The Syrian Refugee Response

I posted this on Facebook, but it’s long enough that it probably deserves to be here too.

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As someone who is actively trying to sponsor Syrian refugees to come to Canada, I have to comment on some of the really discouraging rhetoric I am hearing.

You have your extremes – Republican governors refusing any refugees and those who confuse the persecuted with the persecutors. But you also have your mostly level-headed individuals who are worried about security – that somehow a terrorist will slip through the system posing as a refugee. In both cases I think there is too much fear and not enough compassion.

The security fears are understandable, but I do not think they are grounded in much reality. What reason do we have to believe that any Syrian refugees are faking it? What hell-bent member of ISIS would sit in a refugee camp for years upon years so that they could eventually come to Canada and kill a few people? It’s not realistic. The sad fact of the matter is that the ocean separating Canada and the Middle East does more to protect us than any level of screening ever could. Most of those wishing to do harm to the West are going to do it in Europe (as sad as that is to admit).

And speaking of screening, it’s not as though refugees just get to come to Canada willy nilly. From what I understand, there are three levels of screening: one from the UNHCR, one from the Canadian government, and one from the RCMP. This is a lot of security screening, and it helps to explain why our sponsorship here in Ottawa still doesn’t have a family. The system is overworked with so many refugees to process.

Now, does Trudeau’s plan to speed up the process compromise this level of security screening? I don’t think so. If you add more resources and personnel, then it can all be done quicker.

Really though, my main point I want to express to everyone is this:

ISIS WANTS YOU TO FEAR SYRIAN REFUGEES AND MUSLIMS IN GENERAL.

They want that. They want there to be a divide between Islam and the West. If that divide grows and we reject Muslims and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, that bolsters ISIS’s worldview that there is a war between Islam and the West. It helps them recruit Muslims because Muslims will increasingly believe that there is indeed a war between Islam and the West and that the Islamic State offers sanctuary. ISIS believes they are setting up an Islamic utopia. The more uncomfortable Muslims feel in the West, the more easily ISIS can recruit.

The biggest middle finger we can give ISIS is to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms.

Yes, do proper screening. Yes, combat ISIS in other ways. But do not become a closed society. Do not stop doing what has made the West great – offering freedom and sanctuary to those that the rest of the world has rejected.

Tracing my family back far enough, we came to Canada because of religious persecution. That is what has helped to make this country great, and there is no good reason to stop now. Canada rejected Jewish refugees in the 1930s, sending them back to Europe to their deaths. How does that look in hindsight?

Let Canada be a beacon to the world. To all those places persecuting minorities and to all those places closing their borders, look at Canada. We can do the right thing.

 

You Don’t Deserve Your Money

Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong. You deserve some of your money. But we need to get over the idea that we deserve everything we have and that it’s all a product of our hard work and ingenuity.

The notion does have some validity of course. In White America, hard work is typically rewarded with wealth because almost all possible opportunities are bestowed upon this demographic. This isn’t, however, the case for everyone. Whether we like to admit it or not, barriers exist for most people. The notion that a single black mother in Detroit has the same opportunity as an upper middle class white man is just not true. Hard work and intellect are not rewarded equally for those two people.

But that’s not really what this post is about.

Taxes have become an increasingly contentious issue, especially in light of growing libertarian movements. And some people actually contend that taxes are akin to stealing. I earned my $100,000 salary, so the government taking 30% is nothing more than theft.

Okay. Well, what if I told you that you didn’t earn $100,000? That, instead, you “earned” about 10% of that, and the rest you owe to government, to society and to people who lived before you? Most wealthy individuals brush this off, as they have come to believe that they deserve their special place in society (which this interesting study proves via a rigged game of Monopoly).

But the truth of the matter is that someone like Bill Gates owes much of his wealth to government (for inventing the Internet), his high school (for providing him with pretty exclusive access to the use of a computer), John Vincent Atanasoff (for inventing the first digital computer), Douglas Englebart (for inventing the mouse), government again (for protecting copyrights), government again (for providing peace and security), and so on. To that end, Warren Buffet is famously quote as saying:

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil… I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon studied this, and found that “social capital” is responsible for about 90% of what a person earns in wealthy societies. On moral grounds, Simon said that we should really be taxing at 90%.

Of course, for policy purposes, we need to keep in mind a tax rate that still encourages people to work hard and take risks. But that is most certainly a tax rate higher than we have now, and it is most definitely higher than the absurd calls for tax rates near or under 10%.

