Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Universe Story As A Resource for Peacebuilders

An enrichment paper written for the Parkdale Conference, May 2011

The three basic laws of the universe at all levels of reality are differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. These laws identify the reality, the values, and the directions in which the universe is proceeding.
                                                 —Thomas Berry

As we begin a fresh phase in the great task of permanently ending war on the planet, it may be helpful to examine whether the scientific story of the unfolding universe itself gives us any encouragement.

Setting aside theological speculation and remaining only with what science can verify, the post-Descartian way of thinking about our human relationship to the universe posits that we are microscopic dust-motes in an inconceivably vast and heartlessly indifferent cosmos. Even if peace might be possible, the surrounding context provides no visible support for the endeavor. Its cold emptiness mocks the absurdity of our fragile hopes and dreams.

The cosmological work of Thomas Berry provides us with a very different way of looking at our relationship to the whole. Berry’s mentor Teilhard de Chardin conceived a universe which favors complexity and consciousness, our own presence being the primary evidence. For Berry, the laws that make this presence possible are the same laws that have governed the entire unfolding story of the whole at every level from the micro to the macro.
Differentiation is another way of stating Teilhard’s complexification. Differentiation took place in the furnaces of stars as new elements were created. We see differentiation most immediately in the direction toward greater diversity in the biological life forms on the planet— subject always to the creative, and also ruthlessly destructive, demands of the evolutionary process.

The tragic (and potentially ruthlessly destructive) side of differentiation arises in our human inability to handle cultural and religious diversity, a misunderstanding that comes from our tendency to limit our identification to specific places, tribes, nations, or beliefs. This tendency is dissolving as more and more of us take in where we really are—on a small planet that we have gridded with artificial geographical and mental borders.

By subjectivity, Berry does not mean that all things are self-aware like the human brain, but that all things are animated by a self-organizing principle that allows them to maintain their particular identity in full authenticity. A carbon atom declares its specific identity and creative potential as a carbon atom. An acorn becomes an oak reliably, not a tomato plant. A spiral galaxy obeys the laws of its own particular unfolding.

Communion, Berry’s third universal law, describes like the other two laws a condition to which the universe has been subject from the beginning. Via the curvature of space- time, all parts of the universe are intimately in communion with all other parts. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms commune to form water. On the level of biology we see this same law operant in complex ecosystems where organisms like coral reefs are functionally interdependent with the fish that surround them. Each helps to keep the other healthy.

In short, the universe is not a dead backdrop to forlorn and isolated human activity, but a differentiated community of subjects of which we are an integral part. This is a way of trying to say the nearly unsayable: that the three laws form one indivisible whole. 

All is one.

What are the implications for peacebuilding of these profound principles animating the dynamics of the universe?

First, the three laws form the outline a viable ethical system. What celebrates greater differentiation, encourages deeper reverence for subjectivity, and activates more profound communion among humans is good; what inhibits or cuts short these three indicates an absence of good. To state it even more categorically, what extends these three processes leads to more abundant life, and what diminishes them leads to death.

Second, the three laws provide a model for the direction in which humans are meant to grow, and therefore a model specifically for those of us who may decide, with each other’s indispensable help, to try to model the model:

Knowing that differentiation of viewpoint strengthens the creativity of the whole, peacebuilders delight in diversity of every kind, and reach to celebrate it across economic, racial, cultural, gender-based, political, national and religious barriers.
Peacebuilders contain and value depths of subjectivity, maintaining an openness to communing with the differentiated subjectivity of others. Peacebuilders are self- initiating (the Buddha: "Be a light unto yourself."), self- aware of the shadow within them, and self-forgiving of their human limitations. This enables them to be dispassionate in the face of powerful systems based upon limited, fragmented identifications, "us and them," or fight or flight thinking.

Peacebuilders actively initiate the formation of deeper communal ties across artificial barriers, not only between humans, but also among humans and the rest of the living system, exploring more effective ways of working consultatively within the whole.
This commitment to be present, authentic, inclusive and responsible invites humans to exercise their entire being in a gymnasium of discovery—discovery of a love grounded in the reality, the values and the direction of the universe itself.

