YEG Peace

“YEG Peace Fest”  a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely September 27, 2015

Unitarian Church of Edmonton

Peace is such a funny word.  What does it mean?  It depends upon the context, of course, but usually when I hear that word I think first of serenity, quiet, perhaps waters gently lapping the shore of some lake while I stare at the sunset and listen to the cry of the loon.  It’s a sense of calm where inner me and my surroundings merge and all is quiet.

But of course the YEG PeaceFest going on this week is not about that kind of serenity.  It’s about the cessation of war, the respecting of human rights, the restoration of human dignity.  Not much there to do with lakes and loons and sunsets.

Peace means different things to different people and sadly, too often, some people want their definition of peace to triumph at all costs.  Instead of making peace, which comes from speaking AND listening well; which comes from truly learning about the other and making space for them, instead of that they want to win peace, reaping the benefits to which they feel entitled no matter the cost to anyone else.

What a silly notion – that peace can be won by war, or by economic sanction, or by the imposition of law or will on another.  I suppose it is possible to impose a cessation of violence through a threat of greater violence – to bomb the enemy into submission – but that does not equate to peace.   Yet we see that very policy pursued far too often in far too many nations.

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles suggest that we affirm “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”  The implication is clear.  There will be no meaningful peace unless there is also a real and fair justice and where people are accorded the same rights, freedoms and opportunities the world over.

For many of us the Syrian Refugee Crisis is on our minds.  8d3d12ce47933f0de576f0f9a88a2871Partly spawned by the failed interventions of the West that gave rise to ISIL, partly spawned by the environmental crisis of drought in Syria and largely spawned  by the brutal regime of Assad, millions are now fleeing for better lives and for safety

And that’s scaring the bejeezus out of a lot of westerners who as populations, are torn between wanting to keep what we have and wanting to live to a higher and more generous moral standard.

Peace-Making in this case, and in so many others, requires courage, generosity, sacrifice perhaps, and wisdom.  We have to get over our fears and remember that our purpose is not to live with riches but to live richly and well.  I want to consider a couple of points, but let me begin with a story that may seem unrelated.

In April of 1916 the poorly armed and organized soldiers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood staged a revolt.  Within four days the Easter Rising as it came to be called was completely crushed. Three  years later, Parliamentarians from Ireland created the Dail and declared the Irish Republic – at least on paper. Tensions between Catholics ad Protestants were very high.

At the time Thomas Gibbons was working in Londonderry’s Rock Road bakery, the city’s largest.  He was a master baker specializing

in cakes and pies.  He was good at what he did.  His wife and nine daughters lived just a block away in nice house by the river. Thomas was a Catholic.gibbons

After the declaration of the Republic the owners of the bakery called him in.  They were Protestants.  “Thomas, we have to let you go.  There is no fault with your work, but we are getting terrible pressure from the Orange Lodge about having a Catholic in a position of authority.”

With no work and a large family, Thomas Gibbons boarded a ship bound for Montreal.  His wife, Agnes Murnin Gibbons moved the beds of the nine daughters up to an attic room and fixed a stout bolt on the door to protect them.  She then started taking sailors and river men in as boarders.  The second youngest of those girls was my 10 year old mother.

Thomas arrived in Canada and for the next year and a half this man of small stature worked long hours as a navvy – replacing tracks and railroad ties for the CNR.  Finally though, he found work in POM bakeries in Montreal and again rose through the ranks.  He sent for his family as soon as he had the money and a place for them to live.

I mention my grandparents’ story to make a point.  They were economic refugees.  And as happened in many such cases, the husband came first.

In the past week I have heard a number of commentators speak about the Syrian crisis.  Several individuals have spoken to me too, concerned – even angry- that only the men – men carrying cell phones – seemed to be getting through to Europe. These commentators leap to an assumption that this is all just a mask for an Islamic invasion of Europe for the purpose of bringing those nations to their knees.  These men with cell hones are judged to be terrorists in refugee clothing.  Our current Prime Minister holds many of those suspicions.

I had a feeling that the assumptions being made were incorrect and  overblown.  I think the fearful the anger is misplaced.  I did a bit of research.

However, as of September 17, the UN High Commission on Refugees reported a little over 4 million registered Syrian refugees..

Most of these refugees are in camps in Turkey, but there are camps in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Libya.

