In March 1990, I made the first of over twenty trips to east Central Europe. As I drove with my two companions, Dr. Vernon Grose and Michael Ahern, across the heart of Central Europe from East Berlin to Bucharest, I encountered a region in chaos. Barely four months earlier, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, which had become powerful symbols of division and hostility between East and West, had been toppled by popular grassroots revolutionary movements. Religious leaders who had been the backbone of underground resistance movements were now beginning to emerge into the open. Intellectuals, who, only five months earlier, had been languishing in prison cells because of their opposition to the communist regimes were now serving as prime ministers and members of parliament. Ordinary people, who had suffered under an oppressive system, were now breathing the scent of genuine freedom for the first time in their lives. It was, indeed, a chaotic moment in history. At the heart of the chaos that I encountered was the absence of any compelling moral vision for these societies. Over the course of the next eight years, I had conversations with hundreds of political and religious leaders as well as ordinary citizens. What began to emerge for me was an important insight about Marxism. For the people of East-Central Europe, Marxism had been more than an economic system. It had been a moral vision that for more than fifty years had shaped their political, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual foundations. And now that moral vision was no more. But what was to come in its place? What was to fill the void? During those years, I witnessed three strong forces begin to emerge as alternative moral visions: nationalism, liberal democracy/free market capitalism, and militant Islam. In such places as Belgrade, Pale, and Zagreb former communists were reinventing themselves and becoming ardent nationalists. In such places as Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest, both Democratic and Republican political organizations based in Washington DC were actively promoting the unique blend of American liberal democracy and free market capitalism as a fresh moral vision. During the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo networks of Islamists from the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, and North Africa became involved with the Muslim communities and in the course of it shared their moral vision of global jihad.
In spite of my background in California electoral politics during the 1960s and 1970s, despite my years of theological training, it was in East-Central Europe during the chaotic period of the 1990s that for the first time in my life I began to understand the profound importance of moral vision in the life of individuals, societies, and nations. I also began to realize that, as a person of faith from the Abrahamic tradition, I was carrying in my heart the seed of an ancient moral vision, whose time on the world stage had finally come. The French author Victor Hugo once wrote that there is nothing quite so powerful as an idea whose time has come. The world is not only shaped by people, events and interests, but also by ideas—soaring ideas that are not simply a reaction to the tectonic shifts of the geopolitical landscape but in themselves create new realities, new paradigms by providing the spiritual, social, political, and economic foundation for new societies and a new international order. These soaring ideas are moral vision.
The world or significant parts of it have been shaped by profound moral visions over the course of recorded history. I will briefly describe five moral visions that have defined a way of life or worldview over the past four millennia. In some ways, their influence has served the common good of humanity. They have inspired the noble side of human nature. In other ways, they have led to unforeseen consequences that have caused wars of conquest, deep divisions, hostility, conflict, violence, injustice, oppression, tyranny, totalitarianism, displaced peoples, poverty, hunger, ecological devastation, and wounded nations. These five moral visions are the Athenian democracy, the enlightenment secularism, the American experiment, the Marxist utopia, and the Abrahamic tradition.
In the sixth century BCE, the social and political ferment of Athens and other Greek city-states gave birth to the concept of the polis as a community of free citizens and the novel concept of governance, which became known as democracy or rule by the consent of the governed. At the core of ancient democracy was the notion of citizenship, of belonging to a political society, which entailed both rights and responsibilities. While few of our modern understandings of liberal democracy can be traced back to these ancient roots, nevertheless, the basic notion of Athenian democracy represented a radical break from rule by monarchy or oligarchy, the normative expression of the time. This concept embodied a worldview, which eventually spread to the West and became embedded in Europe and, later, the United States. Today, that moral vision inspires nations and states all across the globe that are built on the core values of citizenship, rights, responsibilities, and the consent of the governed. As an American who grew up with these core values, I have often taken them for granted. I failed to appreciate the sacrifices made by my parents and so many in their generation who had to defend those core values against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
In October 1987, I was hosting a South African friend, Chris deBruyn, in our home in Northern Virginia. At one point as we were sitting together, he inhaled deeply and let out his breath slowly. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am learning what it is like to breathe the air of freedom.” As a young colored man from South Africa, who had lived through some of the harshest years of the apartheid regime, he knew what it was to be a target of the Special Security Branch and to be the victim of a whole system of Afrikaner privilege. As an American, I had failed to appreciate how much the core values of Athenian democracy would mean to a young man from the continent of Africa.
