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Bishop: Empathy and self-sacrifice are the way forward

This Christmas season, Lutheran bishop Simo Peura appeals to Finland’s residents to tune into their sense of empathy. He says the events of 2015, like failed labour talks and rising xenophobia in response to the refugee crisis, have put Finnish cooperation and humanitarianism to the test – with disappointing results.

Pieni turvapaikanhakijatyttö vastaanottokeskuksessa tyhjän pöydän ääressä.
A little girl at one of Finland’s one hundred-plus asylum seeker reception centres. Image: Yle

Located in the western part of the country, the Diocese of Lapua is one of nine dioceses within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Lapua diocese bishop Simo Peura speaks about peace, sacrifice and empathy as the year winds down.

He says the Finnish society has encountered some major issues in 2015.

“This has been a pretty tough year for Finland. I have a feeling that many people here are confused and perhaps wondering about what kind of future this country will face. There’s a lot of concern in the air,” he said.

A dignified life

His first example is the influx of migrants from war-torn countries in the south, which started in August.

“When it comes to asylum seekers, it’s simply a matter of securing a dignified life for them – and our personal responsibility to the people we live with and the conditions they must live under,” says Peura.

As the national church, the parishes and deaconess institutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland have worked together with a number of charitable and volunteer organisations to help the newcomers.

“In my opinion, the church doesn’t have a choice in these kinds of situations. Where there is a need, it is our responsibility to help. And this is what we have done.”

He says the church has worked alongside the Finnish Red Cross, for example, as a united front. 

“Many, many Finns have rushed to help and give their support, only to be criticised for their good will. This cannot be an easy situation, because these people have just wanted to do what their faith and their world view encourage them to – be good to others. There’s nothing wrong or questionable about that; they can’t be blamed for it,” Peura says.

Lapuan hiippakunnan piispa Simo Peura Suviseurojen avajaisissa Vaasassa.
Simo Peura Image: Juha Kemppainen / Yle

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

The migrant crisis reminds Bishop Peura of an Yhteisvastuu charity campaign from years ago. 

“I was the charity drive’s director that year. We collected money to support the employment of immigrants in Finland. I received very disappointing feedback, incredibly strong opinions, on the issue at the time. This autumn it came to the fore again in discussions on the refugee topic. It seems to be the case that the Finnish society harbours some very strong anti-refugee and xenophobic sentiment,” he says.

Peura doesn’t offer any solutions to what can or should be done about the problem. He says that even he has more questions than answers.

“Perhaps we Finns are not the most empathetic people, when attitudes like this become so clearly evident? Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s situation and seek to understand their human experience, regardless of all of the differences between us. Can it be so that we are not able feel empathy as well as other people?”

Give a little, gain a lot

The bishop is also concerned about the failure of labour negotiations between the government, employers and unions in Finland designed to pick up the dismal economy – the Prime Minister’s so-called ‘social contract’.

He says success would have meant that all of the parties to the talks would have been willing to bargain and give up something of their own, in terms of standard of living and benefits, for the common good. The less fortunate would have been able to cope better had this been the case, Peura says.

“In these kinds of situations, the significance of such traits as courage, support and hope grows. Maybe we need to agree that we will face the New Year with a new approach: to be more accommodating, to develop our society and to build Finland’s future together, in the spirit of cooperation. To begin to care for each other.” 

Peace on Earth

Bishop Peura says he believes that the number one wish on most people’s Christmas and New Year’s lists still remains the same: peace.

“We want the foundation our lives are built on to be safe and sturdy. We want younger generations to grow up in a secure environment and live a good life. Hope and courage are linked to this in a substantial way. We cannot deprive future generations of this, we have to encourage and support them. I think they have an enormous will to live.” 

With four million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world. At the end of 2014, close to 74 percent of Finland’s residents were members.

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