Category: Faith

Migration medicine

Earlier this week I attended an evening hosted by SYLF – Sweden’s Young Doctors’ Association – about migration, which is a hot topic of conversation in Sweden at the moment. Refugees are pouring into the country and people are wondering how this is going to work. There were three talks: the first given by a friend of ours about a clinic that has been set up for beggars in our city of Örebro, the so called Stefanus Clinic, the second given by registered nurse from our hospital who spoke of his experiences with Medicins sans Frontiérs in Libya, Syria and Liberia, and the last one by a representative of the Immigration Department here in Örebro.

In the talk by the Department of Immigration figures were quoted to give some feeling for the magnitude of the situation.There were 10,553 asylum seekers who arrived in Sweden last week, and of these, 2,942 were unaccompanied minors, the majority, it would seem, from Afghanistan. The number of asylum seekers was over 800 more than the previous week. The total number of asylum seekers for 2015 to 11 November was 134,883, already over 50,000 more than the number who arrived in the whole of 2014, when only 81,301 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden. The three biggest contributors were Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

These are mind boggling numbers. No-one, including the Immigration Department, has any idea how the country is going to absorb these people into the society. However, the Department is doing its best to provide shelter and food for everyone, a task which is becoming harder by the day. Here in Örebro the local council has resorted to using hotels to provide temporary accommodation for unaccompanied minors. But there are places all over the country, unused buildings, which are being turned into accommodation. There is talk of tent camps being erected, but Sweden is winter is not really a pleasant place to live in a tent. Voluntary organisations, including churches, are providing accommodation and various kinds of support to the refugees. There is a constant demand for people to teach Swedish.

There are many in the world who believe that Sweden is naïve in accepting so many foreigners into the country. There are predictions of a decline in the economy, and of the country being literally overrun by foreigners. There are groups in Sweden who are very unhappy about this and some potential refugee accommodations have been burnt down by Swedish protestors before refugees have moved in.

But as I cycled home I couldn’t help thinking of the Old Testament and how it encourages us to be kind to foreigners. Here is what it says:

In Leviticus 19:“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

And in Deuteronomy 24: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

And in Ezekiel 47: You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.

Of course Jesus echoed these sentiments in his teaching too.

Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the words of God, so famously quoted by Eric Liddell, Scotland’s great olympic hero, from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 2:30:

Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.

Sweden is a land of contradictions. It is a land where secularism appears to have triumphed, but is at the same time a land whose values are deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, as embarrassing as that might be to the unbelievers among us. Australia, my other home, has become known as a land that is tough on asylum seekers, infamous for “turning the boats around.” Some see this as a triumph of foreign policy. Others see it as an embarrassment. Sweden has become known as being a soft touch for refugees, one of the few countries in Europe that has refused to close its borders.

I can’t help thinking that Sweden, for all its noisy secularism, might have an approach that is closer to God’s heart than it cares to admit. However, it does not perform its acts of kindness in the name of the God of the Bible, but in its own name. Its kindness may have its roots in the Judeo-Christian ethic, but will that kindness prevail if Sweden refuses to acknowledge its real source, namely Jesus Christ and what he shows us of the Father. For ultimately that kindness will require self sacrifice, another aspect of God’s character that we humans find hard to adopt.

If we as a nation continue to perform acts of kindness, even though it costs us dearly, but we continue as a nation to turn our backs on God, will he honour us? If Sweden prevails without acknowledging God, will that be a triumph of secularism? Will Sweden triumph because of its Swedishness rather than its godliness? If we are godly in our behaviour, does it matter if we acknowledge God? What of the other secular countries in Europe that are taking an increasingly hard line against refugees and asylum seekers. Will they be the winners in this battle of humanitarianism?

I am a foreigner in Sweden myself, and I have been welcomed, as has my family. I understand the sentiment expressed in the Leviticus passage: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I have experienced something of what it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and though it has been easier for me as an Australian, it has had its challenges. As I see the enormous influx of foreigners and strangers into our comfortable and secure society, even as I recognise the potential problems, how can I possibly look the other way? What will I do? And in whose name will I do it?

