Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“Declaration Toward a Global Ethic”

Can the religions of the world work together for the good of all people, or do they often fight, sometimes even violently, against each other. The answer is Yes.
Throughout the history of the world, including very recent times, there have been clashes between people of different religions. (When analyzed carefully, though, most of those conflicts have been more political and ethnic battles than religious clashes as such.)
But for a long time now, some leaders of the world religions have worked together for better understanding and the good of society as a whole. One of the first international meetings for interreligious discussion was the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. That meeting was held in Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World’s Fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.
Leaders from the ten great religions of that time spoke. Their addresses and many other talks were published in The Dawn of Religions Pluralism: Voices from the World's Parliament of Religions, 1893 (1993). Much of that lengthy book is available at this link.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions, a centennial commemorative meeting, was held in 1993 and it was also in Chicago. Over 8,000 people from all over the world and from many diverse religions gathered to celebrate, discuss and explore how religious traditions can work together on the critical issues which confront the world.
The idea of a global ethic was the main theme of the 1993 gathering, and at the close of that meeting, on September 4, the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” was signed by many of the religious and spiritual leaders present. (The complete 15-page text of the Declaration can be found here.)
Mainly drafted by Hans Küng, the German theologian, the Declaration identifies four essential affirmations as shared principles essential to a global ethic.
  1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
  2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
  3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
  4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women
Those are four highly desirable commitments.
But how has the world done in living by the global ethic since 1993? Not very well, I’m afraid. Just eight years later, led largely by militant Muslims, terrorists tragically attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And the U.S. retaliated by the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, which continues to this day.
In March 2003, less than ten years later, the U.S., supported in part by (can we say) militant Christians, began the preemptive war on Iraq. In contrast to the 3,000 killed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there have been over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003!
Still, the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic points to worthy goals, which should be warmly embraced, widely advocated, and implemented as fully as possible. And there are signs of hope, such as in the numerous, mostly non-violent (from the side of the protesters) Arab Spring activities, for example.
But progress is slow. How much closer, one wonders, will the world be toward living by a global ethic even in 2093?


  1. The document and your summary were an interesting read. Well worth consideration by all, and a good starting point for conversation outside one's typical walls.

    However, having grown up in multiple cultural and religious settings, it is easy to see the variant presuppositions brought to the terms and concepts - even within Christendom alone.

    Page 2 starts off with a call for the golden rule. This fundamental may be as far as cultures and religions can go with shared understanding. But that may be worth it, if we could all live that one ethic as best we can.

  2. Thanks, 1sojourner, for being the first to comment and, especially, for the positive nature of your comments.

  3. Thinking Friend Les Hill, a former missionary to the Philippines, sent the following comments:

    "Ongoing conflict in the Philippines (over 400 years) has been in part religiously based, but more conflict over land and of course power. Today's CNN notes the exceptionally higher rate of lack of respect (can't think of a better term) for countries with Muslim majorities among Republicans than Democrates. The news also reported another developing fight against a mosque being built in the 'Bible Belt.'

    "An aside of an actual event: It occurred a number of years ago in Mindanao, the Philippines southern large island with the largest Muslim population. Our missionary doctor was driving from Mati, Davao, Oriental into Davao City at night. About ten that night he had a flat and as he and his passengers got out to fix it, they were surrounded by a group of men. One of the men walked up to Dr. Norwood and said, 'Your don't have to worry. You are safe here. We are all Muslim.' And that was so. But another side of the coin is seen in a few cases of Muslim young people who attended our Baptist college and expressed faith in Christ. They simply disappeared. It is a complex world (just in case you are not aware)."

  4. Another pertinent comment from my esteem Thinking Friend who comments regularly:

    "It is sad that Americans are among the most serious violators of the 'Global Ethic.' Do we not need to change our ways?"

  5. Thanks, Leroy, for calling our attention to this document. As you note, the idea of a global ethic is not new. Perhaps somewhat more recent is the idea of a global ethic that includes diversity. (My fundamentalist friends argue that their religion has a global vision!)

    It's a great tragedy that 9/11 occurred at all, but especially when the U.S. government (notably the White House) was occupied by some of America's worst war hawks since WWII. The U.S.s' invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that the U.S. is the biggest, baddest, meanest kid on the block. And, as I watch America, it seems to me that by and large we're proud of that fact. ("Big Bad Leroy Brown...the baddest man in the whole damn town.") Furthermore, on nearly every other front, the domestic political winds suggest the U.S. is very, very far away from any kind of commitment to such a global ethic. The U.S. probably couldn't even endorse the planks of the "Global Ethic" even for its own country.

