According to Christian tradition, a baby was born to poor migrant
parents about 2000 years ago in the outskirts of Bethlehem of Judea - an
obscure town approximately 5 miles south of Jerusalem in what is now
the occupied West Bank. It was dark and cold that night, and they could
not afford to pay for a room to stay so ended up finding refuge in a
stable where animals were kept.
It was there that the baby was born, just like every human baby is born. For Christians, this means that God became human flesh
and, not insignificantly, via the womb of a woman. It means that God
assumed all the limitations of the human condition, including ethnicity,
gender identity, and all limitations of body and mind: like us in all things but sin.
The birth of this child, as described in the ancient texts that are now
recognized by Christians as divinely inspired, is a paradoxical mix of
darkness and light, fear and joy, simplicity and grandeur. The baby
cried, and angels sang. As the mother was barely recovering, some
illiterate shepherds came to visit. Then a group of rich and highly
learned foreigners showed up to pay their respects. A bright new star
appeared in the sky as a sign of hope in the midst of the oppressive
violence that was common throughout the Roman empire. But some local
authorities felt "threatened" by these "signs of the times" and
conspired to kill the child, so the parents were forced to flee across
the desert to find some measure of safety in Egypt.
Fast Forward to Christmas 2011 CE
Two thousand years later, we find ourselves living in a world that is as
confusing and paradoxical, perhaps even more so. The Roman empire has
given way to a globalized world in which some old "empires" remain and
new ones emerge from time to time. There has been notable progress in
many areas: slavery is no longer recognized as a valid institution,
universal human rights have been defined, humans have traveled to the
moon and back. The amount of human knowledge and the power of
technology have grown so much that we may now be entering the Anthropocene,
i.e., a new era in which human activity is capable of influencing the
structure and dynamics of the human habitat. But such developments are
also bringing about a global ecological crisis and a new era of anxiety
and uncertainty about the future of humanity.
The world's population is approximately 7 billion people. Global consumption of goods and services is approaching 60 trillion dollars,
with 80% of commodities going to 20% of the population. Empirical data
shows that consumption is growing faster than population, even though
over one billion people remain in abject poverty. The global financial
system is in total disarray,
with banks refraining to lend money to legitimate small businesses but
eager to engage in the trading of "derivatives" and various other
financial instruments also known as "financial weapons of mass destruction." Worldwide, the rich-poor gap is increasing increasingly. Billions of tons of minerals and fossil fuels are being extracted from the earth each year, and billions of tons of waste and pollutants are being dumped back into the environment. Climate change, induced by global warming, is already impacting some human communities. Sexism and the patriarchal mindset of control and domination still rule in most parts of the world, including all the major world religions.
Old and new forms of violence are actually increasing as the way of
settling conflicts at the local, national, and international levels.
Exclusivist Practices are Unsustainable
Religion is the hope of humanity, even though religious practices often
distort religious insights and make them practically useless and even
harmful. But the voice of God continues to resound in the events of
history, always seeking what is good for people albeit in terms adapted
to the "here and now." At a time when human civilization is facing a
crisis unlike anyone encountered before, it is instructive to reflect on
the ageless lessons that have been preserved for us in sacred texts
such as the Bible. The Christmas story is a timely example.
It is pointless to discuss the historicity of the various accidental
details that serve to convey the wisdom encapsulated in these texts. It
is the embedded wisdom that we need to reclaim and understand in terms
applicable to our "here and now." For instance, reflection on the
Christmas narratives reveals a consistent pattern of darkness, promise,
waiting, and light. It was in a dark night that the baby was born. It
was in fear that the shepherds heard the good news. The bright start
that had guided them disappeared, and the erudite visitors "from the
East" had to wait until it reappeared again. Then, and only then, they
found the baby and recognized in him the new light of the world.
The texts also reveal a consistent pattern of inclusive unity in
diversity. Nobody was excluded from active participation in the
Christmas story. The local shepherds were poor and Jewish. The pilgrims
"from the East" were rich and Gentile (i.e., not members of the "chosen
people of Israel). Joseph was a carpenter. Mary was a young woman who
became pregnant while still unmarried. Angels were included. Animals
were present when the baby was born. The only "exclusivist" behavior in
the entire story was that of those who had a vested interest in the status quo and decided it would be "prudent" to exclude this baby from the list of the living.