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Christian solidarity in Örebro

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The events in Iraq over recent weeks have shocked the world and cries out for action, for response, but it is easy to feel helpless as we observe from a distance the slaughter of innocents, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. We look to our governments to react but in Sweden at least there has been a noticeable lack of comment at a government level. In the last day a few headlines have caught my attention, amongst others an article about the deportation of a Yazidi man, an asylum seeker who the Immigration Department has decided to send back to Iraq because they have assessed the situation there to not be of sufficient threat to his safety, and because they believe there are adequate safe havens in Iraqi refugee camps (see http://www.svt.se/nyheter/varlden/migrationsverket-fortsatter-att-utvisa-yazidier). This seems extraordinary in light of the constant reports in the media of the aim of ISIS to wipe out this people group, effective genocide. One wonders just how dangerous it needs to be in a country to justify asylum in Sweden. The Swedish government has said that they will respond to the crisis with humanitarian aid (though I am not aware of any forthcoming yet), but they have no intention of getting involved militarily. The Kurdish forces that seem to represent the only significant military resistance on the ground in Iraq need arms, but despite the fact that weapons represent a major export in Sweden there appears no intention of Sweden to even provide this kind of assistance, let alone actual troops.

DSC_5543Örebro is home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, families who have fled from their various homelands in Turkey and Syria. They speak a language close to Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus. They are, unlike many Westerners, proudly Christian, and unashamed of their allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church in this country where it is regarded as somewhat inappropriate to speak publicly about personal faith. These Assyrian Christians have a heritage of persecution and genocide. The events of 1915 are still fresh in the minds of many even if they happened long before contemporary Assyrians were born. The Assyrian community in Sweden has been shocked by the events unfolding in Iraq in the last few weeks. Although many Swedes (and not just Swedes, but Westerners in general) seem to find it relatively easy to turn a blind eye, possibly even to think things can’t be as bad as the media is making out (think of the reaction of the Immigration Department), Assyrian Christians have no illusions about just how bad things can be. They are acutely aware that if ISIS means to wipe out Christians (not to mention Yazidis and even Muslims of other persuasions) then they will do it if no-one stops them. They are also acutely aware that the ambitions of ISIS are not limited to Syria and Iraq, but to the whole Muslim world and beyond.

Today we joined the Assyrian church (St Marias kyrka) in a march in central Örebro to demonstrate solidarity with the threatened peoples of Iraq and opposition to the ISIS terrorists. The march was a quiet affair – indeed it was meant to be silent, symbolising the response of the Swedish government to the crisis, the seeming reluctance of people in power in Sweden to denounce ISIS. It was a privilege to walk with thousands of Assyrians through the streets of our city. Most of the churches of Örebro joined in, and even some secularists – the Humanism Society – supported the initiative. At the end of the march we gathered in Olof Palmes Torg to listen to various speakers, from both the Swedish Christian communities and the Assyrian Christian community (as well as a few politicians). We were reminded that what is happening in Iraq at the moment represents the plans of a very powerful group of terrorists to eradicate ancient Eastern Christianity from the earth. Many see this church as the cradle of Christianity, even as the cradle of what we know as Western civilisation. It was sobering to reflect on the events unfolding in the world today.

At the end we walked back to the car and crossed the big square in town, Stortorget, where various political groups were speaking on their soapboxes. There is an election in Sweden in a few weeks time and the political parties of the nation are presenting their visions for a better Sweden to the populace. There have been signs around town advertising the rallying cries of various party representatives. These vary from the usual things such as job creation and school reforms to some which are blatantly ridiculous. Perhaps the most embarrassing is the picture of an aspiring politician with the words beneath, “Scrap TV fees.” In the context of the times we are living in can there be anything more trivial?

