Is the United Nations a friend or foe of Christianity? Your answer indicates how you mentally frame the future of Earth and the role of religion.
Ethical Versus Speculative Christianity
The answer in fact depends on whether Christianity is a friend or foe of justice and human rights and whether Christians should guide themselves by New Testament ethics or, instead, by speculation about the end of the world.
Those I call "ethical" Christians obey the commandments of "Love thy neighbor" and "Do unto others." Ethical Christians cooperate across denominations to build human dignity, democracy, peace, and respect for universal human rights. They heal disease, end hunger, and save lives through efforts like UNICEF and the Christian Children's Fund. They attempt to do the good and the right and to do them personally and directly.
Those I call "speculative" Christians also indeed care about the good and the right, but they seem to require a “direct performance by God” -- mere human effort is not enough. They also seem to need an adrenaline rush -- divine justice must be dramatic. Books like the "Left Behind" series depict a Rapture modeled on Hollywood special effects and the American "shock and awe" tactics of Gulf War II, with divine violence coming down from Above to crush and exterminate the "evil-doers."
Seeing supernatural strength as the only answer to evil and imperfection, speculative Christians arm themselves for battle with apocalyptic images. In their minds they pit total right against total wrong, nation against nation, civilization against civilization, and the Christian God against the Muslim (or any other) God. They ignore or slander the constructive human efforts of the United Nations to nurture religious dialogue and a global movement for a culture of peace. The UN Secretary-General in their view is the leader of a future Anti-Christ "world government" -- as if our world of national governments equipped with eco-cidal weapons is not already the Anti-Christ.
None of this speculative "special effects theology" or its accompanying need for "divine violence" and Christian jihad follows from the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Because of criminal neglect by governments, and despite the efforts of the United Nations and of ethical Christians, 30,000 children still die every day around the world from lack of food, clean water, and basic medicine. But instead of urging their readers to go to the front lines of the battle and actually save these lives, the hucksters of speculative Christianity sell you "fictional" versions of the "real" Rapture in 12 volumes and tell you, "Jesus is coming soon!" On their way to the bank, they are too busy "saving souls" to help save actual lives.
It is a real question: How can so many millions of basically decent Christians in the United States be so easily swindled out of their own ethical birthright by theological hucksterism about the end of the world?
But actually, the answer is simple: (a) hope for the end of evil springs eternal in the human breast, and (b) when the "divine" power to end evil is separated from and set in opposition to the "human" power, as it is in fundamentalism and fictional religion, obviously there can be no question as to which power a person should side up with.
Fundamentalism would be totally rational, given the truth of its premises. The tragedy is that fundamentalism depends on belief rather than critical thinking, and thus millions of people fail to notice that the notion that the human power for good and the divine power for good are in opposition is simply not logical. Fundamentalism's error turns the perfect into the enemy of the good and thereby short-circuits human efforts for a better world.
Another reason why fundamentalists fail to notice this basic error is that the United Nations – that is, the group of Member Governments that was supposed to organize peace and well-being on Earth after WWII -- has been so criminally under-funded and under-used by those governments that it is perceived as having "failed" in its mission. And what fundamentalists also don't perceive is that since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since the year 2000, the chief culprit for the under-use and under-funding of the United Nations has been the United States itself, led on by its doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive warfare that short-circuits the entire United Nations system for protecting national sovereignty and human rights.
If United States administrations had made the United Nations more spectacularly successful, if they had really led the world's governments through the UN to create a sustainable and peaceful world civilization, the kingdom of heaven on Earth would already be here, and there would be no need to speculate about when Jesus would return to personally usher it in. This "failure" of the United Nations creates the space that fundamentalism and terrorism thrive within.
So, how do we revitalize the United Nations and its mission of global ethical and religious cooperation and thus help dispel fundamentalism? What changes do we need to make in the UN? How should we better fund it? How can the world better govern itself within it? Which US congressional and presidential candidates in 2008 will commit to help make these changes? Which candidate will be more tied into ethical religious action, and which will be more tied into mere theological speculation? Which candidates will restore respect for America around the world by restoring its connection to the UN, and which ones will continue to stoke the fires of unilateralism and religious terrorism and to further polarize the world into the "have mores" and the "have nothings"?
Your answers in 2008 will affect the lives of 6 billion people on this planet -- people not represented in the US elections but who ARE represented, however imperfectly, through the UN.
Misplaced Malice Towards the United Nations
International peace and security and respect for human rights are the main purposes of the United Nations, as stated directly in the Charter and its Preamble.
