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G.L. Anderson: Religion and International Peace and Prosperity

Essay published in the journal Dialogue & Alliance, Winter 2010 issue

The role of religion in issues of international peace and prosperity came to the front of intellectual consciousness after the collapse of the Soviet Union and became apparent to the media and mass culture after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Religion is a force that can no longer be ignored or circumvented by those concerned with issues of peace and prosperity, either within nations or the global society.[1] In 1993, Samuel Huntington noted in an article in Foreign Affairs:

During the cold war, the world was divided into First, Second and Third Worlds. Those divisions are no longer relevant. It is far more meaningful now to group countries not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their civilization and culture.

Religion is a core ingredient in personal and social identity. It helps us define our place in the cosmos, our relationships with others, and our goals for activity. It might tell us that there is one God above all, or that there are many gods. It can help us feel powerful or small, special, or insignificant. It can tell us to be pacifists or warriors, that killing an enemy is forbidden or that it is noble. It can urge us to work hard or tell us that our own striving is fruitless. It can teach us that we must care for our environment or that we can use it for any purpose we wish.

Some religious teachings are conducive to international peace and prosperity, while others are not. However, since religion is so fundamental to people and societies, it is not an easy topic for modern politicians to handle. In many previous societies and civilizations the beliefs of the elders and the kings were the official beliefs of the land. While religious pluralism has existed in many places and times, some common unifying basis was required for the sake of social order, and the religions had to function within the limits set by the state.

The rise of global civilization has caused the encounter of many religions and cultures. However, modern international institutions are not equipped to address this “clash of civilizations.” What is the role of religion in global affairs? Do we need a global religion? Can religion be regulated? Can some religiously based behaviors be allowed and others condemned? To answer these questions we can examine the positive contributions of religion to existing societies and see how religious pluralism has been addressed by other nations and civilizations.

The problem of henotheism

H. Richard Niebuhr used the term henotheism in his book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture to describe those who placed their faith or ultimate loyalty in finite objects, social institutions, or leaders. Radical monotheism, he argued, is the faith in a transcendent center of value that is beyond all finite individuals, societies, institutions, and dogmas. Many people are guilty of proclaiming belief in an infinite God while in practice worshiping a finite god.

For example, a Christian may in his rhetoric worship the infinite God, while in practice be giving ultimate allegiance to Jesus, the pope or other religious leader, or his denominational doctrine. A Muslim might claim to worship God, but in practice give higher fidelity to the Qur'an, Mohammed, or a doctrine promoted by a man like Osama bin Laden. The instant the Bible was canonized and people said this was the only word of God, nothing to be added to it or taken from it, they committed the sin of henotheism. When a Muslim says that the Qur'an is the final revelation, or that Mohammed was the last prophet, they place limits on an infinite God and commit the sin of henotheism.

Similarly, an American might claim to believe in God but place higher allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, a political party, or the President. A white, a black, a Jew, or a Chinese person might claim that a transcendent power governs the universe but put their faith and pride in institutions designed to promote the welfare of their race or ethnic group at the expense of others.

These and other forms of henotheism lead to racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, religious intolerance, and bigotry. Such “isms” are divisive sources of violence and war. However, if all human beings place their faith in an infinite and transcendent center of value, these problems can be avoided.

This was not the case of the twentieth century, which philosopher William Bartley III has termed “the century of division.” A plurality of coexisting but henotheistic states was officially sanctioned and incorporated into the nineteenth and twentieth century doctrines of national sovereignty. In his Philosophy of Right, G.W.F. Hegel portrayed the state as the ultimate unfolding of the march of the “absolute” in history. It was the ultimate source of loyalty for citizens.

This quasi-religious faith owed the state was a secular version of ultimate reality that was enshrined in the rhetoric of state communism, National Socialism, and Maoism. For our purposes, it is important to understand that a less strident version of state sovereignty was also promoted in the formation of the United Nations. However, international peace cannot be achieved in an unregulated world of sovereign states, where no state recognizes that there is a truth or law above itself. No international consensus could be reached in a world where each individual state’s opinion is treated as ultimate.