But the point is simply this: you don’t deserve all of your money. Statistically, you deserve about 10%. The rest has come by sheer luck and also by (taxpayer-funded) government investments, including roads, clean water, a police force, copyright enforcement, subsidies, regulations, etc. All of this makes possible the vast wealth that people now acquire in our society. Giving some of that money back is not only a smart long-term investment, but it wasn’t really that person’s to begin with.

Iraq: Ten Years Later

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. There is now near consensus on the mistake of the war, but too many people see the mistake as a tactical – not a moral – one. If only less Americans died, if only it wasn’t so expensive or if only more oil could have been secured at a good price – so the thought process goes – then surely the war would have been worth it.

To me, this again goes to show the way that money and economics have permeated every thought process. The ethics of war can’t even be discussed normally; the first point raised is usually about money. Even so-called “opponents” of the war, including politicians, only now stand in opposition to the war because of its exorbitant cost. There is no discussion on the legality or morality of the war, only that it was a financial error.

And when discussing lives lost in the war, there is very little concern for Iraqis. I understand that Americans and American media will tend to focus on the deaths of their own, but how is more than 100,000 dead Iraqis not all that relevant? Almost 5,000 Americans have died in the conflict, and this is obviously a terrible tragedy. The point, however, is that even if 0 Americans died, it shouldn’t change anyone’s opinion of whether or not the war was a mistake. Upwards of 120,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war, so that should really end the discussion there.

I am glad that nearly everyone now regrets the Iraq War. I just wish that that regret was based more on the 2003 decision to go to war, and not the changing circumstances in how the war played out. The war was built on lies and shaky legal precedents. It shouldn’t have mattered how many people died, how much is cost and how it affected America’s standing in the world. There should have been no support for it to begin with.

In 2003, I was a know-nothing high school student. But I knew enough to oppose the war. I knew that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had absolutely no relation to 9/11, despite what George W. Bush was trying to tell us. A simple Google search proved the president wrong. I knew that because Bush’s reasoning for the war changed after no WMDs were found, that there must be another reason for the war that the public was not being told. If it was actually because of WMDs, then finding no weapons should have led to an end to the war’s justification. But it didn’t. Bush changed the reasoning to one of regime change, which, if we consider the amount of worse regimes around the world, is a dubious reason at best. And I also knew that starting a war in the Middle East is not only a bad way to fight terrorism, but it would lead to more terrorist groups. Which it did.

I also knew that the war would cost a lot of money and that lives would be lost. But that wasn’t really the point in 2003. The war had no legitimate justification. Even as a malleable high school student, I could see through the president’s lies and know enough to oppose a pointless and harmful conflict.

The war was a moral, political, financial and strategic failure. But let’s remember that first and foremost, it was a moral failure.

Discovering Rural India

Originally posted January 6, 2013 in Red Letter Christians.

recently wrote about my experience in starting a non-profit organization dedicated to poverty alleviation. That blog post described the why and a bit of the how of thisvillage, but what I’d really like to do is describe the specifics of what we’ll be doing.

thisvillage focuses on one village at a time. We collaborate with that particular village in order to establish effective and long-term poverty reduction tools, such as clean water and literacy training. We feel that poverty alleviation can only be effective if we have a relationship with the people and if they take ownership of the projects.

In September, myself and the three other founders of thisvillage traveled to Andhra Pradesh, India to meet with our partner organization and to find a village that desired to work with us. What we discovered was much more than that. We discovered a country and a people awash in poverty, but also hope. Simplicity, but also joy. Need, but also satisfaction.

When we arrived in each village, we were welcomed with great joy by the people there. This was with us coming as mere visitors, not as an NGO offering any assistance. Everyone was just happy to meet us, to show us their homes and to have us take their picture.

We met one woman named Raman who, at age 25, has already been married for a decade. A few years ago, Raman’s husband was electrocuted and left unable to work. With no money coming in and with debt from the medical treatment, Raman, her husband and their two kids struggled to survive.

Unlike Western countries, there is no safety net for people like Raman who live in rural India. Poverty is ultimately about a lack of choices, and Raman was left with none. Miraculously, our partner organization in Andhra Pradesh was able to provide Raman with a microcredit loan that she used to purchase a buffalo, which is now a source of income. Raman was very proud to show us her one-room home and her children who are doing quite well in school. Raman could still benefit from greater assistance, but her story exemplifies how just a little help – especially for women – can go a long way in rural India.