Beginning five hundred years ago, there were four key historical developments that profoundly shaped Europe’s future and define contemporary geopolitical polarities, particularly between the West and the Islamic world. The first historical development was the Protestant Reformation, which ended the medieval synthesis and introduced the concept of separation of spiritual and temporal authority and contributed to the emergence of the state as an autonomous secular entity. The second historical development was the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It established the principle of sovereignty that underlies relations between states to this day and which specified that no external power or deliberative body had the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another state. The third historical development was the Enlightenment, which embodied the core value of human beings as the rational masters and unlimited sovereigns of their own fate. As such, it led to the development of a political and moral philosophy that embraced secular human reason rather than the sacred texts as the foundation for society. It also led to the concept of self-sovereignty of both the self and the state and removed the veil of accountability to a transcendent god. The fourth historical development was the French Revolution in 1789, which introduced the concept of popular sovereignty that the final authority in society is the will of the people. Hence, between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries when Europe was experiencing both a religious reformation and a cultural renaissance, it was also undergoing a process of secularization.
Today, that moral vision is most deeply embodied in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. In Western Europe, particularly, one witnesses the almost total absence of faith and religion from the public square and from the arena of policy making. The Christian faith—which formed the spiritual, philosophical and cultural soul of Europe—has virtually disappeared from the landscape. There is a growing presence of Muslims in Europe, but it is a minority and is viewed as an alien presence on European soil. The situation in the United States vis-à-vis secularism is far more complex. Many Europeans describe America as a nation with “the soul of a church.” In other words, secularism is a major force in the American culture, but so too is religion, particularly Christianity and Judaism. While America might practice the core value of separation of church and state, it does not mean the absence of faith and religion from the public square. In fact, for many years, there has been a heated public conversation under way about the proper role and influence of religion in governance, policymaking, and politics.
Until September 11, 2001, it was normal for European and American secularists to dismiss religion as a significant factor in international politics. Religious actors such as Ayatollah Khomeini, whose ideology and activities stemmed from a spiritual or religious impulse, were often viewed as using religion as a guise for purely political or economic motives. This led to seriously fl awed diagnoses and policies. However, since 9/11 all that has changed, since religion has emerged as a major force seeking to shape contemporary geopolitics. No policy maker in Europe or America can afford to ignore the role of religion as it intersects with politics and diplomacy. Given the growing estrangement between the Islamic world and the West (particularly the United States), it would seem that people of faith are in the best position to understand and build bridges to the Islamic world.
In February 2003, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) hosted a group of Muslim political and religious leaders from Kashmir and Sudan at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. Given the stereotypical images they held about the United States as a secular nation, it came as a pleasant surprise for them to hear U.S. leaders talking about God, faith, and prayer. They heard Jewish, Christian, and even Muslim leaders speak about the need for a leadership under God, a leadership guided by spiritual and moral values. Toward the end of their visit, one senior Sudanese leader said, “I am going home with a very different and more complex view of America. I am also going home with a greater sense of hope that shared spiritual values can point the way forward in the future.”
The American Experiment
The eighteenth century gave birth to a radically new vision of nation building that grew out of the experience of oppression and intolerance in Europe. The declaration of independence and the constitution of the United States envisioned a more perfect union that was later described as a shining city on a hill. The American experiment was built on the core values of radical individualism, freedom, justice, human rights, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, the rule of law, checks and balances, and economic opportunity. In a sense, it was a unique blending of liberal democracy with free market capitalism.
