Text: Jeremiah 4:23-28 (a terrifying vision)
The vision of the devastation of Jerusalem, which we just heard and which was painted by the Prophet Jeremiah more than 2500 years ago, brings to my mind today’s refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. The failed revolutions of the Arab Spring of 2011, the more than four years of civil war in Syria, and the aftermath of Western wars in places like Iraq and Libya have displaced millions of people there. While most of these refugees live in misery in camps in the region, more and more are making a perilous journey by land or sea to Europe, and their plight has dominated the news media again this summer.
The United Nations now estimates there are about 60 million refugees around the world, which is the highest number since the end of World War II. Canada, despite having the highest portion of foreign-born citizens of all rich countries, has received only a trickle of these refugees so far.
When the shocking picture of the dead body of Alan Kurdi — a three-year old Syrian boy who drowned in Turkey while his family was trying to flee Syria — was widely published in early September, I expected this would have turned the tide of popular opinion. After all, the Kurdi family had been rejected as refugees to Canada even though relatives already living in Canada had tried to sponsor the family last year.
But hostility to refugees exists not just in countries like Hungary, which has closed its border with Serbia and built a metal fence topped with razor wire to keep refugees out. Hostility to refugees is also prevalent here in Canada. As an example, when Canada’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander yesterday announced an expansion of Canada’s plans to settle more than 10,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, he said the number one priority in the plan was Canadian security.
To me, it seems callous to put security first when 10s of millions of people have fled their devastated homelands, are living in squalor and danger, and are banging at the doors of richer countries. It would be as though our Clothing Bank put more resources into screening people for weapons than into receiving, sorting, and distributing clothes to poor people who need them.
But many people in Canada are against accepting refugees despite the sadness and shame we feel when we see a picture of a three-year old drowned in the Mediterranean.
I am opposed to the fears expressed in both Europe and Canada about refugees, but I can also understand them. Even citizens of a rich and blessed country like Canada can feel insecure about our economic and social prospects. The world is so vast and its problems so complex that I understand it when people want their governments to ignore the misery and desperation of people in poorer countries.
I believe that accepting refugees has positive effects on both refugees and on the receiving countries. But it is also easy to stoke fears that refugees will strain resources, take jobs, upset cultural norms, and bring religious and ethnic violence with them.
Canada’s current federal election campaign has brought new focus to these issues. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his priority is dealing with the root causes, i.e. the civil wars in Syria in Iraq. He has sent Canadian planes to both those countries, just as he sent them to Libya in 2011. But Canada’s planes are there not to ferry refugees in their thousands back to Canada. There are there to drop bombs. In 2011, Canadian bombs helped to topple and kill Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Today, Canada’s bombs are targeting members of the Islamic State, the terror group which now controls large areas of Syria and Iraq.
In 2003, Harper as Leader of the Opposition strongly urged Canada to bomb Iraq as part of the U.S. war that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime. But to my mind the root causes of both the rise of the Islamic State and the refugee crisis are Western military assaults like those in Iraq in 2003 and in Libya in 2011. In the aftermath of U.S.-led campaigns, both countries descended into chaos in which terror, death and displacement have increased a hundred-fold.
I would prefer that countries like Canada keep its bombs to itself and instead focus on settling as many of the refugees as possible. But then I am not Prime Minister, and the politics of war, terror, race, religion, and economic disparity often seem to bedevil my capacity to know how to respond.
Perhaps discussing today’s reading from Jeremiah might help. Jeremiah describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire 2600 years ago. Its vision of chaos and devastation is presented both to express the pain of the leaders of Jerusalem living in exile in Babylon, to chastise these people for so-called sins that he says led to their defeat, and to prepare them to regain the Promised Land at a future date.
Jeremiah is one of a string of biblical writers who argue that military defeat of the Jewish people reflect God’s anger that they have worshipped the “wrong” gods or worshipped in the “wrong” fashion. While reading such laments today can touch our hearts and remind us of the pain of people like Syrians who are fleeing the utter destruction of their country, I reject the ideas behind Jeremiah.
The God who is Love is not a Being who decides that Jerusalem should be destroyed. The Babylonian army is not God’s puppet. Nor do I believe that Jerusalem and the land around it belong to the Jewish people by divine right if only they will repent of their sin.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah’s ideas persist to this day. We may not say it is God’s will that Canada or Hungary or Germany is just for those of us lucky enough to have Canadian or Hungarian or German citizenship, but our governments act as though this were the case.
Ten years ago, a Syrian might have felt lucky to have had citizenship there. Syria was relatively prosperous and stable. While it had a dictatorial government that violated human rights, it had good relations with both Russia, Europe, and the United States and life for many people there often seemed fine.
But then a popular uprising in Syria 2011 was met with fierce repression. The country descended into clashes between different sects of Islam, Christianity and other secular and national communities. The United States backed some of the rebels. Iran and Russia backed the governing dictatorship. Islamic extremists backed by another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, gained the upper hand in many regions. These extremists eventually allied with the Islamic State terrorists in next-door Iraq.
More than 250,000 Syrians have now been killed. The economy has been utterly destroyed. Clean water, electricity, and healthcare are now unavailable to most people. Of the 25 million Syrians, four million have fled their homes inside the country, and two million have fled to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, and more and more of them have now made it to Europe.
Ten years ago, being Syrian seemed OK. Today being a Syrian means one is likely to be scared, vulnerable and miserable. A modern-day Jeremiah might say this is their own fault – even the fault of three-year old Alan Kurdi! But Syrian refugees no more chose their country than most of us chose Canada.
It was the Europeans who carved up their colonies after the two world wars into countries like Syria and Iraq and who along with United States supported military dictatorships there. Surely if anyone is to blame for Syrian or Iraqi misery, it should include those who created those countries and who wage continual war there.
Earlier we sang the hymn, “We cannot own the sunlit sky.” It presents a vision of social justice in which God calls humanity to work together so that bodies no longer shiver in the night and peace can overtake war.
But if no one owns the sunlit sky, who owns the earth? In practical terms, the different patches of the earth are owned by the people who build fences topped with razor wire, who stop people at borders to check their papers, and who send warplanes to bomb other countries.
Humanity may be one in God’s eyes. But our globe is divided into a myriad of competing nation states, and it is those states that own the earth.
Human unity is a beautiful goal, although any one person or church cannot do much to make it a reality. At the least, I pray that we try to stand against racist fears expressed by national leaders or fellow citizens and against Western wars in places like the Middle East and North Africa. After the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the creation of 10s of millions of refugees, I say “enough.”
We don’t have a lot of power, but we have beautiful vision that the God who is Love wants abundant life for all people regardless of citizenship or nationality.
Who owns the earth? In practical terms, it is the various nation states with their structures of violence who own it. Who should own the earth? Humanity united by God’s love for all people and all life.
May we accept the Grace of God to have the courage to stand up for a vision of a world in which all may have abundant life and where peace endures forever.