Thursday, September 17, 2020

Reflections on Charity and Sovereignty

Two issues jump out of yesterday’s ‘dig’ for the divine amid the terror:

First, the searing and penetrating truth that charity brings gifts that are unimaginable, yes to the receiver, but even more importantly to the donor.

Second, the almost inconceivable hurdle, threshold and even chasm for nations, and especially politicians to “surrender sovereignty” as if each place and person was inviolable, sacred and carved in the marble of history and tradition.

Driving through the streets of Kingston Ontario, one reads glued to the concrete abutments that provide outdoor patios for struggling restaurants, two words, in both English and French: “Love Kingston” and “Amor Kingston.” Our pop culture is flooded with songs, greeting-card-dramas (think Hallmark movies), and even dark psychological thrillers that revolve somehow around the notion of human’s pulsing need for, search for, failure in, depression from, dreams of and ultimately attempting to find purpose in and through love. We ‘love’ our favourite shows, our pets, our treasured memories, this or that doctor, teacher, dentist, neighbour and especially the half-dozen people with whom we were actually in some kind of relationship that had the promise and the scent of enduring. We ‘love’ our parents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, our grandparents…even if those individuals remain unknown because of their death, absence or distance or even those few whose early treatment of us was less than supportive.

We also celebrate those acts of “love” that rescue us from a burning home in the middle of the night, or from a terrifying tornado, or those who, in the tradition of the Good Samaritan, attend to the injured and dying in a traffic accident, or a mass shooting.  Recently, owing to the empty emotional bank account of the current occupant of the Oval Office, devoid as it is of empathy, compassion, and even the bare minimum of sympathy, we are giving more attention to the Democratic candidate’s perceived and authentic reservoir of empathy, given the many personal and family tragedies that he has had to endure over his nearly eight decades. Each time he reaches out to an individual in real pain, we celebrate the moment, starving as we all are for connection, for being seen and known, after months of isolation.

We humans simply crave being known, understood, appreciated and celebrated, and we also crave the opportunity, too often denied through reservations of many  kinds, to express our deep appreciation, through growing insight and consciousness, of the other. Whether for each of us, these moments of “caring” and “compassion” and “empathy” are acts promoted by a faith base, or merely as a transactional exchange, or also from an emotional intelligence perspective that acknowledges the benefits of reciprocity in human relationships, there is  at least a hint of what we call “humanity” in the moments.

And if we pause to reflect after such moments, we will feel something akin to poetic ‘warm glow’ regardless of whether we were the donor or the recipient. Something memorable has just happened; and when that kind of moment seems missing or rare, in the public square, we are perhaps unconsciously even more sensitive and responsive to them when they happen to us. What is perversely common, however, is that many times such moments are pooh-poohed as “frivolous” or “embarrassing” or “too feminine” or “unmasculine”….when we all know that both men and women need and deserve them in abundance, regardless of our age or other identifying traits.

And in our hell-bent drive for objectivity, distance, and ‘professionalism’ in all of our daily business, we have willingly and overtly or unconsciously, stripped much of our human discourse of these moments. While we legitimately wish to avoid cheapening them either through frequency or superficiality, it can be argued that we may have thrown ‘this baby out with the bathwater’ of conventional, corporate, professionalism. In their place, too often, I hear superficial and throw-away comments about ‘how nice’ someone looks, when the encounter is primarily, if not wholly, transactional.

Another sphere from which any genuine compassion, empathy, and expressions of charity have all been eradicated, is the field of diplomacy, geopolitical dialogue, given that, with ‘friends’ there is little to no need, and with enemies, to go ‘soft’ can and likely will be considered as “weak”.

So here is the point at which charity and sovereignty intersect. If a nation suffers a lethal blow from a tsunami or a volcano, a hurricane or a storm surge, agencies like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, funded primarily by private money, come to the rescue. UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee, CARE,Caritas Internationale,  Doctors Without Borders, Food for the Hungry, Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision are a few of the relief agencies to which thousands contribute and from which thousand more benefit. What seems so ironic, if not outright self-sabotaging, however, is that many of these relief agencies would not be so essential if the world powers were to come together to discuss and to commit to a few, if only modest at the beginning, commitments to give up some long-cherished sovereignty as an act of charity on behalf of the whole of humanity.

Naturally, many will argue that nations are not in the business of charity, compassion, empathy or even respect for other nations, other ethnicities, other linguistic and cultural communities. They are in the business of “providing for” and “protecting” their people, as their public and propagandistic utterances declare. We have deployed the instruments, processes and language of law as our primary path to enter into and to generate specific concords between and among nations. And in so doing, we have by default, established very low bars, for participating nations to meet in order to establish what has come to be known as the system of world order, following World War II. Not incidentally, the Marshall Plan, while settled in official documents, looms as an historic light beam of charity, enabling the restoration of the German society. So, the precedent is not unavailable to the current and future leaders of the world’s nations, from which to draw both inspiration and courage.


While George W. Bush is known and remembered, sadly, primarily for his
Iraq War, his administration also participated in one of the world’s most charitable initiatives addressing the AIDS epidemic in Africa. USAID has, until, trump, also provided millions of foreign aid, to developing countries, as part of the spread of democracy and the liberation of people seeking human rights. China, for her part, is currently embarked on a massive infrastructure program in Africa, as their transactional approach to enhanced hegemony. However, such modest yet worthy patterns of rich nations, (primarily responsible for carbon emissions) helping developing nations with environmental protection have to be expanded.

