Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What would Jesus do about Syria?

The Syrian war and general unrest in the Middle East, and the related wave of refugees, has spawned debate here in Canada about how much help we can or should provide. Canada seems like a natural participant, given our rich history of welcoming huge waves of refugees from past conflicts. Yet some arguments I have seen on social media against providing that help strike me as deeply un-Canadian in their lack of compassion. I certainly hope I can debunk some of those ideas, so we can put them behind us and step up the way we can and should.
And it's time to go.
One line often spouted in recent weeks is that we should look after our own first, and if we can’t care for veterans or homeless here, then obviously we can’t accommodate refugees. Yet this is a false choice. As shown many times in the past, when we accepted tens of thousands of Ugandan or Vietnamese refugees in the early and late 70s, tough economic times is no barrier to helping those in dire need. We are, per capita, one of the richest nations on earth and in all of human history; if we can’t afford to provide help now, what was the point of years, decades, and centuries of economic growth at the expense of our planet? But if (or when) we fail our veterans or homeless, it’s not truly for lack of wealth, but lack of priorities. When compassion guides our hand, we find we can actually help our own as well as many from foreign lands.
Another silly argument is that this should all fall on Islamic nations to solve. This starts by ignoring that the majority of the Syrian refugees are so far being accommodated in Syria’s Islamic neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. But even if there are some rich Arab nations perhaps not doing their share, since when has the poor behaviour of other nations been an excuse for us not to act?
Some state, facetiously, that there are tens of millions of refugees and we can’t absorb them all. Of course we can’t; no-one has suggested we should. Rather, we are asked to be part of an international solution that settles some refugees in each host nation, while trying to get many of them back home, once peace permits.
A parable even an atheist can love
But the strangest argument is that we should only take in Christian, not Muslim, refugees to protect our “traditional culture”. Have these people not actually read their Bibles? Perhaps Christ’s most famous parable is of the Good Samaritan, told to demonstrate that God commands Christians to love and help other people, even those of a different, despised faith. The idea that Christians should only, or preferentially, aid other Christians contradicts basic compassion as Christ himself defined it.
But if you still believe we must “help our own first”, then you are in luck: Barrie’s Out of the Cold program is in need of volunteers to look after the homeless right here in our own community. So if accepting Syrian refugees is a bridge too far for you to cross, how about stepping up one shift each month this winter, to serve those most in need right here? You might even come to a new understanding of compassion. (To sign up for Barrie’s Out of the Cold program, visit
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There are many ways to help Syrian refugees"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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