Condemning aggressive war: The secular cosmopolitan consensus

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The broad international condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an example of the resilience of moral principles and a source of hope. This assault prompted the world to reassert the importance of a secular cosmopolitan vision of a peaceful, law-governed world. As I have explained in a book on the topic, secular cosmopolitan values affirm diversity and condemn violence. A brief history of this idea can inspire us to expand and solidify the emerging global consensus.

UN resolutions against Russian aggression

A broad coalition of countries has condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine in a Resolution of the UN General Assembly and in a Resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. The General Assembly Resolution had widespread support as did the UNHRC vote. Russia and four other nations—North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, and Syria—voted against the General Assembly Resolution. Only Russia and Eritrea voted against the UNHRC resolution. In each case, China, India, and a few other nations abstained.

It would be better if those abstaining nations joined the majority. But international politics is not always a moral game. Nonetheless, the majority vote reaffirms basic principles of world peace. 

It is important to note that the coalition opposed to Russia includes countries with different cultural, religious, and ethnic/racial backgrounds: North American and European nations, Israel, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Japan. Despite their diversity, these countries expressed support for the basic principles of a peaceful cosmopolitan order.

A genealogy of secular cosmopolitanism

One familiar genealogy of cosmopolitan principles governing the morality of war traces the idea through Medieval Christianity. But the idea evolved beyond those Christian roots. Secular just war theory developed along with cosmopolitan principles of international law in the modern era.

We must be careful in reconstructing this story. Non-Christian traditions also provide tools for thinking about the morality of war and international relations. There are resources in Muslim culture, in Chinese thought, and in the religions and philosophies of India, for example. A Eurocentric genealogy can conceal the ugly history of colonialism. But a primer in the European story is useful for those of us in Western nations.

The Christian just war tradition emerged within Christianity out of a dispute between those who thought that Christian morality required pacifism and those who thought it permitted war. A related issue was how Christian values connect with national and political identity.  Were Christians supposed to turn toward “the Kingdom of God”? Or were Christians allowed to fight in allegiance with secular powers?

Christian pacifism typically appeals to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels—such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5). Christian pacifism is also often linked to a cosmopolitan religious vision critical of allegiance to states and armies. As Jesus said, his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). 

Christian just warriors look to other texts for inspiration. The Apostle Paul said, for example, that the sovereign is a minister of God who uses the sword to execute wrath on evildoers (Romans 13:4). Christians defended state violence as Christianity gained power in the late Roman Empire. 

Thinkers like Augustine made this argument by appealing to natural law. Augustine explained the idea of justified political violence with an analogy: fathers have a duty to protect their children, while states have a duty to protect their people. 

The dispute within Christianity continued through the Crusades, as Christendom embraced war as a religious pilgrimage, justified in defense of the Holy Land. As the Crusades ended and the Reformation began, Christian pacifism resurfaced as a response to the militancy of the Roman Church. Some Reformers, such as the Anabaptists, called for a return to the original pacifism of the Gospels. 

Christian conquerors engaged in colonial adventures at this time. But critics within Catholicism, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, argued for limits on the use of colonial violence. As colonial Christian powers set out across the globe, European nations went to war and sorted themselves according to their allegiance to the Roman Church.

The modern secular cosmopolitan ideal

The religious wars of early modern Europe led to the development of modern secular theories of morality and law. These theories used reason as a guide, rather than turning to the Bible. These secular theories developed along with the modern system of European nation-states. The idea of non-aggression between sovereign states emerged as an important principle. In the 19th and 20th centuries, international treaties and agencies developed, which sought to regulate warfare and defend state sovereignty. 

This approach failed to prevent the world wars of the 20th century. But the system of international law continued to develop after the Second World War with the creation of war crimes tribunals, the United Nations, and the formation of the International Criminal Court. 

This secular cosmopolitan system aims to establish international peace without invoking any particular religious doctrine or religious texts. The story told here has a Christian and Eurocentric focus. But the system has evolved beyond those roots. The result has been the kinds of resolutions mentioned at the outset.

Reaffirming shared values

The system of secular cosmopolitan law has not eradicated war—as the Ukrainian war shows. But it has created a shared vocabulary for condemning war crimes and aggression. 