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Easter in Örebro

Yesterday afternoon there was a gathering of Christians in Stortorget, the big town square in Örebro. It was Easter Day and a small group of churches had decided to celebrate the day publicly. I was there with some of the family, and I couldn’t help thinking how unusual it felt, to be celebrating one of our Christian high days outdoors and in public. Religion in Sweden is seen by the secular majority as a very private affair, not something to be discussed with or displayed among strangers. The majority of Christian believers seem to have bought into this idea, presumably to avoid causing offence. Christians from other cultures and nations – the Syrian Orthodox, for example, seem to have no such inhibitions, announcing openly to the world that they are Christians, especially proud of the fact that their language is close to Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. But “we Swedes” tend to be hesitant to acknowledge our faith in the open, determined to blend in and be as indistinguishable as possible from the rest of society.

Yesterday, however, was different. We met and worshipped in the town square, publicly acknowledging our faith in the extraordinary and supernatural event of Jesus’s resurrection. There were not many there – a huge contrast to the annual Christmas concert held in the same square every December, when thousands crowd in to sing Christmas carols and be entertained. The Christmas message of course is much nicer, a feel good story of peace and goodwill towards all that many non-believers can celebrate with perfect ease. The Easter story is so bizarre that it is regarded by a good many people as being little more than a religious myth. And yet the resurrection is the event on which the whole of the Christian faith depends. Without it Jesus is just another man, a good man perhaps, a man who made an impact on his friends, and to a certain extent the community in which he lived, but not really any more special than any other person on this earth, and certainly not one to change the world. I read the following quote the other day and it made me reflect again on this reality:

“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism)

How can any modern rational person believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? I have asked myself why I believe it. In the end it boils down to one historical fact. The grave was empty. This was not disputed then, nor is it disputed now. What is disputed is *why* it was empty. Jesus was put into a secure grave with a big stone placed in front of it, and because of the anxiety and suspicion of the religious authorities of the day it was secured with armed guards. But when some female friends of Jesus came to pay their respects the next day, the guards were gone, the stone was rolled away and the grave was empty. Over the ensuing days many people met Jesus, and their lives were transformed by the experience, because the one they had seen executed was walking and talking among them.

The world has never been the same. That one event changed the course of history, because if Jesus rose from the dead his claim to be God – to be bigger than nature – needs to be taken seriously. Of course the religious authorities of the day understood this and naturally accused the friends of Jesus of stealing the body away and hiding it somewhere. But that seems rather unlikely, given the guards, and the question of what the disciples did with the body they had stolen. Why would the disciples say that Jesus had risen if he hadn’t? What did they hope to gain from such a claim? Were these uneducated fisherman from Galilee so delusional as to think that they could steal a body, dispose of it somehow and change the world by doing so? The disciples depicted in the New Testament seem to have had trouble understanding what Jesus was talking about a lot of the time. To imagine that they had the psychological and intellectual strength to hatch such a plot, seems beyond belief. The opposite, that they were so completely stunned, so totally overwhelmed, by this impossible event that their lives were turned upside down, all their preconceptions shattered and that they were willing to give their lives to defend its truth, seems much more likely.

The authorities were in a much better position to discredit the disciples than the disciples were to convince the masses. All they had to do was produce the body of Jesus to prove that he was dead. But they couldn’t. The body was gone. It has never been found. The only ones who saw the body of Jesus after his burial were the ones who saw him alive. According to the Bible there were many of them. It caused an uproar. Such an event had never happened before and never since. Resurrections may well have happened, they certainly have been reported and still are from time to time. But no one making the claims that Jesus made has ever come back from the dead. This was a unique event.

That is why Jesus is remembered. That is how he changed the world. He rose from the dead. He is God. That is why we milled around in town yesterday afternoon singing songs and bowing in prayer, in stark contrast to the world around us, a world that uses secular rationalism as its strategy to remove this uncomfortable personality from its consciousness. Why are we so offended by the supernatural, I sometimes wonder? Why does it threaten us so much? Why are we so much more willing to put our faith in science and our own intelligence than in a man that showed that he was over and above all that? Why is “naturalism” so much easier to believe in than supernaturalism?

