Saturday, January 17, 2015

The State of the World

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 24, 1999

Back in 1859, Charles Dickens summed up the times in which he lived. Maybe he could have been writing about our own:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."
We look out at our own world, and ask the same questions: Are we half-way to heaven, or about a mile out of hell? And, often, from those places where we might normally look for inspiration and vision, wisdom and solace, we hear only the incessant Babel of commercialism, self-interest, and sensationalism.
We need at times like this to heed the voice of a statesman (in a world that has too few left). Now, as you might imagine, I happen to have a particular statesman in mind:
I really thought for a while that this was going to be a watershed year. Not too long ago, I had this feeling: If Susan Lucci could, finally, win the Emmy after thirteen tries, then maybe other miracles could happen. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, this would be the year that the Red Sox would reverse the "curse of the Bambino" and win the World Series-- and also, that this would be the year that Vaclav Havel would win the Nobel Peace Prize!
(Good things come in threes, I thought: Ms. Lucci... Boston Red Sox... Vaclav Havel. It made all the sense in the world to me.)
Well, as you no doubt know, the "Lucci precedent" didn't hold. The Red Sox got beat by the New York Yankees. (Robbed maybe, or maybe they beat themselves. Whatever.) And the Nobel Committee made a different fine and justifiable choice in awarding this year's Peace Prize to the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.
So much for my "feelings". So much for my "psychic" abilities.
But as Vaclav Havel's only American biographer (I feel the opening line of an obituary coming on there), I still feel called to make my modest efforts to keep his name in the public consciousness. And to share with you, at least once in a while, the wisdom offered by this amazing personality of our time.
In particular, I would like to take a look with you today, on United Nations Sunday, at one of Havel's more recent speeches, that is, his address to the Canadian Parliament on 29th of April of this year.
Now, you might ask, what possible use is there in our considering the words of one Western Hemisphere country that's small-to-middlin' in population and power and prestige to the elected leaders of another country in the same hemisphere, playing in (roughly) the same second tier geopolitical league?
But then, Havel is no "typical" world leader. I could go on for hours about why this is so. But some of you have a boat to catch, and others of us have other things to do today, so suffice it to say that Havel's genius, I believe-- his particular contribution to our world-- is his ability to discern and articulate the "deeper trends" presented in the face of "politics as usual". Havel is well-attuned to the "everyday" machinations of statescraft and politics. He can talk competently about NATO enlargement, and the situation in Russia, and world trade imbalance, and more usual political matters like these. But he always points us deeper, toward a more distant, more critical and transcendent horizon. He is, in so many ways, a prophet of our time.
And history shows that human beings ignore their prophets only at their own peril.
After a few quick pleasantries at the start of his speech in Ottawa, Havel gets right to the matter at hand-- and that would be "a few remarks concerning the State and its probable position in the future."
"There is every indication," he begins, "that the glory of the nation-state as a climax of the history of every national community and the highest earthly value-- in fact the only one in whose name it is permissible to kill or which is worth dying for-- is already past its culminating point."
Right off the bat, there's Havel's main thesis: the State as the epitome of human political evolution is on the way out. A pretty radical statement for a Head of State to make, certainly. One which a cursory glance at human affairs in the world today might well call into question.
Then Havel develops his thesis a bit further:
"It seems that the enlightened endeavors of generations of democrats, the horrible experience of two world wars... as well as the overall development of our civilization, are gradually bringing the human race to the realization that a human being is more important than a State."
Why is this so? What has brought to birth this growing realization? It is the direct result, Havel says, of our living in an interconnected, interdependent world:
"The idol of State sovereignty must inevitably dissolve in a world that connects people-- regardless of borders-- through millions of links of integration ranging from trade, finance and property, up to information; links that impart a variety of universal notions and cultural patterns," Havel continues. There are so many more ties that bind us together than ever before in human history.
But this interconnection can also be a two-edged sword, Havel believes. The threat of technology gone awry moves well beyond national boundaries, and threatens more than a single nation: "...[ours] is a world in which danger to some has an immediate bearing on us all... in which our fates are merged together into one single destiny; and in which we all, whether we like it or not, suffer responsibility for everything that occurs."
The radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 crossed all kinds of boundaries-- from the Ukraine into Belarus and into the Baltic Republic and Scandinavia. Farmland throughout the area was contaminated. Within hours, scientists in Sweden and Denmark reported abnormally high amounts of radiation in the atmosphere. Within weeks, the safety of milk from cows as far away as France and Ireland was being questioned.
The dream of "one world" can turn into a nightmare in a heavily technologized world like ours. We can readily grasp how easy it would be for a major Y2K disaster in (say) Russia or China to become "everybody's problem"-- including ours.
The fact that the world is growing closer, Havel maintains, presents all the people of the world with a new set of challenges and responsibilities.
But the old ways never die easily. Forces of reaction never give ground without a fight, without a "long, twilight struggle". And so, in Havel's view, as the power of State decreases, the old demons of extreme nationalism rise up more vicious and nasty than ever. Nationalist tyrants, from Serbia to Iraq to Indonesia, lash about more virulently than ever-- like a mortally wounded dinosaur thrashing about in its death throes:
"It is obvious that in such a world [a world grown so small], blind love for one's own state-- a love that does not recognize anything above itself, finds excuses for the actions of one's own state simply because it is one's own state [a narrow "my country right or wrong" mentality] and rejects anything else simply because it is different-- inevitably turns into a dangerous anachronism, a hotbed of conflicts and, eventually, a source of immeasurable human suffering."
But in Havel's view, even in this mayhem and violence, there is hope. Even amidst the tragic death throes of an old age, there is the vision of a new, more humane world that can be.
