Culture of Fear or Compassion ?

ct-photos-eiffel-tower-in-the-french-flag-s-co-006Since my wife and I had just been in Paris, France a month ago, I  was filled with great sadness when I heard about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015.  Terrorism is something I have a difficult time wrapping my head around. I cannot for the life of me understand how someone can cause harm and death to innocent people such as the carnage we saw in Paris. The news media has repeatedly said that the people who carry out such acts of violence have been radicalized, that is, have become more radical. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a radical as  “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”.  I guess for radicals that means carrying out acts of murder.  This is what I can’t get my head around.  How can someone with any kind of conscience murder innocent people? The only explanation I can come up with is these people have been brainwashed. The MacMillan Dictionary defines brainwash as “to force someone to accept a particular set of beliefs by repeating the same idea many times so that the person cannot think in an independent way”.  How exactly terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are able to do this using the internet is a mystery to me, but this  must be what is happening.

IMG_1182What concerns me the most is that many people are becoming fearful. On November 23rd, the American Government issued a world wide travel alert cautioning Americans to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. This obviously means that Americans are becoming fearful. Don’t get me wrong, caution when traveling is always a good thing.  Travellers should always use caution when travelling outside of their country whether terrorism threats are around or not. That is just common sense.  Moreover, we are beginning to see a rise in Islamophobia (or anti-Muslim sentiment). That is when there is prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims. U. S. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been advocating for more surveillance of Muslims. (see Muslim-Americans fear ‘ugly rhetoric’) Mr. Trump says, “we’re being foolish, we’re kidding ourselves” if law enforcement doesn’t keep close surveillance on mosques, and he expressed support for the idea of a database for tracking Muslims in the United States. Some have even resorted to using religion to justify Islamophobia or fear of Muslims. During a November 15 sermon at First Baptist Church in Dallas, pastor Robert Jeffress told his congregation that the Paris terrorists were “acting according to the teaching of Islam,” and said “it is time” to call out Islam as “a false religion … inspired by Satan himself”.  (see Theological Studies Director calls out) This is wrong, pure and simple. It simply is not fair to put all adherents to Islam in the same category.  In fact, the majority of Muslims around the world have condemned the Paris attacks and other acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim extremists. Even more, most if not all non-extremist Muslims categorically say that these extremists are not true Muslims. (see Muslims Around World Speak Out)  The bottom line is we must not let the terrorists achieve their goal. The root word of terrorism is terror which Dictionary.com defines as “an instance or cause of intense fear or anxiety”.  The very goal of terrorism is to instil fear in society so that our leaders cave into their demands. 

IMG_1239This fear, caused by the Paris terrorists and other terror attacks, has changed the debate over refugees.  Since returning home from Europe a few weeks ago I have been asked many times if we were affected by the refugees that had been dominating the news media before the Paris incident. Of course we were not.  My wife and I even had a conversation with another couple recently at an airport where this couple expressed real concern over Canada accepting refugees from Syria. They told us that they heard one of the Paris extremists was a refugee. Once again their concerns were stemming from fear.

There seems to be two camps in this debate; Do we allow the Syrian refugees into our country or do we keep them out as there might be an extremist among them? Canada’s new prime minister,  Justin Trudeau has promised to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada. (see Trudeau…) The debate in Canada and United States over the refugees is heated.  Several of Canada’s premiers have spoken out on the issue, both for and against. Petitions against bringing in the Syrian refugees have been popping up online. (see Should Canada stop).  Quebec’s premier Philip Couillard said it well when he said, “We must keep our arms open to refugees. They have fled their villages, they have seen their parents murdered and sometimes in front of their eyes. They come here in search of peace and freedom. Always remember that the Syrian refugees that will come to Quebec are themselves the first victims of terror.” (see We must keep our arms open)   The Free Dictionary defines a refugee as “one who flees, especially to another country, seeking refuge from war, political oppression, religious persecution, or a natural disaster”.  These people fear for their lives. They have witnessed horrible things. As Mr. Couillard stated, they are victims themselves. Alberta’s new premier,  Rachel Notley said it even better when she delivered an impassioned speech on the need to keep our doors open to Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attack, to not treat them as if they are terrorists about to launch a jihad in Edmonton or Calgary.  (see Graham Thomson) Here are some of Premier Notley’s words from Monday, November 16 speech; “…The refugees are themselves fleeing exactly the kind of terror that we were all shocked to observe and watch unfold this weekend. And that’s why we need to be reaching out to them…” The Premier later told reporters: “We cannot have our decisions being driven by fear.” The premiers of Quebec and Alberta are right! We must not be driven by fear.  My fear is that my country is buying into a culture of fear and as a result becoming less compassionate. I have always believed and been proud of the fact that Canadians are a compassionate people. Now is the time to show compassion for the Syrian refugees and NOT fear them. Now is the time to show the extremists that we will NOT be dictated by fear, that we will continue to travel abroad, and that we will NOT live our lives in fear.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United State said  in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Roosevelt is right! My fear is that fear will take hold in our free society thereby making us prisoners of fear.