We also had the privilege of meeting with a group of about 50 widows. In India, widows are considered bad luck and are ostracized from their respective communities. And, unfortunately, widows are all too common in the part of Andhra Pradesh that we visited. In fact, the area we were in is the farmer suicide capital of India. This is due to the fact that farmers were encouraged by companies to use pesticides in order to increase crop yields. Crops eventually became dependent on the pesticides and companies started raising their price. Farmers borrowed money in order to pay for the pesticides, and there was no real hope of ever paying those debts off. Farmers then turned to suicide in light of crushing debt and no options.

Not all of their husbands died of suicide, but all widows we met had to deal with ostracism of some variety. They weren’t even allowed to attend their own daughters’ weddings. And, if being rejected by most of their community wasn’t a difficult enough obstacle in finding work, most widows are also illiterate.

thisvillage will work to address the root of the suicide problem by introducing farmers to organic farming. More than this, however, we will work with the widows to ensure that they can grow in confidence, education and practical skills. There is nowhere for these widows to turn if not for the work done by a handful of NGOs. By meeting as a group and talking about their struggles, the women are able to grow in confidence. And by being given some education and loans, the women are able to make money, ensuring that their kids go to school and that the cycle of poverty does not continue into the next generation.

In meeting with a group of orphans, we encountered a similar theme. Despite being left with no one to take care of them, the joy and hope of these kids was difficult to fully comprehend. From a Western perspective that values money, career and possessions, it didn’t quite make sense how someone lacking in all three could possibly be so full of life. And yet, this only motivated me more to help a people who have been wronged. To provide some semblance of justice in a place teeming with injustice. To give people with no money, no food and no jobs some necessities and some opportunity.

It is heart-wrenching to see people sleeping on the side of the road, sifting through garbage and being sold into modern-day slavery. But more than that, it is motivation to heed the call of Jesus. By no choice of our own, myself and most people reading this post were born into a country of wealth and opportunity. We were able to acquire everything needed for survival and more. We have thus been provided with an opportunity to do as Jesus wanted and help the poor and broken. India is a country that desperately needs the love and care of Jesus. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.

Why We Should Give: The Ethics of Peter Singer

The idea that we in the West have some ethical responsibility to alleviate poverty in developing countries has made sense to me for quite some time now. The distribution of wealth across the world is highly unequal and I believe much of this can be explained by an accident of geography. A country’s wealth isn’t, in other words, a result of simple hard work and ingenuity (and, even if it was, that doesn’t remove ethical responsibility).

Nevertheless, it hasn’t always been easy to convince others that they (or our country as a whole) should give some money to those in need. Most people I know are quite generous, but the argument that we should be giving away our money is a difficult one to convey. But along comes philosopher Peter Singer with a very simple and sensical argument. I’ll simply repeat it here because I think it deserves more attention.

The argument goes like this. You are walking beside a pond and notice a young child drowning. You have the ability to jump in and save her, but it will result in you ruining your $100 shoes. So would you still do it?

Of course you would. Everyone would. What’s $100 compared to the life of a young child?

So, if you would spend $100 on saving the life of a child here, why wouldn’t you do it for a child in a developing country?

I think everyone would agree with Singer’s conclusion that if we can save a life, we should. However, it is a whole other issue to convince people that their donation will in fact save a life. Much of the reluctance to donate money is the belief that it won’t actually make a difference (which explains why people give more freely to child sponsorship and humanitarian crises).

But Singer has helped to solve that problem as well. On his website – The Life You Can Save – Singer lists the charities where your donation most directly translates into a saved life.

It seems to me that we have no more excuses.

Should You Give the Homeless Money?

“Beggars should be abolished entirely! Truly, it is annoying to give to them and it is annoying not to give to them.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Walking past a homeless person named – let’s say – Hank always leaves me with some uncertainty about what to do. I think that Nietzsche’s quote typifies most people’s sentiments. We feel guilty, on the one hand, for not giving Hank money that we can certainly spare. But on the other hand, we feel guilty because we may have contributed to Hank’s addictions or laziness.

In short, I believe the answer to this question is not simply a) give Hank money; or, b) don’t give Hank money. I believe there is a third, more appropriate, option that we often overlook, perhaps on purpose. I think the best response is to get to know Hank. Seeing Hank as a person, not a beggar, changes our options. What we all want – whether we prefer option a or b – is to help Hank. But the best way to truly help him is to learn who Hank is and develop some sort of relationship.

