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A Declaration for Our Time

This column originally appeared as part of the Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Tao of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.


I became a political activist on September 11, 2001. As I watched American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the World Trade Center's twin towers here in New York, I was overcome by a sense of dread. I feared that the planet was in danger of being been overrun by yet another wave of collective insanity. I groped for a few days for something that I could to do that might make a meaningful difference; and after the initial shock and numbness had worn off, I began to write. My subject then, as today, as I expect that it will be for the rest of my life, was the impact of consciousness, spirituality, and psychology on human affairs.

I hadn’t heard of the Council of the Parliament of World’s Religions back then. I didn’t know that eight years earlier, in 1993, in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing, representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, numerous indigenous spiritual traditions, and a host of other religions, had sounded a clarion call for global change and transformation – the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic – a declaration that might, had it been heeded, have actually prevented events like 9/11, or the later Madrid Train Station bombing, from ever taking place.

Today, some forty months and two wars after 9/11, their call has yet to be given much of a hearing. And at the very moment when this message is most needed, some of the most regressive religious voices in the nation have been permitted to frame the debate about the role of spirituality in America. Men and women of conscience cannot allow this to continue.

If God can be said to exist, then He/She/It, is so far beyond human understanding that it must be considered hubris for any of us to imagine that we alone speak for It, or definitively understand It’s essential nature. And yet, gathered together in His/Her name, and open to the wisdom embedded in each other’s scriptures and practices, we can hope to collectively speak with greater authority and confidence than we dare alone. And as the men and women who collaborated on this Global Ethic discovered, we have much in common.

As part of the preparations for this Parliament of World Religions, leading theologians (like the Dalai Lama, and the eminent Swiss theologian Hans Kűng – who was entrusted with the writing of the formal Declaration) explored the question of common ground between traditions – and resolved that each participating religion could enthusiastically embrace four of the Ten Commandments of Moses, as well as the “Golden Rule”. But they did not stop there. Rather than just acknowledge the universal appeal of these four Commandments, they reformulated them into affirmative expressions that could reshape our understanding of global problems in the here and now. So, for instance:

– “Thou shall not kill”, the 6th Commandment, became “Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life”.

– “Thou shall not commit adultery”, the 7th Commandment, became “Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women”.

– “Thou shall not steal”, the 8th Commandment, became “Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order”.

– “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor”, the 9th Commandment, became “Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness”.

Now, seen from a conservative religious perspective, these reformulations might be considered radical. But let me suggest they are no more radical than the examples set by the men and women of scripture, legend, and history whose lives stand at the center of our spiritual traditions. In my experience, authentic spiritual leaders rarely, if ever, talk about family values, but always point the way toward profound personal and collective transformations.

And, accordingly, the Declaration continued:

“Historical experience demonstrates the following: Earth cannot be changed for the better unless we achieve a transformation in the consciousness of individuals and in public life. The possibility for transformation have already been glimpsed in areas such as war and peace, economy, and ecology, where in recent decades fundamental changes have taken place. This transformation must also be achieved in the area of ethics and values! Every individual has intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights, and each also has an inescapable responsibility for what she or he does and does not do. All our decisions and deeds, even our omission and failures, have consequences.”

There is no suggestion anywhere in this Declaration that non-believers are somehow expendable, no fantasy of a division in the world between the saved and the damned – like the one currently all the rage in Christian Fundamentalist circles. It embodies the kind of forward-looking theological thinking that even most secular humanists could embrace.

And there is no suggestion anywhere in the document of a spiritual bypass – that somehow, by a kind of magical dispensation through holding the right kind of “faith”, that the requirements for right-action with regard to each other or the natural world were suddenly absolved. In that sense, the Declaration can be thought of as being firmly grounded in the teaching of Wu Li:

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

The language of the formal Declaration is necessarily simple, as would be required of a document intended as one that could be easily translated into perhaps hundreds of different languages. And while there are few phrases in the English original that are likely to command the imagination on the basis of literary value alone, the Declaration still manages to exude a heady Universalist flavor.

The organization responsible for bringing this Declaration to the world does more than simply inspire others to talk or write. Based in Chicago, the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions is actively engaged in the process of building even more bridges between men and women of different faiths. Like the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, its work represents the front line in a battle for a harmonious, pluralistic human future.

The events of 9/11 demonstrate how interrelated we have become as a species, and how even two great bodies of water can no longer insulate Americans from the pain, suffering, or hatred of others. President Bush’s remedy for this new national insecurity was a promise of war without end. Yet, when has the threat of death offered any chance of deterring men and women already eager to die in exchange for a promised eternity in Paradise? And how many additional Muslims is Bush's policy transforming into would-be martyrs? As Donald Rumsfeld once phrased his answer:

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror."

And still, their policies continue. But undermine these would-be terrorists' confidence in the righteousness of their cause, and the likelihood of their reward, and you strike a winning blow in this battle for political and spiritual pluralism.

But do President Bush and his “rapture” obsessed religious allies actually support economic and spiritual pluralism – and the future envisioned by the Global Ethic? Or are they a mirror image, interpolated for nation and culture, of terrorists who prefer religious despotism, who glorify violence, and who live for the promise of an ultimate reward in heaven? Whatever your answer to this last question, I ask you to the read the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic – and if you are inspired by its vision, to pass it along to friends, loved ones, fellow church members, and co-workers. Ideas have power. As Victor Hugo once wrote:

"An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come."

Note:

For more information about Christian theologian Hans Kűng's vision of a global order, see his A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics.


Matthew Carnicelli, 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on February 20, 2005, as part of The Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project.