This shared vocabulary is inclusive of diverse nations, cultures, and religions. Much more needs to be done to ensure that war is relegated to the history books. One important part of that project is to understand and expand the power of a secular cosmopolitan vision that affirms diversity and condemns violence.

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Russian invasion: Does nonviolent resistance have a role to play in Ukraine?

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In a world of rattling sabers, the option of nonviolent resistance is often ignored. As Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, and cluster bombs rain on residential areas, it is natural to think that violence is the only credible response.

But violence is not our only powerful tool.

Even though modern history is rich with examples of nonviolent strategies hindering or defeating violent regimes and systems from the British Raj to Milosovic’s Serbia to racial oppression in the US South, nonviolence continues to be derided as a strategy of “doing nothing.”

It is nothing of the kind.

‘Nonviolence wouldn’t have worked against Hitler’

Perhaps the most common attempt to shut down discussion of nonviolent action is the invocation of Nazi Germany, often phrased as, “Nonviolence wouldn’t have worked against Hitler.”

In fact, nonviolent action played a crucial role in opposing and disrupting Nazi atrocities.

In his book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis, author and activist George Paxton describes the widespread use of nonviolent resistance in response to the actions of the Third Reich in Europe. Underground newspapers, graffiti, and anonymous open letters spread messages of support, encouragement, and coordinated actions. Occupiers were shamed and ostracized by courageous citizens (a strategy already at work in Ukraine). Slow-working in factories and economic boycotts. Hiding and smuggling Jews. The White Rose movement in Munich.

A leaflet called “The Ten Commandments for Danes” appeared on the streets of Copenhagen on the first day of the city’s occupation by Germany, outlining principles of nonviolent resistance that became a “revered roadmap for resistance.” These included:

You must not go to work in Germany and Norway.

You shall do a bad job for the Germans.

You shall destroy everything which may be of benefit to the Germans.

You shall delay all transport.

You shall boycott German and Italian films and papers.

You must not shop at Nazis’ stores.

You shall protect anyone chased by the Germans.

In part because of the strong, early support most Danes gave to their Jewish compatriots—protesting anti-Jewish policies, concealing people at risk, and transporting them to safety in Sweden—the Germans made the decision to delay deportation of Danish Jews until after victory so Denmark would be more easily governed during the war. As a result of these nonviolent actions, nearly the entire Jewish population of the country was ultimately spared from the Holocaust.

The US civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael misrepresented nonviolent action as the idea that “if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart,” adding, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” By this reasoning, Putin’s lack of conscience would make nonviolent action in Ukraine pointless.

Paxton challenges this misconception by describing (among many other things) a protest in 1943 Berlin. Non-Jewish wives of Jews assembled in the street near Gestapo headquarters to protest the pending deportation of their husbands. But “fearing that the protests might spread,” the Gestapo not only “did not act against the women,” Paxton says, but suspended the deportations. The women did not inspire a “change of heart” by appealing to the conscience of the Nazis. They made it politically untenable to proceed with the deportation plan.

None of these nonviolent actions amounted to “doing nothing.” All helped to frustrate or mitigate the violent intentions of the Nazi occupiers.

So how might similar strategies be applied to the Russian occupiers of Ukraine in 2022 and potentially beyond?

Economic sanctions and sacrifice

Economic sanctions are an important part of the nonviolent playbook. The Biden Administration announced sanctions against the Russian finance sector immediately after the invasion. But there is a substantial chink in the armor of these sanctions: the energy sphere has been excluded. Russia supplies a significant portion of Europe’s natural gas. A major concern is that cutting off Russian gas and oil would exacerbate inflation and spread harm globally. And so, a powerful nonviolent tool for responding to Russian aggression is off the table.

Perhaps it’s easier to imagine sending arms and troops than it is to imagine driving less, paying more for gas, or shifting away from fossil fuels. This lack of imagination is part of a larger problem. Self-interest is often combined with faith in military power in defense of the status quo.

A lack of imagination is part of a larger problem. Self-interest is often combined with faith in military power in defense of the status quo.

As outrage mounts, we ought to ask ourselves how much we would be willing to sacrifice in the name of peace. It is one thing to encourage Ukrainians to take up arms. It is another thing for comfortable bystanders like the rest of us to consider what we would be willing to sacrifice in the name of peace.