The United Nations Security Council was set up to ensure the sovereignty of states, to protect the arbitrary actions of one sovereign state against another. To a measurable degree the Security Council was able to take action when such incursions took place. Nevertheless, such a state of “peace” is not true peace. It is not a world free of violence within states, and it may even be a “peace” that promotes structural violence. Indeed, in the last half of the twentieth century, poverty and suffering under “sovereign” regimes has been widespread. Many of the “sovereign” states have not been kind to their own citizens.

Further, the system of sovereign states has not been able to limit the global economic abuse that transcends them. In the absence of an international organization that recognizes limits on state sovereignty, a global economy has emerged as a guiding force of globalism. Richard Falk has argued that this economic globalization is becoming a form of inhumane global governance. The visible effects he points to are:

• Growing economic disparities

• Neglect of human suffering

• Decline of the global public good

• Uncontrolled technological development of great potential harm

Falk reasons that these negative developments that result from a sovereign or unchecked global economy are moral issues traditionally addressed by religion. Hence, following Hans Küng, he notes a need for common global religious consciousness:

It is my contention that this early effort to construct a democratic global civil society is informed by religious and spiritual inspiration, and if it is to move from the margins of political reality to challenge entrenched constellations of power in a more serious way, it will have to acquire some of the characteristics and concerns of a religious movement, including building positive connections with the emancipatory aspects of the great world religions.

In order to build such a common interreligious movement, we return to our original premise that religions must all be humble enough to recognize a higher infinite authority, above all finite expressions found on earth. Religious leaders must represent the genuine interests of all, not just accommodate to temporal powers for their own comfort. Also, we must learn to distinguish between the emancipatory and henotheistic aspects of religion. The attempt to build a solely political or economic order without the guidance of religion will inevitably lead to an inhumane world order, one pervaded by structural violence.

Selfishness, power, and monopoly

There is consistently one point that human beings, despite their cultural differences, admire. Living for the sake of others is taught by all of the world’s great religions. Despite their quarrels with cultural elements of Christianity, both communists and Hindus could appreciate Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the service of Mother Teresa.

Social institutions, whether they are religious, political, or economic, tend to lose the ethic of living for the sake of others, even if they are founded with such an impulse. The unquestioned loyalty of followers often is taken advantage of by leaders in the name of the wellbeing of the whole. The religious reformation initiated by Martin Luther was, to a large extent, an attack on the excesses of an aging church that had unquestioned power, originally founded on the ethic of Jesus and the blood of martyrs.

Many of the communist revolutionaries who took power in Russia in the 1920s lived sacrificially in order to develop a more just social order, but their successors became part of an elite ruling class, a nomenklatura, which sought to manipulate the system for its own ends. Scandals such as those at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen show that the old dictum “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” also applies to those who are supposed to be the public servants who keep businesses honest. Selfishness and abuse of power exist in politics, economics, religion, and every other sector of human society. In all spheres, checks and balances on power must be maintained.

No one should fear proper checks and balances on power except those who have too much and would lose it. Proper checks and balances on power do not penalize people for altruistic or productive behavior. They do not take away the “pursuit of happiness”; they only prevent the excesses that would infringe upon others’ rights to pursue their happiness. Many wealthy nineteenth-century industrialists and successful businessmen founded great universities and were philanthropists who served the poor and less advantaged. No one would like to see the good things created by philanthropists disappear.

Poor legislation that attacks producers themselves would prevent such positive philanthropy from taking place. Good laws, on the other hand, prevent the use of wealth to harm others and promote the acquisition of wealth through fair competition and encourage philanthropy that serves the public good.

In the United States, checks and balances on power are not perfect, but in the political and religious sectors monopolies have been checked more effectively than in the economic sector. However, many of the world’s countries still retain state religions, single party political systems, or state-run economies that create structural violence and nonproductive economies.