But exclusivist practices can be sustained only by the force of violence
(whether legally or illegally) and, in the long term, nonviolence is
more powerful than violence. Exclusivist practices have been the root
cause of much pain and suffering in human history, and both secular and
religious powers share the blame. In the religious arena, one such
practice was the initial exclusion of Gentiles from the early Christian
church, happily reversed in apostolic times.
Another was the Eurocentrism of the same church after it became the
official religion of the Roman empire, leading to the persecuted church
becoming the persecuting church, conflicts between the western and
eastern wings of Christianity, and utter disrespect for the religious
traditions of people outside the Roman sphere of influence. Even to
this day, the exclusion of women from roles of religious authority
remains the standard practice in most religions, and
culturally-conditioned gender inequality still prevails in most regions
of the world (for more on this, click here and here).
Inclusiveness in the Transition to Sustainability
The challenge of the
transition from consumerism to sustainability is to be inclusive,
not exclusive. The challenge is unity in diversity, not unity in
uniformity at the expense of excluding those who believe differently, or
think differently, or look differently. The challenge is integration,
not mere assimilation. The challenge is to overcome narrow-mindedness,
intolerance, racism, sexism, self-righteousness, and all manner of
violence. The challenge is to cease pointing fingers at each other and
start working together for the common good. In brief, the challenge is
for humans to become more fully human, and at this point in human
history this entails outgrowing homo economicus and becoming homo ecologicus.
This means that materialistic economic development must cease to be the
top priority of human activity, and human development in harmony with
nature must become the top priority. There are no limits to knowledge.
There are no limits to wisdom. For those with a religious outlook in
life, there are no limits to faith, hope, and love. The prioritization
of human development over the accumulation of capital and commodities is
the crucial issue facing humanity, and applies equally to individuals
and institutions, both secular and religious. There are positive signs
that this fundamental shift in priorities is beginning to emerge in the
minds and hearts of people of good will. The following are some
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948
- Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, United Nations, 1987
- Millennium Development Goals, United Nations, 2000
- The Earth Charter, Earth Charter Initiative, 2005
- The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales towards Sustainability, Nobel Laureates, May 2011
- The Laxenburg Declaration on Population and Sustainable Development, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, October 2011
- Towards reforming the international financial and monetary systems in the context of a global public authority, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Vatican City, October 2011
- The World Is Revolting Against the Neo-liberal Economic and Business Model: A Call to Action, Globalization for the Common Good Inititiative, November 2011
- Global citizen movements such as Widening Circle and Occupy Together (see the Signs of the Times video by Jessica Lehrman, Grist, 26 November 2011)
A New World is Being Born
A new world is being born. It is impossible to predict the specific
sequence of events that will accompany this birth, but the "signs of the
times" are already visible and it is reasonable to anticipate that the
following "Christmas patterns" will be experienced:
- A pattern of increasingly collaborative work (research, reflection,
resolve) by all global citizens: "However sustainability is defined, one
thing is true: the vital need for human society to address its
challenges will end up transforming the ways we all work, live, and
compete. It will have extraordinary implications for organizations and
the people who lead them—work processes, organizational models,
competitive strategies, and leadership methods are all going to be
affected..." MIT Sustainability Initiative
- A pattern of gradual but radical dismantling of all exclusivist
practices and policies. This will entail deconstructing the complex web
of gender-related exclusions that we have inherited from the
patriarchal system of male domination that emerged during the
agricultural revolution (circa 10,000-5,000 BCE) and continues to corrupt the original "unity in diversity" of men and women in both society and religion.
- A pattern of gradual but radical renunciation of all forms of
violence: physical, cultural, psychological, ethnic, sexual, economic,
political, religious, ... Peace is inclusivist. Violence is exclusivist.
Violence, in one form or another, must be used to enforce exclusions.
Violence is the greatest obstacle to integral human development.
Therefore, violence-triggering exclusions are also an obstacle. All
people of good will need to experience the power of all-inclusive nonviolence.
Christmas happened 2000 years ago, when the Baby was born; but in a very
real sense it is happening again. The newborn "babies" are all men and
women who are becoming "global citizens" committed to human solidarity and ecological sustainability. Let us pray for them and work with them, that we all may grow in wisdom and stature for the glory of God and the good of humanity.