guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
THERE was a time when the people of different continents knew very little of one another. They could only think of their own relatives, people of their own clan or nation. People had no idea that they belonged to something much greater, our common “human family”, though more scattered all over the globe.
Now we know that the first human beings probably originated in East Africa. The people of Europe were not the first, let alone the only ones who travelled by ship to other continents, America, Africa, Arabia, India, China, Japan and Australia. The Chinese, Indians and Arabs came to Africa long before European travellers. People from Nordic countries stepped on American soil before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the “New World”.
Contacts between Europe and Africa go back a long way: We know Oduala Equiano (from Benin, today southern Nigeria, a former slave who reached Britain) very well because he wrote his own biography. He eventually bought his freedom.
The earth became one globe, and people and nations could see that they formed one humanity. Tragically, they did not act on this awareness. Europeans and other conquering nations got to know these “new worlds”, only to subject them to their rule, and plunder their wealth in humans (slave trade), minerals (gold, silver, copper, coal, etc), land (farms), water (fish), forests (timber).
It was indeed tragic that the first encounters between different nations on this earth were often violent for the sake of gain, exploitation and power. The climax of this most unfortunate development was colonisation and the two world wars in the 20th century. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11: 1-9) demonstrates to us the hopeless confusion of languages and the inability of nations to live with each other in peace.
This tower was a symbol of pride and arrogance. It was an attempt to have totalitarian and absolute power. “There the Lord confused the speech of all the world. It was from that place that [God] scattered them all over the world.”(Gen. 11: 9).
The world was one and humanity was one and the same everywhere, and yet they lacked unity. The basic concepts of human dignity, human rights (freedom, equality and fraternity) as propounded by philosophers and theologians were accepted universally only very slowly.
War and violence were not questioned. They were regarded as types of behaviour natural to human beings. Military technology (drones, nuclear armament, fighter planes) has become extremely sophisticated. Times of peace, understood as absence of war, are the result of mutual deterrence with ever greater arsenals of weapons on all sides, and the fear of mutual self-destruction and annihilation.
But wars and armed violence are now so excessive that more and more people on this war-torn earth ask how humanity can rid itself of this immense evil. Either we put an end to warfare or else humanity will commit collective suicide.
For the first time peoples and nations of the world made an attempt after World War 1 (1914-18) to create a universal political body where dialogue was supposed to make destructive warfare unnecessary, the League of Nations, which was succeeded by the United Nations after World War II, (1939-45).
We need universal standards of human rights and a common understanding of the dignity of the human being, of man and woman, and of the right to life. For this we need dialogue between peoples, cultures and religions. Abuse of the environment can only be overcome by worldwide joint action.
Health is threatened by many contagious diseases and even non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart diseases, diabetes. We must share freely our knowledge and experience in curing such diseases, and stop them from spreading. We can only do this if we act as one human family.
Climate change is another crisis which we can only overcome as a united and reconciled humanity. More and more organisations and institutions have been created to counteract these conditions, eg the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Internal Court of Justice (Den Hague), UNESCO (Education), and others.
The withdrawal by the United States from some of these bodies is a severe setback (International Court of Justice, Agreement on Climate Change, World Health Organisation).
Nation States alone can no longer cope with these challenges by themselves. No one State can solve the problem of mass migration. Pope Francis is proposing “some form of world authority … equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defence of human rights” ( Ecyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti”, no 172). Political freedom and full employment will reduce migration. However, the right to free movement must be upheld.
In the meantime, we have to welcome strangers. The Israelites were told, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22: 21). People who “follow narrow forms of nationalism … think that by closing their doors they will be better protected. Immigrants are seen as usurpers who have nothing to offer” (no 141).
Everything and everybody is connected with everything and everybody else. Nobody can go it alone. The notion “Everyone for himself” will soon degenerate into a ‘free-for-all’ that would prove worse than any pandemic (no 36).
We need to recall the wisdom of our ancestors and of the tradition that has built our world. Southern Africa has the “Ubuntu”-philosophy (Shona: “unhu”). It can be summarised in “I am because we are”. “Ubuntu/unhu is the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects humanity”.
“We are part of one another, we are brothers and sisters of one another”. “No one is saved alone, we can only be saved together”. “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people”, said Pope Francis.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are interconnected. The virus is everywhere and the pandemic is a catastrophe for all of us, anywhere in the world, the whole of humanity is affected and infected. Therefore, we have to act together as one in solidarity. What hurts you, hurts me as well. If my neighbour is sick and injured I am wounded as well.
Poverty anywhere in the world impoverishes all humankind. “Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights” (Francis, no 23). They suffer in human trafficking and as slaves in the “sex industry”.
The story of the “Good Samaritan” is about the love of the neighbour. It asks the question, “Who is my neighbour?” The answer is, “Anybody in need, even the foreigner and alien”.
Migration is caused by corruption, bad governance, oppression, violence and warfare. We need to be able to stop misuse of political power in States. Migrants may enrich us. “The poor are not dangerous”. “Migrants must be integrated in receiving countries, while promoting the development of their countries of origin through policies inspired by solidarity” (no 132).
I can feed one hungry person as an act of private charity. But political charity can change the conditions that cause famine. Rebuilding our farming industry would be such an economic act of charity for the common good
National sovereignty is no longer our supreme value. We have to cross borders and meet foreign cultures and peoples. We have to build the common good of all the world which we share as brothers and sisters.
Narrow-minded nationalism is on the rise again. “America first,” is now a party slogan in the US. Such collective selfishness and nationalistic fanaticism have causes many wars.
The European Union was formed to serve as a strong link between former enemies in one commonwealth where there would be no more war. Now Brexit (Britain’s exit) is bringing nationalism back again.
But that should not deter us from working towards our African Union. It would be another step towards unity as brothers and sisters, as friends across borders, in Africa and the whole world.