Yet millions of Christians, because of faulty logic and the under-use of the United Nations by its Member Governments, see God and the United Nations not as cooperators but as combatants in a global win-lose struggle between good and evil. They hope for a God who will directly intervene to save humanity from imperfection, but then they see the United Nations as the enemy of that intervention. Instead of seeing the United Nations as the agent of God's will, as tending to help God's work, they see the UN's work for human rights, democracy, dialogue, and peace not just as humanly imperfect but even as supernaturally diabolical.
This type of theological malice toward and inversion of the United Nations in the United States has reached the stage of a social mental illness. Led on by books such as the "Left Behind" series and a White House that caters to the gullible end of the religious spectrum, ethical Christianity has in effect been politically hijacked. The simple notion of history as the resultant of the free-will applications of ethical norms, norms such as the global religious teaching of "Do unto others," has been hijacked by the notion of a great, predetermined, historical Plan of God which humans are powerless to hinder or to hasten. In this inversion, human responsibility for good and evil has been replaced by the vision of the triumph of divine violence that will set things right. Fundamentalists in every religion have this same basic outlook: that God is a Being Out There Who will act independently of the goodness within humanity to outwardly crush and destroy the wicked.
Granted, a lot of this theological speculation and malice toward the UN is the product of sheer ignorance. Yet we should ask, who, besides its direct authors and economic profiteers, are really gaining from this nonsense and possibly manipulating it for their own benefit?
Not surprisingly, the answer is: the military-socio-political elite, that is to say,
- those who prefer to personally control everything by top-down force of ego (military, political or corporate power) rather than letting things be controlled by spiritual principles of fairness, long-term benefits, sustainability, and the rule of democratic law,
- those whose sense of global brotherhood, equal rights, and economic justice have been most egregiously compromised by their high-paid professional occupations,
- those who have the most to lose from the fair application of UN universal human rights.
Is it sheer coincidence that it is precisely these types of authoritarian, highly paid, and self-interested elites who also try the hardest to win the Christian fundamentalist vote and who, to do this, so often wrap themselves in the flags of religious belief and nationalism?
Are speculative Christians really just the unwitting dupes not only of "the Jesus industry" but also of the military-political-corporate complex? Are they really voting for what Jesus wants, for what Jesus would do? How would Jesus have handled Iraq? How many innocent Iraqi women and children would Jesus write off as "acceptable collateral damage"? How much profit would Haliburton make if Jesus were its CEO? How many billion barrels of non-renewable oil would Jesus consume before noticing that the Earth’s gas gauge was headed toward "Empty"?
Speculative Christians who really want to love and be like Jesus need to rethink very precisely what Jesus indeed would do in this world. They need to rethink His values and His ethic of "deeds, not words." They need to see His love for human efforts for the Good. Ironically, they need to start thinking conservatively and embrace the possibility that human effort for the Good may be all that stands between civilization and the darkness. They need to realize – urgently -- that God may not be going to act outside of us in some violent way to force the world into conformity with His will – to just snap His fingers and end global warming, for example. Maybe the Apocalypse is just a symbol of our human inner and social struggle for the triumph of knowledge, love, and justice. Maybe that’s what Jesus means by saying that the Kingdom of God is within you. To turn away from the Kingdonm Within, to abandon human action, and to gamble the fate of the Earth on an external divine intervention is an ethical and spiritual dereliction greater than which none can be conceived.
As part of appreciating anew the value of human efforts for the Good, speculative Christians need to learn about the work of the United Nations, imperfect as it may be, and the concept of revitalizing and reforming the United Nations and the role of the world's citizens, scientists, experts, and elected leaders within it.
Yet, because of the way the media typically fail to cover the United Nations, information about the connections in UN global policy thinking between peace, security, human rights, democracy, and global sustainability may not already be familiar. In fact, all of these things are tied together. There cannot be a good future for our children without sustainable energy and an ecologically sustainable civilization; there cannot be a sustainable civilization without global peace and security; there cannot be global peace and security without democracy and political justice; and there cannot be democracy and political justice without defined global norms of human rights.
The UN has defined these human rights and been active in all these areas, but how many US Christians really know about this work? How many know about UN support for democracy, for example? Because the UN is so often portrayed among speculative Christians as undemocratic and as a potential evil "world government," perhaps some information on how the UN in fact supports human rights and democracy would be helpful.
Human Rights and Democracy -- the UN’s Global Commitment
In his report to the 1996 UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General noted:
“[T]he word ‘democracy’ does not appear in the UN Charter. However, with the opening words of that document, ‘We the Peoples of the United Nations’, the founders invoked the most fundamental principle of democracy, rooting the sovereign authority of the Member States, and thus the legitimacy of the [United Nations] Organization which they were to compose, in the will of their peoples.