Will there ever be peace?

According to International Relations.com, there are ten wars where the fatalities are greater than 1000 every year and  five serious armed conflicts with fatalities just under a 1000 per year, happening on our planet at the present moment. According to the website, Syria remains the most lethal and overall “biggest” conflict, with an estimated 250,000 deaths in the past three years, of which fewer than half were battle-related deaths. The website goes on to list 15 other conflicts where less than a 1000 people are killed per year. For me, that is appalling.  For me that says something about the world’s sad state of affairs. It begs the question, “Will this planet ever experience peace?”  An even better question would be, “Is peace on this planet even possible?”

Personally I believe it is.  At the beginning of the Great War, otherwise known as World War One, the Christmas Truce of 1914 gives me a glimmer of hope. According the BBC,  a scattered series of small-scale cease fires did happen between some German and British forces. But this brief festive reprieve was not a mass event as some people have come to believe. In many places along the Western Front, December 25, 1914 was a day of brutal fighting like any other day in war times. Where it did occur, accounts suggest that men sang carols and in some cases left their trenches and met in No Man’s Land. If events where enemies put down their differences and celebrate, in this case Christmas, then those actions suggest to me that peace is achievable because of personal choices.  Each soldier involved in one of those brief cease-fires made a personal choice to make efforts of peace and goodwill towards their enemies.  It was a choice.

So is peace possible? Hans Küng,a scholar of theology and philosophy and author of many books, wrote in Christianity: Essence, History, Future, “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions”.  Many of the conflicts in the world involve tensions between the world religions. Hans Küng holds part of the key to the solution for world peace.  World religions need to understand one another and to practice what their religions teach, which is the ideals of their faith’s.  All world religions teach ideals of compassion, love and tolerance.

There have been and still are many spiritual leaders in history that have given us ways to achieve peace. The historical Jesus, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Dalai Lama to name a few. Gandhi once said,”An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”.  In other words, violence begets violence. History has demonstrated to humanity that most human conflicts have been as a result of stubbornness on the part of our leaders.  If our leaders could just learn that most disputes can be resolved by showing a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and that by using diplomacy and compassion these issues can be solved peacefully.  Mahatma Gandhi also said, “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no cause that I am prepared to kill for”.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.  His wisdom holds true not only for peace in our world, but for peace within ourselves.  Mr. Gandhi taught, “We must become the change we want to see in the world”This is by far Mahatma Gandhi’s wisest teaching. To achieve peace, be peace. How does one be peace? By a sheer act of Will. By the decision to always act peacefully and by causing others to experience what you wish to experience, that is peace.

peace-signThis especially holds true for our leaders, especially our political leaders. One cannot bring world peace to all unless a leader demonstrates peaceful acts of kindness daily.  Just think how different the world would be if our political or even religious leaders didn’t act like bullies, but instead always acted out of love, understanding and tolerance. It would be a very different world. A world living together in peace.

So what is my point simply put? Seymour Miller & Jill Jackson, a husband and wife songwriting team, say it much better than I could when they wrote the 1955 song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,  with those beautiful words, ” Let there be peace on earth, And let it begin with me”. Peace begins with you and me!