If the universe is with us, who can be against us?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Has the Idea of a Jewish State Become Obsolete?

While John Kerry admirably shuttles around like the Energizer Bunny in search of Middle East peace, is there anything new to say about the intractable tension between Israelis on the one hand and predominantly Muslim peoples, especially the Palestinians, on the other?

One layer of the unspoken is Israel’s implicit status as a nuclear power.  Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama draw red lines in the sand concerning the threat of Iranian nukes, but say little about the only viable long-term solution: a negotiated and verified nuclear-free zone in the Eastern Mediterranean—even better, a planet-wide nuclear-free zone. Nuclear war anywhere on earth has become more unthinkable as it has become more possible.

Also rarely spoken—lest howls of anti-Semitism ensue—is an uncomfortable question:  why do we frown upon the lack of separation of church and state in many Muslim countries, while Israel gets a pass in privileging a particular constellation of religion and ethnicity?

The historical rationale for the birth of the Jewish state could not be more reasonable. In the context of Jewish history over thousands of years climaxing in the Holocaust, no one could argue with Jewish fears of extinction and their need for a secure homeland.

Though all parties in the region ought to know from long experience how futile war, terror, obstruction, and discriminatory harshness are as tools to suppress the universal impulse toward justice, each keeps trying one or another unworkable method, making the success of Mr. Kerry’s quixotic mission all the more crucial.  

The present Israeli government derives its identity in large measure from fear of what it is against, and so it has encouraged injustices like the settlements that it would never tolerate were it a victim of similar treatment.

Obviously this is not to say that the anti-Semites of the Arab world are innocent. And it is unfair to compare the civil rights Israel has afforded non-Jews with the civil rights much of the Muslim world affords women and non-believers.  Israel does not order the execution of those who abandon Judaism.  However much it may wish to be even-handed, it sees its own Muslim population growing. If this population enjoyed full citizenship Israeli could eventually become a de facto Muslim state.  So it waters down Muslim civil rights to preserve its identity.  

As we express our hope that Arab countries (and even the U.S. itself) evolve toward a more inclusive and tolerant politics, is it worth asking if the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state has become counter-productive to its own long-term security? It is not that Zionism is racism, in the crude Arab formulation, but that Zionism has been transcended by the notion of a state relatively untethered to any one religion.

If the identity of Israel were re-established on the basis of equal rights for all ethnicities, ancient fears might begin to dissolve from within. The corrosive “us-and-them” dynamic could be undermined in a way that left Jews safer—just as Jews, while a minority in the United States, are surely as safe there, if not more so, as they are in Israel.  

For Israel to become a fully secular state, the international community would have to guarantee the security of Jews, whether inside or outside Israel, a task that for understandable reasons Israel has always zealously reserved for itself. Abdication of self-determined security is, to say the least, unlikely. Tragically however, maintaining a Jewish state will increasingly tie its citizens in knots as they are forced to choose between Jewish identity and full democracy.

Jews and Palestinians for the most part do not know each other as people, and the predictable theatrics of their leaders do nothing to help reconciliation. The entry point into a shared future beyond war is the face-to-face engagement of ordinary citizens at the heart level. It is people moving one by one from unfamiliarity, ignorance, and fear, toward familiarity, empathy, and enough trust to allow the heart to message the brain that it's safe to get creative together.

The moral basis of the secular state, the tolerance and compassion that flows from the acknowledgement of universal rights, is ironically a major premise of the Jewish ethical tradition. An unbeliever once asked Rabbi Hillel if he could sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. The simple answer was “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the rest is but commentary.”

One of the many gifts world civilization owes the Jews is this confidence in an ethical universality that transcends specific sects and ethnicities. If I identify as a Jew but also as citizen of secular democracy, I am better able to interact with Palestinians according to our common identity as humans. Finding ourselves in this shared human context, we will stand a measurably better chance of resolving our differences. To the extent that Jews allow themselves that larger identification with the “other,” they may not only come closer to fulfilling the ethical promise of their heritage, but also may find the security that has eluded them since the founding of the Jewish state. How poignant that after thousands of years of their culture contributing so much to the world, this idea should still feel so risky.