There is so much that can be said about all that, but in the end it surely boils down to meeting an alive Jesus. In the first weeks after the resurrection it was the physical body of Jesus that people met. In our day it is a spiritually alive Jesus that people meet. They meet him in many different ways, but when they meet him many are convinced. Jesus did rise from the dead. He is alive today. He is who he says he is. And we should listen to him.

Epiphany

Today is a public holiday in Sweden. Epiphany. Most Australians have no idea what Epiphany is, but here in Sweden the common name for this day is Trettondagen – “thirteenth day” – so people realise it is somehow related to Christmas. It is, in other words, a religious high day, and even non-Christian Swedes, at least the older generation, know that it is the day when the arrival of the wise men is believed to have happened.

But why should it be a holiday? I suppose it harks back to the days when Sweden saw itself as a Christian nation, and notable Christian days were marked on the calendar as times for rest and reflection. Nowadays it is just a day of rest, but reflection on the nativity and the wise men is possibly not a major focus for the majority. Holidays are taken very seriously in Sweden, as they are in Australia. But here we have 6 days off during the Christmas season – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day and Epiphany – whereas in Australia there are only 3 – Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.

It is notable that there are still so many public holidays in Sweden that are Christian festivals. As well as Epiphany there are the Easter Days, and also Ascension Day. Until recently there was also Pentecost, but it was replaced by Swedish National Day. Many were upset about the removal of Pentecost from the holiday calendar, but not, I suspect, for religious reasons. Sweden is surely one of the most secular “Christian” countries in the world, and certainly sees itself as the most modern. Apparently a recent survey of a large sample of young people in Sweden showed that only 10% believed that faith was important in life. 45% believed that faith was irrelevant, not important at all. Another survey that someone mentioned to me the other day showed that 20% of people in Sweden don’t know why we celebrate Christmas.

But both believers and non-believers were off work today, at least as many as could be spared from the essential services that keep the nation running. Our whole family had the day off too. We went for a walk in the early afternoon. The ground was bare and the branches black against the sky. The winter has been too warm for snow to stay around more than a day or two – I have been thinking of it as our English winter, because it reminds me of my childhood winters in England. Many days have been foggy and damp, but for the few hours of daylight today the sky was blue. We wandered through the forest and down to the university, then back up the hill and home again.

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Christianity in Sweden

I was reading an article on the BBC website today about the island of Vrango (Vrångö), one of the thousands of islands that make up the archipelago outside Gothenburg. The little community there is struggling to survive, because people have left in droves over recent years. I was surprised by this statement:

Christianity, now shunned by so many Swedes on the mainland, still has an obvious presence on Vrango…

Is Christianity shunned in Sweden? I suppose I agree in a sense, but disagree in another sense. Christianity is still very much embedded in Swedish culture. People may not go to church but they still want their kids to be baptised, and even be confirmed later in life. People still want church weddings, and the thousands of beautiful churches of Sweden are well maintained and comfortably heated from the public purse. There are Christian high days celebrated throughout the year – from Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and Ascension Day and All Saints Day.

But personal faith is regarded as a private thing in Sweden, not to be spoken of. Indeed it seems almost offensive to share openly about faith. Prominent Christians, like the pop singer Carola who publicly acknowledge their faith, are thought of as at best rather odd, at worst downright inappropriate.

However, the influx of other faiths, mainly Muslims, to Sweden over recent years, has put public Christianity back on the agenda. I find Muslims less reticent to hear that I am a Christian than my secular Swedish friends. I find it odd that even many of the people that I know are Christians seem so hesitant to talk with me about their faith even after they know I too am a believer. If I ask direct questions they answer them, of course, but it is easier to talk about church than about faith. Swedes tend not to speak so openly about personal thoughts, feelings, beliefs, as perhaps Australians do. It requires a deeper level of friendship than a casual day-to-day acquaintance to speak of such things. Swedes do not often “wear their hearts on their sleeves.” To speak openly about a daily experience of God and his interactions in our lives seems off limits.

Which is why I found the last paragraph of the article about Vrango refreshing, and I will quote it here:

But what if the disappearing tide cannot be stopped, and the population keeps dropping? Would Johan and his family ever move back to the mainland?
 
