September 21 is observed annually as the International Day of Peace. This year’s theme, the UN informs us, is “Together for Peace: Respect, Safety and Dignity for All.”
It sounds nice indeed, but what does it mean for the people on this planet? Are we aware of the scale of tensions, conflicts and crises across the globe? Do we understand that unless serious actions are taken to address some of the basic issues underlying the most pressing tensions and conflicts, no interests or profits will matter any longer, because there will be no one to take care of them? It is not enough to be “for peace in the world.” Everyone is for peace, prosperity, safety, freedom (or at least their versions of these concepts) and so forth. Much fewer try to do something constructively to achieve some of these goals in a way that will be relevant for the general population.
And the dangers are real.
The economic interests of the global elites continue to destroy entire regions of the world. The all-pervasive “business logic,” imposed by the global corporate sector, continues to advance. The application of the “neoliberal” policies does not only destroy the “third world” countries; the “first world” has also been affected to quite a significant degree. With the unemployment rate going up, declining real wages, fewer opportunities for finding full time jobs, increase in working hours, dismantling of the welfare state and social security, the growing gap between super wealthy few and the poor majority, deteriorating democratic institutions and potentials, and so on, many “developed” Western countries began to resemble the old “third world.”
The interests of the global business elites are intertwined with important political issues. The danger of a nuclear war has not been so close since such dramatic events like the Cuban missile crisis. In a situation in which one wrong move can mean the end of the human (and most other) species, many prominent political leaders behave as irresponsible, spoiled children.
In addition to the nuclear war threat, we witness to the escalation of regional, ethnically and religiously fueled conflicts. Behind these conflicts, more often than not, are the same elite economic interests, more than any ideological rationales that the obedient mainstream media tirelessly propagate.
In addition to this, already alarming situation, there is the dramatic, ever-growing environmental destruction. Recent analyses showed that plastic fibers were found even in drinking water around the globe. Entire islands of garbage (most of it plastic) have been formed in the oceans—the same oceans that have already been polluted by radiation, ranging from the testing of nuclear weapons to the horror stories such as Fukushima.
Consumerist logic, which promotes destructive (also self-destructive) life style, with buying/consuming as much as one can (and more than one can) of things that are mostly unnecessary, even completely useless, directly contributes to the waste of resources, global warming and the environmental destruction. Yes, not only the corporate and elite world—so-called common people are also responsible. Without those “little children” that the Grand Inquisitor talked about, the present global system of production, consumption and destruction would not be possible.
The point being: if we don’t do something to stop the course of these tendencies, if we do not challenge (and, preferably, dismantle) the global power systems, the future does not look particularly bright. Except, maybe, for the blinding brightness of mushroom clouds.
To try to reverse the course of these processes is not a simple task. To boast about our commitment to peace and prosperity will not do. To rely on the (mostly broken) political system as a way to fix all these issues is delusional.
Most of the so-called political “right” is hopelessly lost somewhere deep in the corporate pockets, or in impotent (and frequently quite surreal) ideological narratives. On the other hand, the so-called “left” often focuses more on ideological blackmailing, policing people’s speech and making sure that everyone (meaning us) “feels good” in their individual “safe spaces” (meaning bubbles), rather than on doing anything constructively and cooperatively to address very real and pressing issues.
One of the reasons for this bankruptcy of both the mainstream “left” and the “right” is that both “ends” of the mainstream political spectrum buy into the same ideological narrative, in which the business/marketing ideology is the ultimate horizon of meaning. This state of deep indoctrination is often called “ideology-free” or “post-ideological” time. Everyone is free to obey to the new spirit of the age.
To this already murky picture, religion often adds even more dark tones. As the traditional allies of the “right” (in various forms in which the “right” appears nowadays), dominant religious communities and their narratives tend to support dominant ideologies, unless those ideologies are openly against the religious power structures. Swimming against the current as it were (which, in theological terms, translates as exercising our prophetic calling) is not something that official religious communities/churches normally practice. After all, power structures cannot ignore the interests “of this world.” If they did, they wouldn’t be power structures any longer.
To change this marching-toward-disaster tendency, we need concrete, coordinated actions. The political as well as religious leaderships have the responsibility to do everything they can to lower the tensions and the threat of wars, violence, environmental destruction and harmful economic policies. However political, religious and other leaderships need to be pressed to take some constructive actions. Even then, one cannot expect them to fix everything. A broader action and a widespread popular pressure are needed. We need educated (not simply indoctrinated) people, from ordinary citizens, to scholars and professionals, who would be able to understand the sources and meaning of the complex processes we are facing.
In this context, the responsibility of theologians is also significant. The way they frame particular social and political issues (even when they just want to talk about the “eschatological”) has a real impact, not only on particular communities but also on the way in which the broader society perceives those communities and their religious beliefs.
With knowledge, good will, and the skills necessary to cope with the complexity of the world’s affairs, something can be done. And a real change – not a propaganda slogan – can be made.
Davor Džalto is Associate Professor and Program Director for Art History and Religious Studies at The American University of Rome President of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity.
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.