The Goal of World Community?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 24, 2004
Out of the ashes and destruction of the Second World War, there arose a new world organization, dedicated to peace and international cooperation. Out of the ruins of fallen dictatorships and the dreams of racially pure and militarily supreme empires, there arose an international forum dedicated to giving every nation its voice in the affairs of the world that concerned them.
It was a mighty dream, a daring endeavor.
In the fifty-nine years that have come since, the United Nations has worked—sometimes (as in wiping out smallpox; raising standards of international literacy; and giving 460 million people access to safe drinking water). It has failed—sometimes (as in not doing enough to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia soon enough; or doing almost nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or Somalia).
/And like anything (or anyone of us) who has been around on this globe for a half century of more, the United Nations has shown signs of wear and tear at times. Sometimes, it looks a little tattered around the edges; many of its institutions, no doubt, are in need of reform and change. It could use a little fresh air to freshen the breeze sometimes, I’m sure.
The United Nations has survived for 59 years now. The ambitious goals it set for itself-- to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; to establish conditions under which justice and international law can be maintained; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom—remain largely unrealized in most of this world of ours. It is easy to focus in on the U.N.’s failures and how much still needs to be done.
But we must also remember what a grand undertaking the United Nations was—and is. “This is a massive undertaking,” one observer has written, “noble in its conception, and practical in its manifestation.”
There is no mystery as to why we Unitarians and Universalists (many of us, anyway) have always held a place in our hearts for the mission and work of the UN. As a faith which professes to seek the unitary and the universal—one God, one world, one universe, one people, one promise—we see in the United Nations a this-worldly manifestation of our deepest religious and spiritual intuitions. Just like the UN, we affirm the dignity and worth of every human person; we affirm justice equity and compassion in human relations; the use of the democratic process and guaranteeing the rights of conscience of each individual. Our Unitarian Universalist principles explicitly declare our belief in “the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all”—and then presents the magnificent image of our “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part”.
The United Nations is a call, in the practical, social, political, worldly sense to live out those goals we profess—to continue seeking world community; to dwell together as nations as part of that interdependent web.
The United Nations does it always imperfectly, maddeningly politically, often partisanly, dwelling too often in the realm of bureaucracy and “business as usual”. But what other alternative does this old and hurting world of ours have? The United Nations has been called “the last best hope of humankind” not because it’s perfect, but because it’s better than the same old/ same old way of war and each nation for itself and domination by this or that special interest or this or that empire (we call them “superpowers” today; they used to be called “empires”).
Far from being irrelevant, the United Nations is more relevant today than at any time in its history. That is why we should lift our voices in support of the UN when it is demeaned by voices of narrow nationalism and jingoism and xenophobia that seem so rampant in our society today. A dangerous world like ours requires more than the same old failed behaviors and reactions of the past. It requires creative imagination, and constructive engagement with all the peoples and perspectives of the world, and a genuine striving together to solve this world’s problems.
At the heart of the great and grandiose vision of the United Nations (as at the heart of the great and grandiose vision of our faith) there are certain basic, even simple, affirmations. But they are revolutionary and profound affirmations nonetheless:
One is that we can learn from history, and avoid some of the tragic mistakes of the past. Human nature is not perfectible, nor is human society upon this Earth. (I don’t need to recount for you the whole sad litany of the damage done throughout human history by those who claimed they could “perfect” humanity or “perfect” human society.)
But there is also much wisdom in the saying of Confucius: “If you do not change your direction, you’ll probably end up where you are heading.”
If we keep stockpiling newer and “better” weapons systems—if we keep stirring up the pot of hatred among peoples—if we keep fanning the fires of fear—if we militarize every aspect of our society, and constantly prepare for war—then don’t be surprised when war happens. (Now what we even have is a war without one set enemy; a war without end; a war whenever our leaders feel the need for it.)
As the poet Adrienne Rich said a few years ago, “War comes at the end of the twentieth century as [our] absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” Or, as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ends up making the whole world blind and toothless.”
