People can get a bit cynical about Christmas sometimes. The hype, the commercialism, the false friendliness: all can be very off-putting and you start wondering if there’s anything remotely real about it. But this year, something perfectly Canadian has happened that has changed that for many, many people, most of them not even here in Canada.
I was listening to a journalist being interviewed on CBC last week. She is from Aleppo, in Syria, and she and her husband travel back and forth from their country, trying to tell the world what is happening there. How the Russians are bombing their family and friends. And how the Americans, French and British are bombing them too. How ISIS and the Assad regime are torturing and murdering them, because they are educated and want human rights and freedom.
Their city, of more than 2 million people, has been devastated, emptied, as people flee from the horror and the destruction and the killing, living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey. They are suffering all over again, as western countries suspect them of being terrorists – the very terrorists that forced them to flee in the first place. The journalist had begun to wonder if there was anything good left in this world, as we crawled towards Christmas. And then something happened that lifted her spirits, and made her believe that there was goodness in people still.
She saw Syrians arrive in Toronto to be met, welcomed, by the Prime Minister of this country. They were not just let in, like some dog coming in out of the rain. They were shown warmth, hospitality, respect. They were welcomed home.
It seemed a perfect way to prepare for Christmas. Two thousand years ago, a young family found no room in a strange town, and had to live in a stable, while a baby was born. Soon afterwards, they were on the road to Egypt, fleeing for their lives, literally, against a tyrant king. They were refugees in a foreign land for some years, dependant on the kindness of a foreign power to allow them in and give them a safe place to raise their child.
Then, a few days later, I read something that had been published in the local paper in Kemptville in 1911. It was written about Canada, and its place among the nations of the world. It seemed to fit, to show me that perhaps Canada has regained something of its real identity in welcoming those newcomers. Here’s a little of what was written that Christmas, 105 years ago:
“Canada greets all Peoples with the Christmas Message of Peace and Goodwill. Her doors are open to all the world, and all equipped for service are welcome. And in standing for Peace Canada reveals her strength, not her weakness”.
There was more, and it was sad to read, knowing that, only three years later, Canada would be at war: “This half-continent of opportunity can spare no true life as a sacrifice to wicked and useless war. If between herself and her neighbour nations differences arise it will be Canada’s part to appeal to Reason and Justice, not Force and Strife. The older nations disprove the power of war to solve the problems of either Right or of Honor. Canada will show the more excellent way”.
That may sound naive today. But Canada’s reputation is as a peacemaker: United Nations Peacekeepers are a Canadian contribution to the world. The Syrian journalist made the telling point that all the bombing of her country by all sides, but especially the western powers, is only making more terrorists. Would we feel welcoming and sympathetic to any foreign nation that bombed our country, our hospitals, our schools? Would we just roll over and surrender to such attacks? Why do we think others are so different?
Yes, we have so many problems of our own here at home. Poverty, homelessness, the disgraceful treatment of First Nations, underlined again last week by the report on Residential Schools. To those who say we should deal with that first, before taking in refugees, let me say: carry on. No-one is stopping you, and you’ve had a long time to act. We need to solve these issues, but we cannot ignore urgent life-and-death situations where we can do something to help. Will you spend less this Christmas and give what you save to help the poor and homeless in North Grenville? Please do, and we have room, we have peace and security. If we are now a target for terrorists, it may be because we have made ourselves so by attacking foreign lands where we had no reason to be.
No, I don’t believe that evil people and causes will go away, this is, as I believe, a fallen and broken world. But we can become so afraid of the monster, that we become the monster in reaction. Let’s hold to what makes Canada different, let’s remain peacemakers, conciliators and use our genius for humanity to influence others. Bring food, shelter and medical supplies, not bombs. Let Canada show the more excellent way. “And so, this is Christmas, and what have we done….?”