Canadians have been in an uncharacteristically self-congratulatory mood lately over our national response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The federal government has come through on behalf of thousands of people fleeing the catastrophic violence in Syria, with the prime minister and what appeared to be most of his cabinet showing up personally to greet the first arrivals. Perhaps more impressive still has been the mobilization of ordinary Canadians to sponsor and aid refugees, with synagogues, churches, community groups, neighborhoods and individuals stepping up to help. In contrast with the response from many in the world, including the Gulf states and divisive figures like Donald Trump, Canadians should be rightly proud of our collective response.
Certainly there are concerns among some Canadians about the newcomers. The idea that “radicalized” individuals could slip in under the guise of humanitarian status is frequently mooted. More likely is the potential that some refugees may carry with them ideas about women, Jewish people, gay people or others that are not consistent with this country’s norms. This is not something to gloss over. We should be aware of it and ensure that, along with our clearly demonstrated willingness to offer a heart-felt welcome to the refugees, we also model for them other Canadian ideals, including respect for difference. The fact that the groups sponsoring refugees are themselves representative of Canadian diversity should be a good head start in this regard.
The joyous welcome we have witnessed is an uplifting way to draw 2015 to a close. This has not been a year filled with happy news, yet the last few weeks have brought us several encouraging lights in the midst of the winter’s darkness.
In Paris last weekend, 195 countries made an historic step toward reining in the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. These two issues – refugees and the climate – are not unrelated. Scientists and other warn that if something significant does not change quickly, the world will be awash in populations struggling against each other for arable land, potable water and habitable space. It is a daunting prospect, put mildly, and events in Paris suggest the world may finally be taking the danger seriously. Of course, we have made false promises before. Again, we may have reached a moment of truth where the arc of history is bending toward repairing the damage we have done to the world.
There has been another very significant development in recent days. The rapprochement between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church that began five decades ago took a very major and substantive leap forward with remarks by Pope Francis and the release of a landmark statement by the Vatican.
Catholics, the document states, are obligated to demonstrate their faith in Jesus to all people, including Jews, but the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports” missionary initiatives aimed toward Jews. From the perspective of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine that situates the Catholic Church and Christianity as the preemptive successor religion to Judaism, this is a revolution. It is the antithesis of the sort of language and ideas that have caused incalculable strife for Jews in Europe and other primarily Christian lands. It suggests that the leadership of the church, once deemed infallible and all-knowing, admits that some things are unknowable. The Christian dictum that eternal life requires belief in and dedication to Jesus as the messiah is neither negated nor affirmed by this new statement, deeming it “an unfathomable divine mystery” that salvation can come only through Jesus while the church also affirms the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people, the Vatican says.
“While affirming salvation through an explicit or even implicit faith in Christ,” the Vatican document says, “the church does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel.”
The Pope has repeatedly made friendly gestures to the Jewish people, rejecting millennia of hostility and continuing a trajectory of reconciliation begun in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council.
These three developments – the welcoming of refugees to Canada, the recognition that we must care for our planet for its and our survival, and an historic reappraisal of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism – seem like pleasant things to reflect on as we close out a year in which bright lights are a welcome respite.