Our faith—echoing the call of every single major religious tradition—calls upon us to “turn back, turn back, foreswear our foolish ways.” It calls upon us to change directions, so that we don’t end up where we seem to be (inevitably) headed. It calls upon us to engage our most profound religious and scientific and political imaginations and find ways to live in peace. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said it best, perhaps:
There is much wisdom in that simple little song that reminds us: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
There’s wisdom in another little song, as well—an even simpler song—a sometimes sickening song-- and it points to another truth at the heart of the United Nations, and at the heart of our faith:
It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all.
This world is, truly, smaller than ever, and we are all in it together. “You cannot touch a leaf without troubling a flower,” one poet has said, as evidence of the profound interdependence of the natural world. We inhabit a social and political world scarcely less interdependent. The explosion at Chernobyl irridated breast milk in England. Political turmoil in nations we’ve never heard of can unleash fear and trembling at the heart of our largest city.
“Though the mountains divide/ And the oceans are wide/ It's a small world after all.”
In our smallness, then, we need to learn a few lessons about working together, and about humility, and about how we are safer when we stick together, than when we each go out, hell bent, pursuing our own particular interests.
In our church, we affirm the use of the democratic process and the right of conscience. We say: “The more voices involved, the more wisdom will result.” We say that we can learn, greatly, from the perspectives of others. For us, that’s not just a statement on how to get along; it’s a distinctly religious statement. The words of the old Presbyterian hymn by Scott Matheson sings within our souls:
There is no absolute safety in this world of ours—no absolute way to guard against terrorist attacks; no absolute way to end all wars; no absolute way to protect ourselves against natural disasters. But the truth at the heart of the U.N.’s vision declares to us that, linked as intimately as we are with other peoples and other nations in a shared garment of destiny—we are safer when we cooperate, and work together, and seek answers—than when we go our own way, as a sort of Lone Ranger.
A few years ago Secretary of State Madeline Albright (a woman whom I generally admire) said: "The United States is the indispensable nation…[because] we stand tall, and therefore see further than other nations." Such is the spirit of the Lone Ranger that has infected our nation’s foreign policy.
As Rev. Kathleen McTigue has written:
Yet this is the hubris and arrogance that have infected our vision of ourselves, and now lies at the heart of our foreign policy.
Can it lead to anything else but isolation and destruction and the squandering of the world’s goodwill? I think not. At the very least, the United Nations reminds us that the United States does not run the world.And that’s a lesson we need to learn before it’s too late.
The work of the United Nations—not necessarily the speechifying and political oneupsmanship of the Security Council or the General Assembly—but the practical, day-in/ day out, people helping one another, humanitarian, get your hands dirty work of the United Nations-- reminds us that we all have a role in making the world a better place.
Being too busy is no excuse.
Being too rich is no excuse.
Being too poor is no excuse.
Being too proud and arrogant is no excuse.
Being too small and powerless is no excuse.
Our religious traditions all call upon us to give something back to this world in which we live. Even more essentially, our very being alive—or very lives—demand some kind of pay back—call upon us to do something to serve and help one another.
Sometimes, at the start of our service, we say these words:
We also gather in community—in religious communities like this one; in social communities like the United Nations—to figure out how we’re going to pay for this great gift. How are we going to redeem our Creator’s magnificent investment in each of us?
As the great Universalist Olympia Brown (the first woman in America ordained by a denominational body) said, way back in the 1860s: “We can never make the world safe by fighting. Every nation must learn that the people of all nations are children of God, and must share in the wealth of the world. You may say this is impractical, far away, can never be accomplished. But it is the work we are appointed to do. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must ever teach [one another] this great lesson.”
“People say, what is the sense of our small effort?” asked the great Catholic activist and pacifist Dorothy Day. “They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our words, thoughts, and deeds is like that. No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do. You are the pebble. Life is the pond. Your love is the ripples.”
May we all do what we can, each in our own way, to ripple forth our love for all humankind across the face of this world. May we do what we can to reconnect the frayed and tattered strands of our world’s interdependent web of world community.