As the supreme loyalty we now pay to the nation state diminishes, and as the State withers away as a "cult-like object" to be worshipped mindlessly, people's energies and loyalties will disperse themselves "more equally amongst the various spheres that make up human identity," Havel believes. We will be drawn together not just because of narrow political identity, but because we share together a particular place on our Mother Earth. We will come to see a more ecologically- and environmentally- and geographically-based view of politics. We will draw together, too, according to other things we share: "our family, our company, our village or town, our region, our profession, our church or our association, as well as our continent and, finally, our Earth-- the planet which we all inhabit." The weakening of the strangle hold of the State over our hearts and minds and power will, inevitably, "benefit all of these other environments" and give us greater flexibility and creativity in how we identify and envision ourselves as human beings in the world.
Then, we will be freed, too, to join our efforts with kindred spirits all around the world in common endeavors to build a better world. Freed of the view that we're "better than" those who live in other States, we will come to cherish them more as "riders on the Earth together" (in the words of Archibald MacLeish" as "brothers [and sisters] who finally see that we are brothers [and sisters]." A new "universal, or global, respect for human rights" could be the major upshot of this new vision.
In Havel's view, these new developments he discerns are seen most clearly in the recent events in Kosovo.
NATO's recent engagement in Kosovo, in Havel's view, represented a watershed event in the history of the modern world. With the war in Kosovo still raging, Havel told the Canadians:
"The Alliance of which both Canada and the Czech Republic are now members in waging a struggle against the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It is neither an easy struggle nor a popular one, and there can be different opinions on its strategy and tactics. But no person of sound judgment can deny one thing: This is probably the first war ever fought that is not being fought in the name of interests, but in the name of certain principles and values. If it is possible to say about a war that it is ethical, or that it is fought for ethical reasons, it is true of this war."
As Havel continues: "Kosovo has no oil fields... no member country of the Alliance has any territorial claims there... and Milosevic is not threatening either the territorial integrity, or any other integrity, of any NATO member. Nevertheless, the Alliance is fighting." Why?
"It is fighting in the name of human interest for the fate of other human beings. It is fighting because decent people cannot sit back and watch the systematic, state-directed massacres of other people. Decent people simply cannot tolerate this, and cannot fail to come to the rescue if a rescue action is within their power."
In a world grown small-- where the business of people thousands and thousands of miles away-- become "our business" (we cannot claim not to know what's going on when it comes into our living rooms every night)-- we feel compelled because of our humanity, to do something, to do what we can do. This makes for a messier world, in some ways, than that in which denial was so much simpler. But we can't deny that which we see with our own eyes, and still think of ourselves as compassionate and humane. We are coming to grasp the truth that if others are oppressed, we cannot be free, and that we are all joined together in a common garment of destiny. This growing realization of our common humanity-- of the debt we owe, even to the poor Albanian peasants in Kosovo-- gives us reason to hope, and to feel real gladness in the fact that even this bloodiest century has not extinguished the fires of compassion in our human souls.
"I see this as an important precedent for the future," Havel continued, "It has now been clearly stated that it is not permissible to slaughter people, to evict them from their homes, to maltreat them and deprive them of their property. It has been demonstrated that human rights are indivisible and that if an injustice is done to some, it is done to all."
Our human conscience has emerged, at last, as a tool of human politics.
Why this growing concern for human rights? Where does it come from? As he closed his speech to the Canadian parliament, Vaclav Havel pondered just these questions:
"Dear friends,
Many times in the past, I have pondered on the question of why humanity has the prerogative to any rights at all. I have always come to the conclusion that human rights, human liberties, and human dignity have their deepest roots outside of this earthly world. They become what they are, only because, under certain circumstances, they can mean to humanity a value that people place-- without being forced to-- higher than even their own lives. Thus, these notions have meaning only against the background of the infinite and against eternity."
(These are not questions of day-to-day "politics as usual". These are questions about our very makeup as human beings.) And Havel continued:
"It is my profound conviction that the true worth of all our actions-- whether or not they are in harmony with our conscience, the ambassador of eternity in our souls-- is finally tested somewhere beyond our sight." (The ultimate judgment of our actions lies somewhere in the unknowable beyond this world). "If we did not sense this, or subconsciously surmise it, certain things would never get done."
If we were just creatures in tune solely with self interest-- or national interest-- or the particular interest of our little group-- then there would be no greater compassion for the whole human family. There would no compassion for those beyond our little circle, at all. There would be no still, small voice of conscience in our souls, reminding us of how much better we could be.
"There is a value [in the world today] which ranks higher than the State... This value is humanity. The State... is here to serve the people, and not the other way around..."
Then, Havel's final, most prophetic pronouncement (uttered both in English and in French, for benefit of his Canadian audience):
"The State is the creation of humanity, and humanity is a creation of God."
"L'etat est l'oeuvre de l'homme, et l'homme est l'oeuvre de Dieu."
May this be the rallying cry of our "New World Order". We are all in this together! We are all one family. Male and female, young and old, rich and poor, Arab and Jew, Serb and Albanian, gay and straight, red, brown, yellow, black, and white! You know the whole blessed litany! Let it ring! Let human freedom ring! All of us are sacred-- because all of us are children of the one God whose most excellent name is Love.
And may these other words of this great man of our time be for us a benediction:
"As to the future of the world, there is a colorful spectrum of possibilities, from the worst to the best. What will happen, I do not know. [But] hope forces me to believe that those better alternatives will prevail, and above all, it forces me to do something to make them happen."
May we all take our places as midwives of the new world which is being born.

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