Religions have historically allied themselves with political rulers for the sake of survival or in order to enhance their own monopoly within a state. An analysis of the detrimental effects of a monopoly of any kind within a society leads to the conclusion that such religions will more likely thwart than serve peace and prosperity.

Freedom of religion, like freedom of the market, forces religions to compete to serve people’s needs rather than the maintenance or enlargement of institutions. In what many have thought to be an irony of history, religious freedom in the United States led to an increase in church attendance. This is because ministers and church leaders are forced to compete for adherents by providing spiritual education and guidance that leads to more a more enriched and rewarding life.

The fact that charlatans have been able to arise in the climate of freedom of religion does not offset this benefit. In fact, charlatans too must provide a useful service or they are soon exposed and their support collapses. Criticism of “charlatans,” whether they be religious, economic, or political, by and large comes from those established authorities who feel threatened by newcomers because they force established authorities to keep serving the needs of people rather than resting on their laurels.

Thus, in addition to serving the needs of the poor and oppressed through works of charity, religion can greatly aid the cause of peace and justice by opposing tyranny and monopoly in any sector of society. Internationally, religions need to aid those who are displaced, malnourished, or sick. In addition, they must stand for a world order in which the preconditions of justice exist. At a minimum this includes creating a basis of freedom for people to serve others through competitive markets, competitive political systems, and competitive religion.

Religion and prosperity

Former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton often reminded Americans of an old parable: “If you give someone a fish, he will need another one tomorrow; however, if you teach him to fish you will never need to give him another.” This simple lesson can be used to critique the religious impulse to simply give out aid on the basis of compassion.

Justice and prosperity are two different things. You can have relative equality in a nonproductive society. If nobody catches any fish, nobody has any fish and, therefore, everyone is equal. This might be considered justice, but it certainly is not happiness or prosperity. On the other hand, you might have one man who owns a fishing trawler and prevents anyone else from fishing. He has thousands of fish, but he can make others do literally anything he wants because they need fish. He can let the fish get old and people will still take them. He can charge a high price and people will still take them. This is coercion, extortion, and injustice.

In a more ideal situation, where fair competition exists, many people are catching fish and bringing them to a market where they will make money only if their fish are fresh, look nice, and are at a lower price than the competitor with a similar product. The businessman will cut his profits to the lowest level he can live on in order to get more sales. In such an environment there is both prosperity and justice.

This analogy applies to the general role of religion in addressing economic issues if there is to be prosperity. Too often in history, the religious impulse for compassion and justice has led to activities that perpetuate poverty or create injustice. One only has to think of those religions that have encouraged begging, or that have sought to ransack productive economies to hand out aid, only to find more people wanting aid and fewer people producing what is needed. Too often religions only want to hand out fish. Maybe this is because most of them were born in the preindustrial era and subsisted economically as dependents upon the main economy, not as companions to its success.

In contrast to those religions that seek to divide what exists, works by Max Weber on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and R.H. Tawney on Religion and the Rise of Capitalism show that religion can also encourage people to produce an enormous quantity of goods and services for others as part of their vocation of serving God. The rise of productivity in the Pacific Rim nations in the latter part of the twentieth century has also been related to the work ethic of Confucianism and the perfectionism of Zen Buddhism. Such religions also teach the virtue of planning and self-discipline required to voluntarily work hard and delay gratification.

On the cover of his book Personal Character and National Destiny, Harold Jones, Jr., wrote:

A nation’s destiny is not the result of arbitrary fate but the inevitable consequence of the values to which its people subscribe. Numerous historical studies have shown that attitudes with regard to personal excellence, individual accomplishment, and self-control predict national periods of rise, ascendancy and decline.

The people who flocked to America’s shores between 1620 and 1900 weren’t looking for a handout. They did not ask for assistance. All they wanted was liberty to do the best that they could with their lives. It was given to them, and they turned the United States into a land of promise.

