"Wanted: A World Perspective"
Can we Save our Planet?
In the course of the past week, I was impacted by three readings: Martin Luther King’s last Christmas sermon, delivered in December of 1967; an op-ed published dated May 2, 2016: “The Refugee Crisis is Humanity’s Crisis” by Brad Evans and Zygmunt Bauman; and a history of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, “Spain in Our Hearts” by Adam Hochschild.
These readings were juxtaposed against the divisive and xenophobic policies being articulated by the presumed nominee of the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump.
What draws these threads together? Most simply and poignantly, the failure for us and the world to act on and make real the vision powerfully prescribed by Martin Luther King in 1967: “Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world.”
Now, almost 50 years later, in 2016, Zygmunt Bauman casts perspective on the plight of the Syrian refugees, describing them as “worldless in a world that is spliced into sovereign territorial states, and that demands identifying the position of human rights with state citizenship. This situation is further complicated by the fact that there are no countries left ready to accept and offer shelter and a chance of decent life and human dignity to the ‘stateless’ refugees.” Bauman correctly observes that the issue of refugee has been transferred from the era of universal human rights into that of internal security. “Being tough on foreigners in the name of safety from potential terrorists is evidently generating more political currency than appealing for benevolence and compassion for people in distress.”
Once again, the nation state is failing us on the global scale. We are seeing that nation states are not proving fit to tackle the challenges arising from our planet-wide interdependence. Benjamin Barber is more pessimistic than I am but there is a lot of truth in his assertion that they are “too inclined by their nature to rivalry and mutual exclusion” and appear “quintessentially indisposed to cooperation and incapable of establishing global common goals.”
There have been many failed efforts to bridge this gap. In more recent history, they have included the League of Nations and the United Nations which, while having accomplished some good, has proven incapable of bringing countries and different ethnic and religious groups within countries together to achieve peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the tragedies we are now witnessing in Syria and throughout the Middle East and so many places in Africa give sobering evidence of this.
In his sermon, Martin Luther King asserted that, “If we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men, we have to affirm” without violence, the “sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons who wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God made in His image and, therefore, must be respected as such. Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars.”
Despite the effort of countless religious leaders and prophets like Martin Luther King, this glorious outcome has not come close to being realized.
Today, in the 2016 presidential campaign, we hear Donald Trump trumpeting (forgive the pun), “America first.” He is advancing a recipe for economic nationalism that cannot possibly be implemented as he presents it, but even the effort to do so risks trade wars that will lead to worldwide depression. Even worse is his vilification of other nationalities and ethnicities and religious beliefs. I cannot imagine an American political leader whose views run more counter to what Martin Luther King espoused.
Why have I joined the Spanish Civil War to this narrative? Because that war represents a historically understandable event which in many ways mirrors what we see happening today in many parts of the world, most immediately and disastrously in Syria where, in just the last two days, thousands of women, men and children in the nation's second largest city, Aleppo, have been killed.
The people of Spain in the 1930s were separated by deep beliefs (one in a highly authoritarian government, led by Franco; the other a duly elected socialist government). There was great cleavage in religious belief and economic status. Both groups were mutually committed to annihilating one another with ascending almost mindless fury. Like Syria, each group was supported by external allies: in the case of the socialists, an International Brigade composed of Soviet, French, British and American volunteers. On the authoritarian, ironically called "republican” side, there was the support for Franco from government troops and military equipment provided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Brutal killings, family against family, brother against brother, peasant against land owner, atheist vs. clergy, leaving scars that lasted for generations, which were only contained by Franco assuming control of the country as a dictator.
This is all too similar to what we see today, especially in Syria (but also in Egypt, Libya and Iraq). Within Syria external forces (Russia, the U.S., Turkey, Iran, Saudi, etc.) supporting warring sides separated by long smoldering resentments and persecution and search for power only partially explained by differences in religious belief leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. It was chilling for me to read the words of perhaps the most famous photographer to cover the Spanish Civil War, Robert Capa: "I have seen hundreds of thousands flee (carrying their possessions in valises) and I am afraid to think that hundreds of thousands of others who are yet living in undisturbed peace in other countries will one day meet the same fate.” How horribly true Capa's fearful prevision has proven to be.
I have to say that this brief if superficial survey of history and our current political environment leaves me with all too little hope. Of course, I not only hold out the hope but I take responsibility in my own life to make good as well as I can on the fundamental call of every religion--to treat one’s neighbor as one’s self. However, while we must never stop spreading and living God's most basic commandments, history does not make me optimistic that this alone will do it.
I believe a true breakthrough in creating the will and determination to work together across (and within) nations toward common global and humane goals awaits the emergence of leaders from the leading countries of the world who come to recognize this such cooperation is essential to the very life and existence of their own countries as well as that of the world. What will it take for this to happen? I hate to say it, but I have come to believe it may take a horrific--and I mean really horrific--global disaster, an even greater wakeup call than the horror of terrorism which we are already experiencing. It may take a nuclear disaster that has global impact. In a longer view, this disaster could also emerge from climate change, and this is certainly an area where nations must work together. Otherwise our planet as we know it is surely at risk.
There is an alternative which is very obvious but very hard to realize.
I pray that the most important leaders of the world are wise and prescient and courageous enough to see the threat of nuclear annihilation and take action on it. I hope the fear of nuclear annihilation which has become even more real with terrorism, will be enough to bring the leaders of the leading nations of the world together. To do this, we must make the public aware of the devastating destruction and the everyday proximity of the risk of nuclear war. It has been too long since we saw those mushroom clouds and the city of Hiroshima being wiped out in seconds.
At the moment, I see no sign of there being leaders on the scene or a climate of public opinion in the most influential countries--e.g., the United States, Russia or China--that make it likely this will happen. To the contrary, a level of distrust and animosity between the West/U.S. and China and Russia are at higher levels than decades. It is so unnecessary. No sane person could believe that Russia and China are trying to export their systems of government as occurred with Communism. And they certainly don't need more land. And every country has major domestic challenges to deal with. And, yes, we do face common threats (nuclear proliferation/disaster, failed states, climate change and terrorism) which, if we are not working together, can destroy us all.
We have united before. It happened during World War II as Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, and most of the rest of the world united against the threat of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. To be sure, the alliance was temporary and a matter of expedience, but you have to start somewhere (common threats) and, very importantly, the threats today are very different: in this case the threats are on-going and continually world threatening.
In eight months, we will have a newly elected President of the United States. I hope and trust it will be Hillary Clinton. Even as she works to make progress in the many things that demand progress in our country (education, jobs, racial and gender equality, infrastructure, poverty, etc.), I hope and pray that the President will reach out to the other world leaders to create a wise and prudent "world view" as Martin Luther King called for--a view which will avoid creating enemies among nations where none need exist (as we too often do today), which will respect the sovereignty of other nations and all peoples and which will unite the leading nations in taking action to avoid the most important threats which imperil the very existence of all people and our planet.