the election campaign, untold billions of dollars are promised as regularly as clockwork by each party, but few voters realize that all this money is coming out of their own pockets. That too is a form of lying since the full truth is not divulged. Who is going to pay for all this? That depends, of course, on whose ox is going to be gored. People don't care, as long as it belongs to the other guy.

Ultimately, lies destroy both those who do the lying and those who are being lied to. Both politicians and voters become victims of the lies that are distributed like candy. Unfortunately, the candy is toxic.

All politicians lie to us in one way or another because they know that people prefer a reassuring lie to the inconvenient truth. But they are often trapped by their own duplicity as George Bernard Shaw realized: "The liar's punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else." 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was also well aware of this truth, as he warns everyone of the dangers involved in lying.

Another result of the duplicity of [politicians is that they must lie to themselves: "Every lie has two parts -- the lie we tell others and the one we tell ourselves to justify it."  The web of lies thus becomes more and more tangled; finally, no one can be trusted as telling the truth.

We all know that there are many types of lies, as Mark Twain famously proclaimed: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Half-truths are more dangerous than a total lie. Every lie must contain at least a kernel of truth if it is to be believed.

It is the half-truths proclaimed by the leaders that I found so discouraging. I was bothered especially by the current refugee crisis where the Candian government, instead of responding magnanimously to the plight of the Syrian refugees -- epitomized in the photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi -- callously admitted only 457 of them thus far, and not the 10,000 as previously promised.

Stephen Harper keeps repeating the word "generous" to describe his government's response. But this is a blatant lie that is mitigated only slightly by a small grain of truth. Canada's refugee policies are mean and incompetent. While other countries, like Germany, have welcomed Syrian refugees, the Conservative government has taken little action to Canada's lasting shame.

Harper's lies are apparent to everyone except his diehard supporters and, perhaps, even himself, His mantra-like answers to every question that is posed to him makes me nauseous (if I may speak personally).

The half-truths that flow from Harper's tongue would not bother me as much if I knew that very few people believed him. Unfortunately, his base remains rock-solid in support of him and responds as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Another word Harper uses ad nauseam is "security." While no one would argue against the need for security, it is one of the "dog-whistle" words that I spoke about in my previous post. Dog-whistle politics, as I explain further in that post, employs coded language in which words mean one thing to the general population but are understood in a different way by a targeted subgroup.

Dog-whistle politics is a form of lying. It is deceptive by its very nature. As I wrote there, the political message is not understood as such by those outside the target group of the electorate. But this message resonates and energizes the target group while it is misheard or misunderstood by others.

This is precisely Harper's intention. The words he utters will irritate those who do not share his convictions -- why does he keep mentioning security? they ask -- yet the same words will motivate his supporters -- it is red meat to them.

The foreign policy debate was probably the best of the whole series. All three leaders performed well, but the rhetoric became heated. Truth was the chief victim in all the debates. All three men stretched the truth at times in order to win debating points and, they hope, the election.

But Harper has made a habit of playing loose with the truth. The need to win trumps everything else, even his personal convictions as a Christian. In fact, he pointedly ignores any mention of his faith. That is something personal which does not belong in the public sphere where politics is practiced.