A people’s values are evident in the literature they create. The most popular works of a hundred and fifty years ago were filled with stories of self-reliance, faith, honesty, perseverance, and victorious achievement. The modern media, by contrast, careen from one “crisis” to the next. The emphasis is on helplessness and victimization. Politicians expand their followings by offering to “help” the citizens with things that they ought to be dealing with themselves. The old emphasis on self-reliance made America great. Will the modern emphasis on dependency destroy her?

For religion to contribute to human prosperity, it must transcend the level of thinking as a dependent. Productivity is not necessarily bad or exploitative. As we have noted above, it is the monopoly on production that leads to exploitation. This includes state monopoly or state-caused monopoly. Religious leaders who have not understood these basic principles have often been taken in by rulers and politicians who would use the rhetoric of redistribution only to aid their own power and increase generalized poverty through the elimination of fair competition. Whether the state owns the only fishing trawler, or whether it is owned by a greedy individual, the end result will be similar: fish will be in short supply, high priced, and of low quality. People will be forced to wait in line for their portion, if they can get it at all.

In the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, it was fashionable for religious leaders to sympathize with redistributionist socialist and communist politicians and theorists. This was a major category mistake. The evil they condemned was caused by monopoly, not by fair competition. The attempt to replace the power of one monopoly with another was simply to change the ownership of the monopoly, not to end the structural nature of the evil that was causing economic poverty and oppression.

In the 1980s, Michael Novak, who had been trained by redistributionist theologians, dumbfounded many of his mentors when he published the book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak recognized that much church teaching had been hostile to capitalism, as with much else of modernity. He contended that arguments against capitalism served mainly to give aid and comfort to the Leviathan state. He attributed Christian opposition to capitalism to two main sources: ignorance of basic economic principles and antique worldviews.

Novak did not believe that faith should be subordinated to capitalism. On the contrary, he argued that the divine plan was that we should enjoy the fruits of the earth and of our own industry. He contended that capitalism is the best way fallen humans have yet devised to obey the biblical command that we are to be stewards of God’s world. Novak’s analysis has begun to impact the way the church thinks about capitalism. Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals on work and the economy, for example, such as Centesimus Annus, contain obvious marks of Novak’s influence.

Economic monopolists were quick to adopt the rebel Novak as one of their own, believing his criticism of their common statist enemies put him squarely in their camp. However, a truly fair competitive playing field is no friend of the economic monopolist. The economic monopolist would want to get rid of state political monopoly so that he could have his own economic monopoly. That is, in fact, the direction in which global society is currently headed, as all “sovereign” states are busying themselves with their own “sovereign” interests.

The real role that religion can play in aiding prosperity, both in communities and nations as well as on the international level, is to encourage legislation that keeps all sectors of the economy competitive, discourages and penalizes monopoly, and encourages philanthropy. It also needs to encourage a strong work ethic and education that allows all citizens to become productive.

Religion after September 11

September 11, 2001 drove home the point that religion cannot be left out of discussions of world peace and prosperity. The attack was done in the name of religion and against “the West,” even if most religious leaders did not condone it. A large segment of the world’s population has a general distrust and/or envy of the secular West.

In his article on the clash of civilizations, Samuel Huntington coined the phrase “the West versus the rest.” What is the difference between “the West” and “the rest”? Is it Christianity vs. Islam? Not really. In the words of Huntington:

Western concepts differ fundamentally from those prevalent in other civilizations. Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist, or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce instead a reaction against “human rights imperialism” and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures.

Huntington is right in his identification of the Western values that are attacked around the world, but we must go a level deeper. Why are these values attacked? Is it because the cultures are “Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox”? Actually, people from all of these cultural backgrounds live happily in the West, integrating their traditional background with the freedom they find in the West.