Public protest and solidarity

For bystanders in Europe and other continents further from the fighting, it may seem that there is not much we can do in the face of Russian aggression. But public protests in cities across the globe can play a role. Protests in European and American cities will not end the war. They did not prevent the American invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. But they send a message that can have some impact. Among the important effects of public protests is signaling solidarity and public resolve.

Such protests would send a message to Ukrainians suffering directly from the Russian invasion. It also sends a signal to Russian citizens opposed to Putin’s aggression, as well as American and European politicians attuned to their constituents’ passionate concerns.

There have been protests in Russian cities against the war. The Guardian reports that more than 1,700 have been arrested in Russian anti-war protests. This may be the most effective place to encourage nonviolence. It takes courage to speak out in Putin’s Russia. Russian protesters need to know that they are not alone and that we are watching.

In Ukraine itself, unarmed protesters are obstructing the movement of Russian troops, arms, and supplies, at great risk to themselves, and crucially bringing the eyes of the world to these moments:

Incredible bravery — Ukrainians stopping a Russian convoy, saying “We’re unarmed,” “Occupants!” “Murderers!”

— Scott Galloway (@profgalloway) March 1, 2022

Religion and peace

Religious organizations can and should be mobilized in opposition to war. Unfortunately, the reporting from Russia is not promising. As was the case in the Third Reich, many prominent religious leaders are meeting Putin’s atrocities and moral outrages with either silence or support. Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Church, praised the Russian military for its defense of the “Fatherland” on the day before the invasion. The following day, Kirill issued a statement calling on “all parties” to avoid civilian casualties. He did not condemn the invasion, describing it instead as a “misfortune.” He offered a prayer for peace that did not include a call on Putin to stop his aggression.

Religious leaders in the West ought to reach out to their Orthodox colleagues and demand a more strenuous call for peace on the part of the Russian church. As with other nonviolent techniques, this is not a slam-dunk solution. But it can be part of a coordinated nonviolent campaign that could impact domestic support for the Russian war effort.

Secular and religious nonviolence

Secular peacemakers may scoff at this. Churches have often celebrated military power and fatherlands. But the problem in this regard is not religion. Rather, the problem is a culture of violence. Russian history is interesting in this regard. It involves much violence, including Soviet oppression of religion. But in the background is also Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism.

Tolstoy’s words are worth considering today. In “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence,” he condemned the “age-old lie” that violence is “useful and unifying,” adding that this lie predates Christianity. He warns that Christians have often embraced it. His proposed solution is to condemn the lie of violence and those who employ it.

One need not be religious to be inspired by Tolstoy’s message. Nonviolent responses can be imagined to Russian aggression. We must condemn aggression and show solidarity with the peacemakers. And we must work to imagine what it might take to build a better world.

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The Wisdom of WTF

Sometimes you just have to say “WTF.”  In an imperfect world there is wisdom in a shrug of indifference.   

I’ve been thinking about this when considering student responses to a scandal that recently rocked my university involving the Chancellor of the California State University, who was our former President.  What’s remarkable is that most of my students don’t seem to care.  When I discussed this in class, most shrugged it off.

Some may think those students are callous and clueless.  But I’m not so sure.  A shrug is a strategy of self-preservation in a world of alienation.  To say “WTF” is to express disbelief at how stupid things are.  Sometimes it is an outburst of anger.  Sometimes it is a cry of despair.  Almost always it is an expression of alienation.

The world is too big for us to comprehend.  The forces that buffet us are beyond our control.  The omnipresence of alienation poses a challenge for the human spirit.

One of my mentors, the philosopher John Lachs, describes this in a recent book as the peculiar unhappiness of the modern world:

Huge institutions surround and engulf us: we feel powerless to influence their course… We are lost in their bowels and experience much social life as a sort of homelessness.  The devastating sense of the meaninglessness of what we do and of our own unimportance moves us alternately to shoulder-shrugging indifference and to personal despair. 

An obvious solution is to reform our institutions and make them more friendly and transparent.  But even that work is mostly beyond our control.  It also helps to understand that alienation is, as Lachs puts it, “the cost of comfort.”  Even though we are alienated, the modern world provides us with previously unimaginable health, wealth, and power.

And so we take the good with the bad.  And on occasion we sigh and say, “WTF.” 