“No way,” he says when we reach the shop, seemingly shocked by the thought.
 
“Well,” he adds quickly. “Not unless God tells me to.” 

Secularism in society

An interesting debate article in the Swedish evening newspaper, Aftonbladet, today, was entitled, “Our Swedish view of faith is uniquely aggressive.” (Read the article in Swedish here). It referred to questions raised as to the suitability of a certain Elisabeth Svantesson for her appointment as Minister for Employment because she at one time was a member of a large church in Sweden called Livets Ord – Word of Life. Similar doubts about suitability and competence for a particular appointment were raised in 2008 over a man named Per Eriksson who had been suggested as Dean (Rektor) of Lund University. A number of teachers at the university opposed his appointment because they believed that his Christian beliefs would compromise a truly scientific worldview.

Such views are not unique to Sweden, of course, though the writer of this article seems to feel that in Sweden such views tend to be particularly aggressive, perhaps more so than in other countries. Such a view of religion grew out of the Enlightenment of the mid-1700s, when reason and education came to challenge religion as the only reliable foundations for society. In the 1800s the writings of Karl Marx, who believed that a society which allowed religion to exist was sick, and Sigmund Freud, who believed that religious persons were mentally unstable, added fuel to the fire of unbelief. Pointing to the monumental failures of the church through the centuries a growing number of voices called for separation of church and state and maintained that religion was obsolete. Religion came to be seen as, at best a problem, and at worst a threat, to civilization. So was born the secular state, which has largely triumphed in Sweden, as in many other Western countries. Anyone confessing allegiance to a faith is seen as suspect, unreliable, unstable, ignorant, harboring hidden agendas which threaten the fabric of society as we know it.

However, according to the article, contemporary research into religion does not support such a view of either religious people or the practice of religion. It reveals that contemporary religion has been “decentralized,” and is no longer controlled by a religious authority. People read and interpret religious texts themselves and practice religion differently according to their understanding. The practice of faith does not imply the control of an individual by a centralized authority like a church, and what people believe about God does not necessarily reflect their ability or inability to function in modern society.

Furthermore, the writer of the article points out that secular society has no basis for connecting religion with the uneducated or weak-minded. To try to obstruct a person’s personal or career development because they have religious convictions, he suggests, is to betray a central democratic ideal, in which every person has the right to be heard and to pursue their life goals based on their personal ideas and values. It is unreasonable to portray religious people as an homogenous group. People should be judged on their merits and their performance, and not on their religious convictions. Whether they pray, and to whom they pray in their joy or sorrow, should be up up to them.

I remember a colleague who some years ago discovered, by accident, after having known me for some time, that I was a Christian. She was shocked. Until then she had apparently perceived me as a sensible, reasonable, perhaps even intelligent human being. She asked me bluntly if I was a Christian, not just a nominal Christian but a practicing believer, and her face fell when I confirmed her fears, and that I read the Bible and went to church, and even tried to live my life according to the teaching I had received from such sources. I could see her rapidly revising her whole perception of me. For her I was no longer normal, but had become suddenly strange, irrational, and probably psychologically and emotionally suspect.

The ironic thing is that we live in a society founded on values and ideals with their roots in the teachings of Jesus and a worldview based on a Biblical understanding of humanity. Yet at the same time that very society rejects belief in Jesus, and the practice of such a belief is seen as ignorant and irrational. Society seems to have always sought scapegoats, someone, or some group, to blame for the problems that exist. Nazi Germany blamed the Jews and had a particularly brutal solution to the problem. So called “Christian” Europe of the Middle Ages blamed devil worshippers and Jews amongst others. Modern secular society blames religion of all kinds, but particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Christians have been subject to persecution and ridicule down through the ages. It is not new. The current feelings in society simply revive ancient prejudices and hatreds. The real challenge for us Christians at times like these is not to try to return society to some remembered golden age of Christendom, but to love those who ridicule us, to pray for those who persecute us, and to reach out with love and compassion to those in need around us. Just as Jesus did.