The City of Light and the shadows of Advent

Text: Luke 21:25-36 (signs of the coming of the Chosen One)

Do news report ever get you down? And has this ever led you to take a sabbatical from following current events? Some people say that ignoring the news can improve one’s mental health. And given how often I am upset at the news — whether in TV broadcasts, online sources, or social media — I get the point.

This Advent as we get ready for Christmas and family gatherings, we may wonder if we should turn off the TV, stay away from newspapers, and ignore the reports of terrorism and war that often dominate the headlines.

But you are probably not surprised to hear that I am not one who does this. Tracking the news has always been a passion of mine — one might even say an addiction. And since I became a minister in 2011, it has also seemed like a professional obligation. The 20th Century German theologian Karl Barth said that a preacher should prepare for Sunday sermons with a Bible in one hand a newspaper in the other; and I usually follow this suggestion.

Our Gospel reading today suggests that we stay awake for signs of the coming of God’s salvation. Despite how scary the signs might be, Jesus calls us to watch for them and to be on guard.

Finding signs of hope in today’s news reports might seem difficult. But the signs are there, I think. To illustrate, I look at today’s refugee crises.

Many of the world’s more than 50 million refugees have fled conflict in North Africa and the Middle East. These conflicts and their resulting human misery have many causes. Starting in the present and moving backwards in time, some of these causes include: proxy civil wars in places like Syria between the Sunni Muslim leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Shia Muslim leaders of Iran; the largely failed uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011; the aftermath of U.S. war and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001; 70 years of tension following the creation of Israel as a Jewish State in a region that had been radically diverse in terms of religion, language, and ethnicity; British and French colonial domination of the area after the defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire 100 years ago; and 1,000 years of clashes between Christian European empires and Muslim empires.

Today’s victims of war and terror in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe are part of a long line of victims over centuries. The wounds are many. The causes are complex. The solutions are not readily visible.

What upsets me about the news reports from the region is not just the terrible human toll — thousands killed by American, Russian, French and Canadian bombs in places like Syria and Iraq today and in so many other countries in the past two decades; thousands illegally detained and tortured by governments which were often supported and sustained by the United States; thousands oppressed as secularization was rolled back by fundamentalists; and so on. What can also make me despair is how the news media report on such events and how various political actors respond to them.

The terrorist attack in Paris now more than two weeks ago provides an example of what bothers me. As horrible as this attack was, the death toll of 130 pales against the death and destruction in other countries.

One columnist in the Edmonton Journal justified the intense focus on Paris relative to the coverage of the hundreds of thousands killed in placed like Iraq and Syria by remarking that Paris is the most civilized city in the world.

I agree with Michael Den Tandt that Paris is a place of great beauty, history and value. But does he not remember that Paris was the centre of the vicious tyranny of the Bourbon kings? Does he not remember the revolutions in Paris of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1936, and 1968? Does he not remember that Paris was the seat of the French Empire from the 1600s until the 1960s with its millions of victims of slavery and conquest in places as disparate as Canada, Southeast Asia, and North Africa? Does he not remember that governments in Paris fought against the independence of Vietnam and Algeria in the 1950s and 60s leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands? Does he not remember that Paris is the headquarters of racist parties now rising in the polls like the National Front? Does he not know of the terrible conditions faced by descendants of immigrants from Algeria in the suburbs of Paris?

I say this not to blame Paris for all the world’s problems but because I think a bit of perspective is required. Yes, Paris is a civilized city, just like Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus, and it also has a dark shadow side.

The attack in Paris was designed to sow terror, and that is exactly the result. Brussels was locked down for much of last week. Edmonton school trips to Europe have been cancelled. Tourism is suffering. And expressions of irrational fear of Muslims are sharply on the upswing.

There is much to fear in today’s society — things like climate change, 4,000 people killed worldwide every day in car crashes, and millions of children dead every year from easily preventable causes such as diarrhea and malaria.

Terrorism should not be high on the list of our fears, in my opinion. But for many of us, fear of terrorism overwhelms all others. And the way that news media and governments react to terror attacks feeds into this fear, I think.

Given how a group like ISIS or Daesh arose out of the horrors of war in Iraq and Libya, surely it wants more bombing. Given how racist Daesh is, surely it wants the vast outpouring of racism by its opponents found on social media of the past weeks and months.

Not only do I think the fears of terror are exaggerated, I believe the reaction to these fears — racism and war — are feeding terror instead of deflating it.

But there are signs of hope as well. I am encouraged by the groundswell of support for refugees from Syria, who will finally start arriving in Canada in large numbers this week. The work of housing, healing, and welcoming refugees is an antidote to some of the world’s problems. I am glad that Canada will soon be home to 25,000 Syrian refugees, and I hope that many more refugees from there and other conflict-ridden countries will soon arrive.

As people in a diverse neighbourhood like Mill Woods know better than most, fears of the stranger dissolve when we meet people from other backgrounds in school or workplace. Not only is welcoming refugees the right thing to do. Not only does it help the economy of countries like Canada that face declining population without migrants. Welcoming refugees also dissolves racism and undercuts the message of terrorists.

Many people marvel that Germany has taken in one million refugees this year. What they might forget is that Germany needs at least 500,000 migrants a year to keep its population from falling. Also, there is no better cure for the idolatry of nationalism than to see one’s country become the home for people from all corners of the globe and not just people of one ethnicity.

When a country like Germany becomes less German, it also becomes more human, I believe. And is this not what the realm of God is about — the flourishing of all people regardless of race, religion, language or nationality?

Jesus says that some of the signs of his coming will be nations in anguish. Today, I pray that the anguish felt by many nationalists — whether in Canada, Europe, or the Middle East– may be a sign that the world is about to become more human and less racist, more humane and less violent, and more welcoming and less fearful.

Four years ago in his letter of farewell to Canadians, Opposition Leader Jack Layton wrote that “love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, and optimism is better than despair.”

Despite today’s signs of conflict and terror, or even because of them, I believe that Layton’s dying words are being made real in our hearts. So this Advent, I pray that all of us will become more loving, hopeful and optimistic.

Advent is here. And as we wait and wonder, I also pray that the following ancient words of hope will form again in our hearts: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”


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