To Uphold the World

By Rich, Bruce | Tikkun, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

To Uphold the World


Rich, Bruce, Tikkun


What Two Statesmen from Ancient India Can Tell Us about Our Current Crisis

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY IS IN DESPERATE NEED OF A GLOBAL ETHIC. THE WORLD economic system is driving a significant number of all living creatures to extinction. It is a world order- or disorder- that is increasingly undermining the biological foundations of long-term human civilization. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the 2011 Davos World Economic Forum, the global economy has become a "global suicide pact."

The global order of the past twenty years has prioritized unleashing market forces over other social values and created a profoundly unstable, interconnected world. It is a world not only of increased inequality and environmental deterioration but, as the recent global financial crisis shows, one that puts at risk the viability of whole societies and nations, not to mention democracy itself.

A decade ago George Soros warned that market fundamentalism was a greater threat to human society than any totalitarian ideology, noting that "the supreme challenge of our time is to establish a set of values that applies to a largely transactional, global society." In the words of Catholic theologian Hans Kiing, "a global market economy requires a global ethic."

Each new environmental crisis forces us to recognize that an ethic of respect for all life is also an ethic for long-term human survival and well-being.

Yet in the wake of each new crisis, rhetoric notwithstanding, national and international political systems seem to fall back into a default position of business as usual.

In the United States we desperately need a program of social and environmental legislation of New Deal proportions, a program that would incorporate a new ethic of care rooted in the recognition of global mutual interdependence. Increasingly we hear the call for such an ethic by groups such as the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

How can we imagine alternatives? Are there historical precedents for a global ethic of care, and has any government ever tried to put it into practice?

Ancient Inscriptions Tell of an Astonishing King

An answer to these questions might take üs first to, of all places, Kandahar, southeastern Afghanistan. Following September 11, 2001, Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorist network, symbolized the intolerance, chaos, and terrorism that threaten to erupt anywhere with repercussions everywhere in an increasingly interconnected world. In 2010, after nine years of U.S. military intervention, the Taliban reigned in Kandahar more strongly than ever. The United States continues to seek military solutions to growing political challenges and chaos around the world, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also now in Yemen, and in expanded access to bases in Colombia as a platform for possible interventions in much of Latin America.

Yet Kandahar's history has something profound to tell us. In 1957, Italian archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery there. They uncovered an ancient series of rock inscriptions in the Greek and Aramaic languages (Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and is also thought to have been the native tongue of Jesus). In the inscriptions, an ancient Indian king calls for nonviolence through the practice of moderation, the honoring of parents and elders, abstention from killing animals, and more. Kandahar and most of present-day Afghanistan were part of this great king's empire. It was a multi-ethnic, multicultural state, built on fundamental values of tolerance, nonviolence, and respect for life, according to the inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. There was more tolerance and respect for life in Afghanistan millennia ago, at least for a time, than today.

To understand the inscriptions in Kandahar, and the origin of the values they proclaimed, we must travel to another place in South Asia, a hill in southeastern India called Dhauli that visitors have climbed for over two thousand years.

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