The real issue is power, monopoly power, held by religious, political, or economic leaders in non-Western countries. Islamic civilization in much of the Middle East today is very similar to Western Christianity in the Holy Roman Empire, or to Orthodox Christianity in Tsarist Russia. In those societies, monopolies on religious and political power entered into a relationship, whether it was an uncomfortable coexistence or outright collusion, to unify civilization based on authoritarian rule and the exclusiveness of their view of God.

A realistic understanding of human nature leads to the conclusion that the fundamental conflict is not between the West and the world’s masses, but between the West and those holding monopoly power or seeking monopoly power in the rest of the world. And, those leaders use the rhetoric of religion, the rhetoric of tradition, and anti-West rhetoric in order to keep or gain their own power. The Soviets, for example, needed the United States as an enemy in order to get the Russian people to sacrifice and accept a lower economic standard than the West. North Korea is well known for using the strategy of telling its people that South Korea and the United States will destroy its people if they do not sacrifice completely for the cause of the “Great Leader.” Osama bin Laden and the Taliban used this type of rhetoric as well.

However, we need to understand that the common people were not happy and not allowed to prosper under these regimes. Religions need to see the effects of the use of such rhetoric as henotheism. The majority of Afghans were not disappointed with the demise of the Taliban regime that established a monopoly on power in Afghanistan and used religion as a tool to keep women uneducated and men in line, as was evidenced by the rejoicing that took place when the regime fell.

Does that mean the West is guiltless? No. Individuals in the West have the same tendency as people anywhere to gain the most they can for themselves, in the easiest way possible. Despite domestic laws that check abuses of power by Western citizens, many will still seek to take advantage of others whenever and wherever they can. Sometimes this means devising a new form of scam on vulnerable people in the West; other times it means preying on vulnerable people in less-developed countries. Often it has meant collusion with dictators and leaders in less-developed countries. However, attacking Western freedoms and human rights per se is to set up a straw man to deflect the unrest of the masses who live in conditions of suffering and hopelessness.

In summary, there are three main roles for religion in the world that transcend culture and doctrine:

1. Attack monopoly power. If religion is to play a constructive role in the twenty-first century struggle for world peace and prosperity, it will need to address the issues of monopoly power and abuse of power everywhere. This is not easy. One just has to look at the struggles of Luther and Copernicus against the Church and the struggles of countless revolutionaries against dictators to know that freedom often comes at a high price. However, at the international level, freed from the necessity for obedience to local authoritarian rulers, interreligious efforts to push for reform might have less dire personal consequences. By attacking economic monopolies and pushing to open free and competitive markets, religions can help human beings serve one another and prosper at the same time. Further, religion must become conscious of its own quest for monopoly power and be humble in the face of the God that transcends all finite embodiments of religion.

2. Promote education and self-discipline. Religion must encourage a strong work ethic, self-discipline, high levels of education, and a personal pride in work that will assist people who are in conditions of political freedom and a genuinely competitive market in achieving the prosperity they desire. As in traditional religions, this is accomplished by spiritual education that at the same time places appropriate value on the material needs and desires for happiness in the temporal world.

3. Serve the poor and oppressed. The most recognized and traditional role of religion in international affairs is that of service. Religious NGOs have provided food, medical supplies, blankets, and shelter to poor people and those displaced by war, famine, and disease. Everybody wants to receive love, to get things from others. Everybody admires people who serve others. Hindu, Russian, and American leaders all admired the service of Mother Teresa. When we speak about the role of religion in international affairs, the established order would want it to remain benign, i.e., hand out food and blankets to the displaced people who are stateless.

An interreligious council and the United Nations

The United Nations, as a secular institution designed by leaders of nation states for their security, is an organization that does not represent the masses of the world. It supports the status quo regimes and facilitates both military and financial assistance to protect these regimes. Some regimes are good to their citizens and fairly represent their interests at the United Nations, while others represent the interests of a few elites at the expense of their citizens.

