A Worthy Thanksgiving

11/29/2015 03:52 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2016

On what we in the U.S. mark as the launch of our Thanksgiving tradition, indigenous Americans showed a compassionate practice central to humans' civilizing impulse: Welcome the stranger.

For the immigrating Europeans, that habit was enshrined in the literature and practice of our ancestor Middle Eastern cultures framed by the teachings of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammed.

Feeling the pull of Thanksgiving's meaning, I got up early Thursday and headed not for the kitchen, but to an eclectic gathering of locals in our small British Columbia town. We are intent on welcoming Syrian refugee families into our community.

A young French-Canadian at the table was especially poignant. His Parisian relatives are still raw from experiencing terror first hand. He had come, he said, looking for a way past an undercurrent of rumors and fear of Syrian refugees coming to Canada. He left sufficiently reassured to take a leading role in uniting efforts to be open to strangers in need.

Alas, this stands in sharp contrast to the cruel irony of America's latest outbreak of isolationism and xenophobia. Those at the refugee meeting muted their obvious scorn of both, in deference to my Americanness.

Syrian families need our help because of interventions by the British, the French, the Ottomans, the Russians, indigenous opportunists and, most recently, the Americans. It was not the first time I'd heard pointed remarks, on both sides of the 49th parallel, aimed directly at George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and America's commitment to the economics of oil. Now we're entangled in a genuine civil war. Civil wars ("civil" and "war" in the same phrase always gives me pause) tend to be the nastier sort of a very ugly group. "Civil" war is total war, everyone is a participant.

By the end of Thanksgiving Day, I'd repeatedly been reminded that chaos-creating fear-mongering from America's reactionaries is not new. Blessedly, I also heard a rising tide of civilizing voices, led by President Obama and by my neighbors. Turning away deserving refugees is an insult to America's and humanity's claim to courage and to our instinct for universal freedom. Good people are suffering. Many are direct victims of our hubris. Our lesser spirits even want to restrict potential emigres to Christians. Not only is that contemptible, it is perverse and it is unconstitutional.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln ended by insisting:

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln was talking about the secessionists. In our tightly connected, bigger world, our better angels should aspire to our common heritage and shared values: welcome the stranger.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

We must not allow ourselves to be victims of terror, whatever the source, or of terrorists, whoever they are.