When assessing the world’s ‘contribution’ (blame) for the environmental threat, however, the inevitable “method” and process of assessing responsibility inevitable erects barriers to agreement. The foundational arguments upon which the United Nations was built, with a core of five nations with the veto, has demonstrated its own inadequacy and insufficiency.

A new approach is needed. And in order to begin a search for such a creative, effective and promising design, the world needs, now, and not some vague misty date sometime near the end of this century, a concurrence that enemies breath the same air, and drink from the same reservoirs, and plant seeds for food in the same soil as everyone else. Furthermore, all nations are engaged in industrial processes that can no longer be tolerated, by a global community already subject in some quarters to daily masks, because the air they are trying to breath is dangerous to their health.

We need another visionary like Ted Turner, whose imagination birthed CNN, to envision a new communication vehicle that will concentrate on the specific news about and the proposed solutions to the climate crisis. It may already exist in some podcast, or perhaps even a small network. However, it needs international funding, internationally trained and encultured reporters and editors, and an international board of directors committed to the protection of the natural world, including oceans and their species, forests and their species, deserts and their species, and cities and their multiple engines of pollutants and laboratories of new environmental science.

Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and others are providing leadership in pouring millions in the desperate plight of millions suffering from disease, hunger, homelessness and blocked access to education. And these initiatives are both worthy and needed. However, it is time for national governments to come to the realization, in both concept and in practice, that whatever natural catastrophe occurs in one corner of the globe impacts all other quarters and people. It is past time, for example, for the World Health Organization to be able (technically and legally and jurisdictionally) to provide not only guidance, but also mandates to governments around the world, using best medical and scientific knowledge and practice, to limit the spread of pandemic viruses. And for that to begin to develop, all nations, including the United States, will have to shift several billions from its defense budget to the health budget of the WHO, and also to assign some of its best public health brains to its staff and committees.

The surrender of sovereignty can no longer be considered a matter of diplomatic and geopolitical standing; it is now a matter of protecting the health of the citizens of each and every nation. Surrendering sovereignty, for the benefit of public health, on the surface, may seem a ridiculous trade-off. However, given the convergence of the many forces and influences that threaten national governance, public health, economic desperation and depression, and the ability of all living species, flora and fauna, to access needed air, water and food, the old world order has to be considered obsolete.

Far from condemning trump for his deliberate and odious destruction of the nation state of the United States, the world needs to condemn his administration for the havoc he is rendering to the people of the planet. This aspect of the current crisis, if it were to be experienced within a community, a corporation, a university, even a church, would have been driven out long ago. So, the first priority of a new way of seeing and of working with the whole world is for the world’s leaders to openly condemn the trump administration in as loud and as unanimous voice as can be garnered. Naturally, Putin, Duterte, Netanyahu and others will not join. Whether China would join or not is uncertain. Next, a council of world leaders, current and retired, political, corporate, scientific and ethical, could formally announce a conference to address, not the business of how to make more corporate profit, as is the case with Davos, but rather a new way of structuring the United Nations, including its capacities for supporting refugees, educating children, feeding the starving and for joining forces with the many philanthropics. Guaranteed annual  incomes, while worthy of individual nations’ support, could offer a model of shifting the relationship between government and the governed that signifies far greater acceptance of basic human needs and rights, and then bring into clear focus, how individuals can contribute to the economy that would be more equitable  and more altruistic.

We have to be frank about the need to start seeing ordinary people as “holy” and as sacred and as worthy, not only as a rhetorical talking point but as a credible and sustainable truth. And this perspective cannot be boundaried by national borders; it has to be a fact of life and belief and truth for all nations. And the process of such a transformational cultural perspective will require a commitment from all sectors of the many economies, ethnicities, languages and political ideologies that for too long have held power.

It is not only a question of civil rights, or gender rights, or inheritance rights, or religious rights, or the rights of those with the most wealth, however it has been acquired. We have to recognize that “flattening the curve” applies to each one of our shared issues, and demand that those who seek office commit to the proposition that there is no single human in any nation who can be left behind, ignored, devalued, denied an authentic education, access to quality health care, clean air and water, and adequate healthy food. And as part of flattening the curve, we have to come to the place where we are far less dependent on our hard power, our bombs and missiles, our AK47’s and our AR-15’s. We also have to come to the place where we know that if and when we tell our truth, those in power will start from the place that we are credible, that we know, as well as we can, what we are talking about. We also know the difference between being lied to and deceived by public officials and being told the hard truths.

It is no longer okay for us to watch our brothers and sisters protest in the streets, for a single, yet highly worthy and long overdue legitimate cause; our shared cause is the future of humanity, and the requisite steps that can and will offer credible and authentic hope that, together, will have already committed to the survival of the planet.

And such survival depends on each of us stepping up to the plate to consider acts of charity, and the surrender of our pride, hubris and neuroses, as acts not only of charity but as legitimate transformations to new life. And this model has application to the international forum, although those currently in the foreign affairs establishment, like all the other establishments, will need some time to reflect upon what it is they have to surrender.

The sacredness of each human has profound and lasting implications of a transformational nature for each of us and for the planet. And that sacredness is not the private domain of a single faith or a single person. It is a shared attribute, if only we can and will realize and incarnate it into our lives. 

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