Outrages abound.  Powerful leaders make huge mistakes.  Democracies elect buffoons.  Ecosystems are in crisis.  War is on the horizon.  Poverty continues.  And the pandemic plods along.

We fret and fume about all of this.  And our anxiety increases.  There is mostly nothing any individual can do solve these problems.  So there is wisdom learning to say “WTF.”

Alienation has a long history.  Karl Marx thought capitalism was built upon alienation.  The existentialist of the 20th Century saw it everywhere.  Human beings do not feel at home in the world.  We are estranged from one another and even from ourselves. 

Alienation is a common theme in literature and film.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield thinks everyone around him is phony.  In The Matrix Morpheus tells Neo, “You are a slave.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.” 

Alienation appears when we are stuck in traffic.  We experience it when prices rise and paychecks shrink.  It occurs when we work on our tax returns.  The world’s systems are indifferent to us.  We are cogs in a machine over which we have no control.

Alienation gives birth to resentment and anger.  It is part of the discontent fueling “the great resignation” (as I discussed in a recent column).  It fuels suicide and addiction. 

It even helps explain conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy believer is trying to make sense of a world that makes no sense.

And so instead of beating your head against the wall, learn to shrug it off.  We say “WTF” because we know we deserve better; but also, because we know there’s not much we can do about any of this.

Sometimes “WTF” is a cynical abdication of responsibility.  Imagine, for example, saying “WTF” as you jump off a cliff.  So we must be careful not to let “WTF” give rise to nihilism.

To avoid that we should recognize solidarity in the shrug of indifference.  You and I both know that the world is out of joint.  But at least we’re in this together.  The process of making meaning often begins when we look at our neighbor and say “WTF.”  From there we can begin to make things better, one shrug at a time. 

Love and the Golden Rule: An Ethical Valentine

Fresno Bee, February 13, 2022

Valentine’s Day is a great time to reflect on the beauty of the golden rule. This principle tells us that love is the key to morality. But love and ethics are complicated.

Morality often involves lists of do’s and don’ts. The golden rule seems to tell us how to construct such a list. It says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A negative version says, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.”

But ethics is not only about do’s and don’ts. Ethics also involves a transformation of the heart. It includes character and disposition, emotion and relationship.

That’s why the most inspiring version of the golden rule focuses on love. It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This links altruism and egoism. It demands that we transform self-love into love of the other. It also suggests that ethics is not only about complying with a set of rules. Attitude and orientation also matter.

It is possible, for example, to do the right thing, but with a grudge. A person who is angry or resentful about doing good is less praiseworthy than someone who is benevolent, kind, and generous. Someone who tells the truth in order to avoid a penalty for lying is less admirable than someone who is fundamentally honest.

In reality, these things are complicated. Sometimes truth can be cold and biting. And sometimes a white lie can be kind. There is a difference between lying for malicious purposes and lying for the sake of the other person.

Love demands that we consider those complexities. The golden rule orients us toward the well-being of those we love. This goes beyond obedience to a list of commandments.

Rule-following is easier than loving. And strict compliance can betray the spirit of love. Consider fidelity and adultery. A grumpy lover whose faithfulness is stubbornly obedient is less praiseworthy than a lover who is happily faithful. The loyalty of love is not supposed to be a grim duty. There should be joy in fidelity.

Or consider the duties of parenthood. There are long lists of things that parents should do (or not do) for their children. But we wouldn’t really use the word “good” to describe a parent who obeys the rules of parenting without actually loving their children.

Some critics will say that love is too weak and mushy to be a reliable guide for ethics. Erotic love is a mercurial emotion that overwhelms rational thought. Romeo and Juliet were swept away by love. But (spoiler alert!) that story does not end well.

Ethical love is more mature than adolescent infatuation. It is supposed to be steady and enduring.

Christian texts provide us with a clue. The famous account in First Corinthians tells us that love is patient, kind, trusting, and hopeful. Love should not be proud or boastful, angry or resentful.

This account of mature and stable love can be traced back to Plato, who wrote several dialogues about love. Plato thought that love should be oriented toward higher goods. Erotic love focuses on the fleeting pleasures of the body. But platonic love is spiritual. It directs us toward enduring and essential goods.