“The Article 2 "Purposes" of the UN, namely, to respect the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction, also commit the UN to democracy.”
Beyond the Charter, the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government" and guarantees to everyone the rights that are essential for effective political participation. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gave binding treaty status to these rights and freedoms, which are essential to global democracy.
The Cold War hindered UN work for democracy, but in 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on "Enhancing the effectiveness of the principle of periodic and genuine elections." Every year since then, it has adopted at least one resolution dealing with some aspect of democracy. In addition, the UN Commission on Human Rights, together with the Economic and Social Council, have examined democracy from an international human rights perspective and clarified and elaborated its principles, values, processes, institutions, and mechanisms.
UN international conferences have also focused on democracy. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights concluded that democracy, development, and respect for human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Additional international conferences of “new or restored democracies” have been held in Manila in June 1988, in Managua in July 1994, in Bucharest in September 1997, in Cotonou in December 2000, and in Ulan Bator in June 2003, and now almost annually, contributing greatly to the spread of democracy.
The 1994 Managua conference called on the UN Secretary-General to study how the UN could help governments to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies, a request subsequently formalized in General Assembly Resolution 49/30. The 2000 conference recommended a monitoring mechanism to help implement the Cotonou Declaration and encouraged the UN system to mobilize to promote and strengthen democratic development, as later formalized in 2001 in General Assembly Resolution 56/96.
Three Human Rights Commission resolutions are also of particular importance. Resolution 2000/47 emphasizes improving democratic institutions and mechanisms by strengthening human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, electoral processes, the role of civil society, and policies of good governance, sustainable development, and social cohesion and solidarity. Resolution 2001/36 looks at democratic development in the broader context of sustainable human development and the realization of all human rights, and it notes the negative effect of poverty.
Commission resolution 2001/41 on "Continuing dialogue on measures to promote and consolidate democracy" calls for integrated democracy assistance programs and locally owned, broad-based common country strategies. It calls for the exchange of lessons learned and best practices in promoting and consolidating democracy, encourages the development of democracy expertise drawn from all regions of the world, and invites everyone to debate ways and means to promote and consolidate democracy. Similar General Assembly, ECOSOC, and Commission resolutions have continued since then, and now in 2006 the Human Rights Council has replaced the Commission, giving an even higher standing to human rights and democracy in the UN and global self-government system.
In addition, the UN system has created a whole program of assisting democracy through the supervision of national referendums or elections, for example in East Timor.
In short, the UN does not require initial democratic self-government for a State to become a UN Member. Yet the UN Charter, UN human rights documents, and UN democracy assistance programs help accelerate progress toward peaceful planetary self-government. And while the United Nations as a diplomatic organization endorses no single religion, its principles and purposes reflect the universal ethics of "Love thy neighbor" and "Do unto others" that are found in all major religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith, Chinese religions and ethical systems, and many others.
Contrary to speculative Christianity, there is no necessary conflict between God and the United Nations. Indeed, UN human rights documents and programs rest precisely on global religious, ethical concepts of universal justice. With the UN’s help, democracies have grown in number from a mere handful out of 50 Member States in 1945 to over 120 out of 192 Member States in 2006. Democracy, human rights, peace, world health, and sustainable well-being on Earth are achievable at an almost ridiculously low price – a mere one-third of the world’s military budget -- if We, the Peoples of the United Nations, all work together on the basis of human rights. But a revitalized United Nations Organization – not US unilateralism – is the key to global success.
Christians who bear these facts in mind, rather than condemning the UN as “Communistic,” "godless," part of the Anti-Christ, or "left behind," might more constructively see themselves as United Nations citizen-diplomats and ethical stewards of the Earth acting in the light of Jesus' saying, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
Indeed, personally self-globalized ethical peacemakers are the only people who can in any realistic sense bring an end to the "world," that is, to the spiritual inversions, unlawful violence, corruption, and injustice in which we currently live. The age of pre-global religions is over. “An eye for an eye" in a world so wildly and wastefully weaponized, “be fruitful and multiply” in a world already peopled past Earth’s sustainable capacity, “kill the non-believers” in a world of 6000 religions, and external divine interventions in a world whose problems are totally internal to the human psyche – none of these help meld the world into a global soul in a global body, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Only putting the Other above oneself and ethics above theologies can bring that Kingdom about.
Religions need to grow up and get their acts together – and quickly. The very word “religion” comes from Latin roots meaning, in essence, rebinding or reunification. A global reunifying, reconciling United Nations culture of non-violence, human dignity, ethical aspiration, and ecological sustainability standing above and within every other perspective makes visible a path toward the future that people of every religion and background can take.
John Dale is the Envoy to the United Nations Office of UU for the Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Prescott, AZ.