The United Nations is happy to work with NGOs that help address humanitarian issues that the states cannot address, or those issues on which states are unwilling to spend their own budget. This work of compassion that assists state goals, or at least does not interfere with them, is something that states, and also the United Nations, admire. However, when religious service spills over the boundaries of traditional aid into politics or education, as did “Liberation Theology” in the 1970s, those in power can get very nervous. Further, such theological movements, if their own goal is monopolistic, can lead to actions that are very inhumane and irreligious. On our list of three roles for religion above, only the third role is benign, while the first two roles are threatening to established monopoly powers. However, all three roles are proper spheres of religious action.

The call from the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to involve NGOs and civil society in partnership with the United Nations was recognition that charitable groups were the foot soldiers in the war against disease, poverty, malnutrition, ignorance, and substandard shelter. His request was recognized by most people as important if the UN is to serve the genuine needs of the world. For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace along with the UN in 2001.

Such efforts originating with the UN will tend to pigeonhole religion into its third role, or use religion as a masquerade for redistributionist political agendas. There are limits that we can expect from “reform from above.” We also need “reform from below” that begins with the interests of all people, especially those in need.

If the United Nations is to be an organization that promotes “world order” by preventing existing states from attacking one another, its present structure is acceptable. However, if it is to become an organization that supports the goal of promoting a happy and rewarding life for all people in the world, it cannot simply represent an elite minority that rules the world. The fact that the UN has been asked to become a peacekeeper in within-state conflicts in the past decade is just one indication that the world is demanding more from the United Nations than it was originally set up to accomplish.

The best way to reform the United Nations to represent the interests of all people of the world, including those who are stateless or oppressed minorities within states, is to bring in the voice of religious leaders to represent them. I believe this means a body set out to accomplish all three of the above stated goals of religion: (1) to attack monopoly power so that all people have the freedom to live fulfilling lives; (2) to push for education in work ethic and skills that will give all people the tools to obtain fulfilling lives once they have that freedom; and (3) to serve those who are poor and in hopeless situations, whether due to a natural disaster or human conflict and oppression.

An ecumenical body at the UN should not be a body of religious leaders promoting their own doctrines or serving their own national elites. Such a body could never reach agreements in the genuine interests of all. Such a body would fall apart quickly. Rather, it should focus on bringing the interests of the majority of the world’s people, who suffer for one reason or another, to the floor of world discussion.

If legislation at the UN were forced to pass through a bicameral institution that represented both the interests of the states and of the oppressed, we would see an institution that would be less likely to pass legislation that propped up oppressive regimes or unjust social and economic policies. Both groups would have to approve before any legislation could gain the force of world law or be billed as real world opinion. Further, such legislation would have a legitimacy that current legislation could never hope to achieve.

Could such a world senate or council be created? Clearly, the states themselves, at least the non-democratic states, would not see this as being in their best interest. Either there would need to be a world groundswell in all nations pushing their UN ambassadors to make such a reform in the UN Charter, or a new global body should be formed that is designed for this task. This would take a movement like the original movement to replace the League of Nations and its shortcomings with a superior organization, more effective at keeping world peace and security—the United Nations.

Failing to institute these reforms within the United Nations, it would still be valuable to have an ecumenical body of world religious leaders form an organization parallel to the United Nations. Such a body, if it did its job representing the needs of the masses properly, would gain the respect of world opinion and ultimately be viewed as being on par with the United Nations itself. Actions of states would then be subjected to the policies recommended by both the existing UN and the new interreligious world body.

Unless some form of major reorganization or additional organization takes place at the world level to represent the interests of those who are not currently represented, or poorly represented at the UN, and unless the three social goals of religion this paper has outlined are incorporated into world policymaking, international peace and prosperity will remain elusive objectives.

[1] This paper was first presented at the Third International Symposium on the United States and the United Nations, “Governance and the Challenge of Contemporary Crises,” Washington, DC, June 18-19, 2002