Today, that moral vision inspires nations that seek to emulate the American model such as Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary. It also inspires individuals and families that have immigrated to America because it represented opportunity that was lacking in their own nation. During a March 2005 visit to Ramallah in the Palestinian authority, I was speaking at a local church. During the service, I looked out over the small congregation and observed that there were very few people under the age of forty. After the worship service, I asked the pastor about this. He told me that young Palestinian Christians saw no future for themselves in the land. Between the Israeli policies experienced as oppressive by Palestinians and the growing influence of the Islamists, young Christians were feeling marginalized. He told me that many young Palestinian Christians had immigrated to Europe, but most had gone to America, where there was greater social and economic opportunity.
The Marxist Utopia
In the nineteenth century, a German philosopher put to pen his moral vision of a world that would be based on social justice and the emergence of governance by the proletariat. At the heart of that vision was an economic system based on collectivism and state socialism. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, whose principles were embraced by a Russian who became known as Lenin (man of steel). In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Lenin introduced Marxism into what became known as the Soviet Union. Marxism embodied a specifically atheistic view of the world and sought to create a classless society and the new “soviet man.” Hence, the Marxist utopia was built on the core values of atheism, collectivism, state socialism, rule by the proletariat, and a classless society. Marxism lasted seventy-two years before popular revolution throughout the former Eastern Bloc led to its collapse as a viable system. However, much of the twentieth century was shaped by the moral vision of Karl Marx.
Today, that moral vision still inspires a few leaders in east Central Europe, who believe that the failure of the communist system had more to do with the greed of the leadership than any inherent flaw in its philosophical suppositions. In spring1993, I was part of a dinner and dialogue in Prague with the leadership of the Levy bloc of the Czech Republic. I sat directly across the dinner table from their leader, a formidable woman who had been the Levy bloc candidate for president against Vaclav Havel. At one point, the subject of the conversation turned to the nature of reconciliation in the Czech Republic. I was asked how I felt the Levy bloc could contribute to the process of reconciliation. I stated that they could begin by publicly acknowledging the sins of the past and apologizing to the Czech people. I was told that such an idea was not possible since the mistakes were the responsibility of the individuals in power rather than a flaw in the system.
For the most part the strongest adherents to the Marxist moral vision have been the proponents of liberation theology in Latin America. Inspired by the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez Merino and Leonardo Boff, this theology seeks to integrate Christianity and Marxism in adapting Marxist philosophy to the plight of the poor in Latin America by developing the concept of God’s preferential option for the poor into forms of advocacy for social justice.
The Abrahamic Tradition
In Genesis 12:1-2, the Jewish scriptures tell of a revelation to Abraham in which God calls him forth from the security of family relationships, homeland, and collective identity to begin a new experiment which ultimately will become known as tikkun olam—to heal, to repair, and to transform the world. As he journeys across the Fertile Crescent, Abraham holds in his bosom the kernel of a transcendent vision. He responds in faith and it germinates into what has become the Abrahamic tradition. Three great communities of faith, over three billion people, trace their roots back to this decisive revelation. The Davidic star, the cross, and the crescent—all are symbols that share in this defining moral vision. The Jewish scriptures relate how the Abrahamic tradition was further defined in a revelation to Moses—whom, with the liberated Hebrew slaves, God gives a covenant and moral law. It became the basis for a new society to be formed in the wilderness. The Torah was to be the core of a moral vision for society. It formed the basis of cultural values, institutions, and presuppositions within the new society that became known as Israel.
Two thousand years ago, when Jesus of Nazareth emerged upon the scene as a healer and reconciler, his simple message focused on the breaking in of the Kingdom of God or the establishment of God’s new society on earth. This moral vision was grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, but he sought to universalize it for all peoples. Through the life, teachings and example of Jesus, the Abrahamic tradition became further refined and crystallized. In my work of faith-based diplomacy, I summarize the ethical implications of this tradition in eight core values.
At the heart of these eight core values was the Abrahamic concept of God’s sovereignty or rule over societies and nations. In the New Testament, Jesus taught that God’s sovereign rule would establish the common good, namely, a society based on respect for the dignity of every human being, the economics of compassion, the politics of love, the power of truth, and stewardship embodied in voluntary sacrifice