Pope Francis: A Breath of Fresh Air

Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped)This month, Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Catholics, was breaking new ground when he made the statement, “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way. They always belong to the church.” (see Pope calls for compassion). Even more, Pope Francis goes on to say, “How can we recommend to parents to do everything they can to educate their children in Christian life, giving them an example of a convinced and practiced faith if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated?”

In essence, Pope Francis is saying remarried Catholics are not automatically removed from church membership, although the church’s rules say such couples are not allowed to receive communion. The Catholic Church permits remarriage only after a church tribunal rules that the couple’s original marriage is annulled. The pontiff understands  that children of these remarried couples are watching how the church treats divorced families.  What this means is Francis accepts divorced couples as members of the church and says they need to be treated as such.

This is not the first time Pope Francis has shown compassion towards those looked upon less favourably in the Catholic Church.  Back in June of 2013 the pontiff made a bold statement during an interview saying, he doesn’t have any problem with the inclination to homosexuality itself.  He is quoted as saying, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”  (See Pope Francis reaches out to gays).  It  would seem that the pope accepts gays and lesbians as well.

It is so wonderful to have this “breath of fresh air” in the Catholic Church.  Finally, the Catholic Church has a leader who is pastoral, who is welcoming, and most importantly, who is more inclusive than his predecessors have been.  It seems to me, that when a church claims to follow the teachings and example of Jesus, then their actions need to reflect that.  I honestly believe that His Holiness, Pope Francis is doing just that.  He especially demonstrated this when in November of 2013, when the pontiff paused  to pray and lay his hands on a man with a disfiguring disease.  (See Francis embrace of a Disabled man) If that action doesn’t say, loving acceptance I don’t know what does.

Why is it so important for the leader of a Christian Institution to be so all-inclusive? Very simply, because Christians purport to  be the embodiment of Jesus on earth, therefore the institution must act and teach as Jesus did.  According to biblical stories Jesus was all-inclusive!  Let us look at some examples.

Take the story of the Woman at the Well as told in John 4:7 – 26, for example. To summarize the biblical story, Jesus  and his disciples were traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee.  They took the quickest route which was through Samaria. Tired and thirsty, Jesus sat by Jacob’s Well, while his disciples went to a village to buy food. During his wait, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman who came to the well to draw water.  When Jesus met this woman at the well, he did something atypical, scandalous really, in that he spoke to a Samaritan; a group the Jews traditionally loathed. Even more scandalous, Jesus asked  the Samaritan woman to get him a drink of water, which would have made him ceremonially unclean, according to the Jewish faith, because he used the same cup or jar as the Samaritan woman.

To help understand how powerful this story is and just how all-inclusive Jesus was, we must understand that the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was intense and long-standing.  Jews, who considered themselves pure, detested the mixed marriages and worship of the Samaritans. Thus, a faithful Jew would never go near a Samaritan let alone talk to one.

Mark 2:15-17 tells the story of Jesus sitting down to a meal in Levi’s house, the home of a tax collector.  Tax collectors were for the most part Jewish people, and therefore they were hated by their own people. When they collected taxes they would collect the required amount of money for Rome, plus some additional money for themselves. They were considered to be extortioners of large sums of money. Plus, there was the fact that tax collectors worked for Rome, who were Gentiles (non Jewish) in the eyes of the Jews, and so they were treated similar to the worst kinds of sinners and prostitutes.  So for Jesus to sit down and have a meal with one of these tax collectors would have been scandalous to say the least.  Yet, it says that Jesus accepts even those most loathed by his community.

Jesus touching and healing a leper as told in In Mark 1:40-45 is another example . What makes this story so incredible is the fact that lepers were cursed, not only with a terrible disease, but also with exclusion from society. People wanted to keep far away from those with this contagious illness. Lepers lived in the outskirts of civilization and, if they came close to people, had to warn them by yelling, “Unclean! Unclean!”  Yet, Jesus was willing touch and heal such a person.  Was this not an incredible act of acceptance?

Thumbs upSo as you can clearly see, the biblical Jesus accepted and included even those most marginalized by society. So to restate my point.  If the Catholic church claims to enbody Jesus on earth, then it must be all-inclusive just as Jesus was all-inclusive.  That is why Pope Francis is such a “breath of fresh air.”  He accepts all those that have been traditionally marginalized by the church. So “Thumbs up” for Pope Francis!