A fairly religious reader of “Time Magazine”, I’m always curious about who they will name “Person of the Year”. In 2015, the honor fell upon Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. She has certainly made headlines this year during different crises. Phoning and meeting with many other world leaders about climate change, she was a towering figure at the “Paris Climate Change Conference”. She also made international headlines for getting tough on the fiscal crisis in Greece where an expansive social safety net was comingled with the idea that paying taxes was optional.
Those important decisions were factored into the decision to award Merkel with the “Person of the Year” however there was one crisis that seemed to move her to the forefront: the Syrian refugee crisis. Reading about Merkel’s bold, controversial and politically risky choice to receive upwards of 800,000 refugees fleeing war violence was inspiring as was reading of her personal history along with snippets of German history.
Nancy Gibbs (editor of Time) writes, “Europe’s most powerful leader is a refugee from a time and place where her power would have been unimaginable. The German Democratic Republic, where Angela Merkel grew up was neither democratic nor a republic; it was an Orwellian horror show, where the Iron Curtain found literal expression in the form of the Berlin Wall…Germany has spent the past 70 years testing antidotes to its toxically nationalist, militarist, genocidal past. Merkel brandished a different set of values- humanity, generosity, tolerance- to demonstrate how Germany’s great strength could be used to save, rather than destroy. It is rare to see a leader in the process of shedding an old and haunting national identity. ‘If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations,’ she said, “then that’s not my country.’
And so this time, the woman who trained as a quantum chemist did not run the tests and do the lab work; she made her stand. the blowback has come fast and from all sides. Donald Trump called Merkel ‘insane’ and called refugees ‘one of the great Trojan horses.’ German protestors called her a traitor, a whore; her allies warned of a popular revolt, and her opponents warned of economic collapse and cultural suicide…Her approval ratings dropped more than 20 points, even as she broadcast her faith in her people: ‘Wir Schaffen das,’ she has said over and over. ‘We can do this.’
At a moment when much of the world is once more engaged in a furious debate about the balance of safety and freedom, the Chancellor is asking a great deal of the German people, and by their example, the rest of us as well. To be welcoming. To be unafraid. To believe that great civilizations build bridges, not walls, and that wars are won both on and off the battlefield. By viewing the refugees as victims to be rescued rather than invaders to be repelled, the woman raised behind the Iron Curtain gambled on freedom. The pastor’s daughter wielded mercy like a weapon. You can agree with her or not, but she is not taking the easy road. Leaders are tested only when people don’t want to follow.” (“The Choice”, Time Magazine, Dec 21, 2015, page 49-50)
It is hard to recall many modern politicians who take this bold of a stand that costs them so much constituent support. There are some who would accuse Merkel of acting out of her emotions on this issue of welcoming Syrian refugees but anyone who would say that is being cynically ironic. Emotion is also on the side of those who disagree with her: a paralyzing emotional fear and paranoia. A deep suspicion of people who are different and most of which are trying to flee the same radical Islamic terrorists who threaten all of us.
I appreciate Germany’s example to all of us. The United States of America is considering taking 10,000 Syrian refugees but even that plan is under fire. (A helpful fact check on all the rhetoric is here.)
What are we afraid of? Being shot, blown up, killed by terrorists? I’m willing to say that the statistical likelihood of anyone reading this blog (and me writing) of being killed by a radical Islamic terrorist is far less than being killed by a mentally ill white guy shooting up a church, shopping mall, school or other place of business. For our society, is the potential more horrifying for a foreign terrorist coming to murder us or the American citizen who wakes up one day and decides that his plans are going to include shooting at random people in what can only be described as an act of terror as well? We are not thinking things through in a rational way. The knee-jerk reactionary impulses based in fear and suspicion are running rampant.
Jesus taught a lot about fear. One of the most famous passages in the gospels tells us of the disciples huddled in terror on a boat during a terrifying storm. “…but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’
And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 2He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of Him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'” (Matthew 14:24-33)
Let us not be afraid and lest we remember that Jesus often comes to us as the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46) including as a refugee. This is a challenge to myself, to the church in general and also, to our society and the world. Merkel seems to be answering that call and challenge.