50.5% of those refugees are female – women and children.  It’s not just the men fleeing.

Now it may be true that a higher proportion of men are making the rest of the journey to Europe.  I could not find any numbers from European nations. But why do some assume that they are infiltrators hoping to change Europe into an Islamic state?  Taken altogether those 4 million souls would be less than 1% of the European population.  Hardly enough for a take over.

Why can’t some, maybe a majority of them be concerned fathers and husbands taking the risk of going ahead to try to make a new life  for their families?  The camps may not be nice places, but they are relatively safe, and there is at least some food and shelter and water and medical care.

Why can’t we assume instead, that a lot of these are men like Thomas Gibbons paving the way for a new family life?  In countless waves of immigration spanning Canada’s 150 years and longer we have seen this pattern played out.  And our nation grew stronger and more prosperous because of it.

Another red herring:  Much has been made about the men carrying cellphones.  We look at what we have to pay in charges in North America and assume that it means these men have wealth.  That’s just wrong.  In Africa and the Middle East phones – often second hand cast offs from here- are cheap with pay as you go plans.  They are the only means of communication.  Virtually every adult has one.  They might not have a computer or even a home, but they have this one precious tool for connecting them to the rest of the world. And it’s because of those phones that we knew of the Arab Spring, that we know of the refugee crisis. And those who are fathers  going ahead to Europe?  It’s how they stay in touch with their families.

And even if they have some money, could they not be fleeing in fear of their lives?

Now some Europeans (and North Americans) who feel threatened by this huge influx are passing out false information.  UnknownSome publish assumptions that are misleading.  Others publish images that are out and out lies.  Consider this photo.  Allegedly it shows refugees fighting German border police.  In fact, it’s a three year old  photo of protesters turning up at an anti-Muslim rally.

The fear-mongering twisting of fact is hateful.  Why do they do it?  Well, some are just plain racist and wrap it up in anti-Islamic rhetoric.

But I think a larger reason is that they fear a decline in their lifestyle.  They fear ‘those people’ will change their worlds.  They want peace, but they want peace on their terms and they don’t particularly want to share that peace with anyone else who might think differently.

It’s nothing new.  Every wave of immigration has resulted in the same  backlash, the same fear, the same hatreds and often there has been violence.  It start with lumping all refugees into one narrow category.  Then you paint vicious caricatures and stereotypes of the newcomers…like young male cell-phone toting terrorists in disguise…coming to turn our nations into Islamic states.

And that’s wrong.  Pope Francis – who yes, heads an organization with its own human rights issues- spoke on the White House lawn this week.  He spoke of the refugees and migrants from Syria, from Mexico and everywhere else.  He said, “We must not be taken aback by the numbers but rather view them as persons.”  That’s the key to peacemaking, looking at The Other not as a statistic or as a set of projected assumptions, but as a person.  Back in the 1980’s during the last gasp of the Cold War with the Soviet Union the pop musician Sting famously sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.”  What a wonderfully humanizing thought!  They aren’t all evil others…they are mothers and fathers who love their children.  At least we hope so.

Now the naysayers do have a point.  The waves of immigrants, economic refugees and political refugees do change the lands the come to call home.  But every analysis I have seen shows that they bring economic value.  They often start in the first generation doing the lowest paid jobs no one else wants – like serving coffee at Tim’s or moving luggage carts at the airport or driving cabs.  They often start small businesses. As a collection of people the new arrivals tend to work hard, build a home, build the economy, encourage education for their children.  Every last one of them?  Of course not, there are no perfect populations.

Yes, the immigrants change their new homes.  In my view they make it better.  They sure do improve the quality of restaurant choices that are available!…but that’s a personal concern.

The barrier to peace is not waves of refugees.  The barrier to peace is us, the nations with wealth and power and the citizens who influence policy.  It is our fears, our prejudices, our racism, our hatred, our unwillingness to compromise, our entitled sense that our privilege cannot and should not be questioned or threatened. We are all the barriers to peace as much as anyone in a warring land.

“Peace, liberty and justice ….for all.”  It is a high ideal.  We might have to sacrifice for it, risk for it.  And yes, we might risk some harm – at the very least there will be some hard conversations and missteps.  But, Peace, liberty and justice ….for all. I think it’s worth the risk.