On a wall of our dentist’s office, where other practitioners might display photos of sparkly-toothed children, hangs a framed poster with a quote purportedly from Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Not exactly a cheery greeting on a root-canal sort of day, you’d have to agree, but the poster always gives me pause.
This is the office of a man who has stared down apartheid, a man who continues to battle against injustice here and abroad.
As much as I admire that poster, and our dentist, every visit niggles at me (and not just because Dante didn’t actually say that and President JFK did, as an homage to one of his favourite poets).
It pricks my conscience. It makes me wonder about all the times I cling to neutrality, and why; and whether beneath that so-called safe middle ground is a mad river of boiling blood and fire.
It forces me to ask myself, what is my moral imperative in these chaotic times?
And perhaps that is the nub of the challenge 2015 has imposed on each of us, as crisis barged uninvited through our heart’s doors.
It stormed into our homes through the images of little Alan Kurdi – the three-year-old Syrian whose drowned body washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family’s hopes for freedom capsized in the Aegean Sea.
It exploded into our newsfeeds as France became the bloody battleground for crazed terrorist zealots, and then it punctuated its presence with a horrific exclamation point of gunfire at a California social-services centre.
This 2015 is a year many of us will be glad to abandon on 2016’s doorstep.
We had expected so much more of it.
We had expected – let us be truthful about this – so much less to be demanded of us.
As long as those refugees stayed somewhere out there, in the Middle East or en route to Europe or somewhere else outside of our consciousness, we were fine.
But then came our government’s audacious promise to bring tens of thousands of them here.
In 2016, we will see a flow of refugees into our country unlike any influx most of us have seen.
This coming year will not let us get away with neutrality.
We will welcome them, or we won’t.
And I will stand with the welcomers, in Christ’s name.
The refugee crisis is not about us
Yes, we’ve all heard the arguments on radio talk shows and read the letters-to-the-editor from people fomenting fear: How dangerous “these people” are, how different from us, how misogynistic and opportunistic, how their religion will shake our country to its Judeo-Christian foundations.
(Many in our faith communities will recall hearing those same arguments when they arrived in this country by the thousands.)
And there’s the thing. We and our communities do not have to react to the “thousands” but we will have to act for the wellbeing of the “ones”: the one bewildered kid in a new classroom, the one father trying to find a doctor to help manage his diabetes, the one grandmother mourning the loss of the homeland she once knew as safe.
For those ones, we will be called to serve.
Yes, it’s scary – dear God, it’s scariest for refugees who have been buffeted from one storm to another.
Let’s not make this about us, for just this once.
As a discussion with my son reminded me the other day, it’s unfortunate (for us anyhow) that Jesus didn’t make it just a suggestion to feed the hungry, comfort the widow and clothe the naked. As in, “When you do this to the least of these, do it only if it suits your busy schedules and political leanings, folks.”
I know his words were a command, albeit one that too often makes me squirm.
The coming year would be a lot easier (even if only for us) if they stayed there and we stayed here.
But it’s not going to happen.
There are, after all, an estimated 50 million refugees crying out, with voices we’d rather not hear.
It is more likely that other crises in 2016 will shout to be heard and will demand an answer.
And if we try to remain neutral when those moments come, we might just start to find the soles of our feet, and the souls of ourselves, getting just a little too warm for comfort.
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