Consider again, parental love. Loving parents do not love their children because the kids are useful or fun. A parent’s love is not about the parent’s happiness or pleasure. Rather, loving parents should want their children to thrive for their own sake.

The same is true of mature romantic love. It is not merely about pleasure and desire. Nor is it about financial partnership or some other pragmatic concern. Rather, romantic love ought to be focused on the spiritual well-being of the other person.

Of course, it is easy to misunderstand love. And we often love poorly. Poetry and literature are full of tarnished love. But the golden rule encourages us to polish up the way we love.

Love is not merely about feeding the fires of selfishness and sensuous pleasure. Rather, the beauty of love is found in the way it leads us beyond ourselves. True love is for the sake of the other. It ought to make us happy and also better and wiser.

Star Trek and Racial Ethics: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Fresno Bee, February 6, 2022

The discussion of race and racism in America continues. President Biden seeks to appoint Black female nominees to the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve. Some conservatives are outraged. Meanwhile, the NFL has been accused of racism by a former coach. And California cities are apologizing for racism against Chinese Americans, including Los Angeles, San Jose, and most recently, San Francisco.

As the history of racial politics unfolds before our eyes, it may be useful to imagine what race relations may look like in the future. For this, we might turn to science fiction. I’ve been reading a fascinating new book by Oregon State philosophy professor, José-Antonio Orosco, about social justice as imagined by “Star Trek.”

“Star Trek” was groundbreaking in its time for how it dealt with race. Orosco uses the show as a launching pad for reflection on contemporary racial issues.

The cast of the original show was decidedly diverse. The starship Enterprise was staffed by a Russian navigator, a Scottish engineer, an Asian helmsman, a Black female communications officer, and an alien, the Vulcan, Mr. Spock.

The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, made his views on diversity manifest in the motto of Spock’s Vulcan philosophy, which celebrated “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Roddenberry thought that an enlightened future would go beyond toleration toward the active embrace of our differences. To live long and prosper, as Mr. Spock might put it, we should value our diversity.

“Star Trek” emerged out of the tumultuous racial tensions of the 1960s. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly liked the show and its portrayal of a racially inclusive future. The show even featured, in 1968, a famous interracial kiss, between Kirk and Uhura.

Orosco explains that in the 1960s, “Star Trek” imagined the future as “colorblind.” The idea was to downplay and ignore racial differences. The original series showed a future in which enlightened humans would no longer see race as important.

But Orosco argues that colorblindness contains a blind spot. In attempting not to see color, we may end up turning a blind eye to remaining racism. In trying to ignore race, we may in fact ignore racism. That may make it more difficult to eliminate racism. Racial inequities do not disappear simply because we ignore them. These things must be named, confronted and remedied.

As “Star Trek” was rebooted and updated in subsequent decades, the colorblind model gave way to a more deliberate embrace of multiculturalism. The point was not to ignore differences. Rather, “Star Trek” found ways to celebrate diversity — in its casting and in its plot-lines. Klingons and other “aliens” (including the android named Data) were brought onboard the Enterprise, welcomed and included.

It’s tempting to imagine that we’ve already arrived at this inclusive future. But we only get to the future by passing through the present. And in the present, there are still exclusions and prejudices that must be confronted.

This takes a conscious effort, including what scholars like Orosco call “anti-racist” work. As Orosco argues, to evolve in the direction imagined by “Star Trek” we must work to dismantle racism and racial prejudice. This work involves finding ways to make sure that institutions of power are inclusive. Apologies and reparations may also help.

We also need models that help us imagine a better world. Literature, film, and other arts have an important role to play in the development of the human spirit.

The hopeful vision of “Star Trek” is a tale of evolution. The utopia imagined by ”Star Trek” has a back-story. The Vulcans were originally a warlike people. But they overcame their self-destructiveness by learning to cultivate logic, nonviolence, and love of diversity. They even became vegetarians.

The humans in “Star Trek” also evolve. In the series’ imagined timeline, the 21st century was a terrible time of violence and dislocation. But we survived and learned from our mistakes. We became explorers motivated by curiosity rather than conquerors motivated by greed. We learned to value logic rather than violence. And we came to embrace the idea of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

This is fiction, of course. The future is uncertain. But to boldly go where no one has gone before, it helps to have a vision of what the future may hold.