Compassion, Anxiety, and Backlash

Compassion, Anxiety, and Backlash

Opinion by Irving Rikon

Among the two or three political world leaders I most like and respect in this early 21st century is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is bright. She studied physics at the University of Leipzig and was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry. She worked as a researcher and published several papers. Along the way, she learned to speak Russian. (Has any American president been so learned?)

Although a woman, Angela Merkel rose politically to become the German Chancellor. (In Nazi Germany, women were taught that their place was "Kuche, Kinder, Kirche": "Kitchen, Children, Church". Anything aside from that was emphatically discouraged.) Later, she was recognized as the de facto leader of the European Union. Her parents helped to shape her early life. Her mother taught English and Latin. Her father was a Lutheran pastor. He no doubt informed her of "The Golden Rule":

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets." Matthew 7:12.

Or, as the Apostle Paul phrased it, "For all the law is fulfilled in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
Galatians 5:14.

Angela Merkel was raised in post-World War Two East Germany, so she understood totalitarianism very well. Hardly surprising with such an upbringing, one of her virtues as a human being is Compassion, by one definition, "Sorrow for the suffering of others."

Nor is it surprising that when wars broke out in the Near and Middle East, Chancellor Merkel out of the goodness of her heart invited the victims of war and oppression to come to Germany and begin life anew. She, of all the world leaders, was behaving as a true Judeo-Christian. As it happened, few refugees migrating west spoke German and many were Muslim.

In common with all the Great Religions, Islam has its own version of The Golden Rule:

"As you would have people do to you, do to them. And what you dislike being done to you, don't do to them. Go, and act in accordance."

Or, "Seek for mankind that of which you are desirous for yourself." Both quotes come from The Hadith, the collected written and oral accounts of Muhammad during his lifetime.

The problem that presented itself was the refugees came in such numbers that Germany (and other European host countries) were ill-prepared to receive them. They were unable to provide adequate housing, badly needed jobs and a good education. Arguably the most important of the three, education, needed for both native peoples and the newly arrived immigrants, is a long-term and costly process for governments involved.

Difficulties arose even as regards matters of dress. In many Islamic countries, veils cover a woman's face or she wears a purdah, a loose garment fitting over other clothes and completely covering body and face except for her eyes. 

What many Westerners perceived was violence, terrorism, foreigners living in decrepit housing, (if housing at all, as distinguished from tents,) newcomers taking away jobs, even attempting to take away their very culture, the culture in which they and their families had been raised for generations.

That occasioned anxiety and fear. In such circumstances a tipping point might be reached, a point where compassion is impelled to contend with potential or real conflict. Sacred texts then can be challenging, being contradictory within themselves. For those with bellicose tendencies, passages may be cited as justification for conflicts and wars.

When matters get out of hand, there is a backlash. In the 2016 American presidential election, after having bullied and insulted his political rivals, Donald Trump was voted into office. His initial steps taken with regard to immigrants led to chaos. While jihadists pose a threat to the country and may have entered under the guise of legitimate refugees, who should be screened for just that reason, Mr. Trump's nature does not appear to be one of compassion. That feeling is reinforced by the unusually large number of military officers he has advising him.

In Germany the backlash is stronger. Nationalists on the far political right are saying this: Nazi-era guilt was behind Chancellor Merkel's decision to let in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Near and Middle East and Africa. As Anton Troianovski writes in The Wall Street Journal, "The Afd (political party) wants to reduce the time schools spend teaching about the Nazis to focus more on German achievements in science and the arts. -- Some prominent members argue that the European consensus on World War II history is too anti-German." Are we previewing a rise of neo-Nazism?

For compassionate or simply pragmatic persons, conflict resolution can be extraordinarily complex, since not all people are alike, as immigrants from Africa and the East to the West attest, and the roots of social differences run deep, sometimes having originated in faraway regions with events which occurred long ago.

British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote "The Ballad of East and West" in 1889:

"Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat.
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"

What Kipling wrote of East and West and "strong men" applies also to the internal affairs of each and every country. But it requires strong men and women of Compassion to "stand face to face" and try to bring goodness and peace to a world in desperate need.

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