There is some trouble with simply throwing a dollar in Hank’s cup and walking past. It gives us a false feeling of doing sacrificial good and never gets to the heart of Hank’s problems. And there is also some trouble in choosing to not give Hank any money. From a Christian perspective, Jesus is clear in saying that we are to not refuse a person who is asking for monetary assistance: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

And I believe this is related to a larger point, which hits home whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist. When we refuse to give any money to Hank, we are making a judgment. We are assuming that Hank’s problems are only made worse by charitable giving. If he doesn’t have access to free money, he won’t be awash in drugs and alcohol and he’ll be forced to find a job. Now, in my limited experience, this is a pretty naïve way of understanding the homeless population. There is a degree of truth to it and yes, our hearts might even be in the right place. The problem, however, is that we’re in absolutely no position to be making that judgment. How can we know the depths of Hank’s problems if we refuse to get to know him? Who are we to say that Hank does not deserve a dollar? And, finally, is there any evidence whatsoever that suggests that not giving money to Hank will help him in any possible way?

Many people also choose to buy Hank something instead of giving money, typically a sandwich or a coffee. But even this is rendered useless if we choose to distance ourselves from the person we are giving to. I recently talked with a homeless individual who was being brought a dozen cups of coffee throughout the day. If people had just stopped to talk with this man, they would know that he did not need any more coffee and, ironically, he was actually developing a caffeine addiction as a result.

If we have to choose between giving Hank something and not giving him anything, I think the better option is the former. Although the best option, and one that solves many of the problems with both approaches, is to get to know Hank. It’s not easy to get to know every homeless person we encounter, but it’s easy enough to say hi and at least treat them as a human being.

The Rhetoric of “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” (Guest Post)

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate student. My last time in a university classroom was in spring of 2009. That being said, I stumbled upon an interesting file the other day–a copy of my final paper for my Engendered History class. It was one of those “you can write about whatever you want as long as it makes sense” papers, and, for a somewhat ambiguous reason, I thought it best/most interesting to write about the pro-life/pro-choice movements.

When I was in high school, I remember being tearfully upset about a similar topic; fleeing my sparsely-populated English classroom because someone failed to understand how significant the topic of abortion was for me: a Christian, adopted woman. In a previous year, I had emerged the ethical, victorious ninth-grader in a “yay or nay abortion” debate. In all these developing teenage years of mine, I was most adamantly and certainly pro-life.

Now this isn’t going to be about how I had some life-altering circumstances or conversations, and now–lo and behold!–I’m pro-choice. Let’s make that abundantly clear. When I wrote that paper in undergrad, with the sole intention of writing about how things changed post-Roe v. Wade from a historical/cultural perspective, somewhere along the way, in the midst of the infinite books I was reading from dusk until dawn, I realized things didn’t make sense. I realized that, if both sides of this big ol’ argument care about women, and about babies, that being divisive was the least helpful thing in the universe. That the rhetoric of saying one is “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is far too messy to solve any problems.

The annual March for Life was a few weeks ago. I heard it (including the annoyingly-looped emotional music) from my office window. And, as much as I am one hundred percent for democracy, and the right to express one’s opinion, I don’t think the March for Life will solve any problems. In fact, I think events like the March for Life create problems. I realize by saying this I will likely have a lot of pro-life Christians beating down my electronic door, but hear me out on this one.

If being pro-life (and, in the case I’m talking about, also being a Christian) fundamentally boils down to loving people because they’re created in God’s image, how does a protest of abortion help? Because our society is abundantly aware of the issue of abortion–in fact, abortion is a very well-known “issue” in politics–it doesn’t need more awareness. And because if I’m a woman and I’m thinking about having an abortion, seeing thousands of people protesting that choice isn’t going to change my not wanting a baby. It’s certainly going to make me feel guilty, and shamed, but seeing that many people don’t support abortion doesn’t make keeping a baby or giving a baby up for adoption any easier, or more logical for that matter.

In a perfect world, there would be absolutely no abortion. This is something I dream of. In the mean time, however, let’s be real: women still have abortions. People are still adamantly “pro-life” or “pro-choice” or screaming their opinion into a megaphone. But here’s what I propose: what if everyone (meaning everyone, on both of sides of the divide) focused their energy into something positive. And I don’t mean in the “every pregnant woman keeping their baby” sort of way, or in the “abortion liberates me as a woman” sort of way. These aren’t positive. If everyone focused their energy into teaching women about healthy relationships, and providing job support and stability, and making health care (and thus contraceptives) accessible and affordable, and generally loving on everyone who may or may not end up having a baby or an abortion… I think that things would be a lot better.