  6. Aristotle famously wrote, "Man is the rational animal." Less well known is that his master, Plato, had written, "Man is a religious animal." After over two millennia of data points, I would hazard the guess that Plato was much closer to the mark. As the post-modernists warn us, even the most rational and educated among us can still fall into self-serving rationalizations in place of true rationality. Wisdom teaches us humility.

    Yet, if we let the rationality go entirely, we risk following the cynics into only seeing the animal in either view. For the cynics were most avowedly the "dog philosophers." Which gets us down to the question of what is the relationship of religion to issues like reason and peace. Can religion somehow mediate between the rational and the animal, and in doing so create the kind of global ethic desired?

    I see religion as begin much like a river, flowing from the mountaintops of inspiration down to the sea of world culture. Many wonders exist along the way, and many opportunities for engineering. Some of this engineering is good, but it always comes with a price. Sometimes that price is very high indeed. Think of what the Army Corps of Engineers has done to the Mississippi River system as an example.

    Just as governments can manipulate physical rivers, so they can manipulate religious systems. Power boats can go upstream. Great dams can change whole regions. Sluice gates can change the flow downstream. Wars and disasters can cause massive failures of the engineering. Analogous actions can affect religions.

    So just as environmentalists seek to understand, heal and preserve healthy river systems, so can we seek to do the same for religions. Starting by realizing that the river is not responsible for the failures of the engineering, and neither is the religion. However, it is also true that neither rivers nor religions are immune to engineering.

    Just months after my son was born in 1982, an old man-made lake high in Rocky Mountain National Park collapsed, sending a wall of water down the mountain and roaring through Estes Park and down the Big Thompson canyon. A lot of damage resulted. Much of it is long since fixed, but at the base of the mountain is the "alluvial fan" rock debris formation that is a popular stop, visible clear across the valley from Rainbow Curve, and expected to be clearly identifiable for about a century. If a little physical engineering can cause such a long tail, why would we be surprised if religious engineering can have the same kind of history?

    Just as the world is slowly learning a better way to manage its river systems, so it may hope to find a better way to manage its religions. Yes, that is ultimately what we are talking about. I believe religions are great resources, like rivers, and like rivers, they need environmental understanding and protection. Then, like rivers, they can be a great resource for all. That does not mean that the Nile will be just like the Mississippi, or that Islam will be just like Christianity, but it does mean that all can be a blessing to humanity and the world. Even if there still remains some carefully considered engineering.

    God makes the rivers flow, but gives us a lot of latitude in deciding how to use them. God also has some consequences for us when we make bad decisions. God also can make the smallest boat on the river into the cradle that rocks a baby Moses. Moses did not prevent 400 years of slavery, but he did end it. Such is the mystery of life. The river flows on to the sea, yet never runs out of water.

  7. A Thinking Friend in Tennessee wrote, "The 'commitments' seem to be worthy. I have to ask why they have not been more widely circulated? And beyond that, why have they not been adopted by the religious groups from which those who formulated them came?"

    Those are pertinent questions, and ones that I am unable to answer. The Global Ethic has been emphasized in some circles, and books have been published with the intent of publicizing it.

    Perhaps the problem is that the ideals are presented, but there is no concrete program given outlining how those ideals can be achieved.

  8. Regarding the number of dead in Iraq, the only credible (i.e. methodologically sound) studies I've come across put it much higher than 100,000. See "Greenspan admits Iraq was about oil, as deaths put at 1.2m"

  9. The Brookings Institution gives the Iraqi civilian casualties figure at just over 115,000 (as of 6/30/11). I have also seen much higher figures, but there are also lower figures given by some, especially by those who want to downplay the "collateral damage."

    I purposely chose a rather low, conservative figure. But that figure is certainly sufficient to make my point: there have been at least 33 times the number of casualties resulting from the U.S. preemptive war in Iraq compared to the number of terrorist deaths caused by the 9/11/01 attacks.

  10. Thinking Friend Dr. Milton Horne, Professor of Religion at William Jewell College, sent the following significant comments for me to post here:

    "Let me express my thanks for reminding me of Kung’s work, though. I am skeptical that western Christian folk can embrace such an ethic, its being so contrary to their own theology of “otherness” (quoting James Frederickson’s book on the failure of Christian theologians to come up with satisfactory theological frameworks for dealing with other religions and their ethics).

    "I think that the university—yes, in all its secularity, in all its modernity, and even self interest—is a more likely candidate to embrace this ethic. For one thing, the university is being affected by the economy in ways that are forcing it to rethink its mission and its future.

    "The university (perhaps the institution of education) is probably more likely to embrace the global ethic, even for all the wrong reasons, as a part of its recreation of itself. The future generations of students who are so inculcated with this thought will be the beneficiaries."