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Things to ponder…

Global Vaccination Equity

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. While high- and some middle-income states have secured more than enough doses to vaccinate their populations, the world’s poorest countries, constrained by funding and supply, have barely begun vaccinating theirs. As of April, 2021, the world’s high-income countries, which represent 16% of the global population, hold 4.6 billion doses while low-income countries hold 770 million. At current rates, the Duke Health Innovation Center estimates that low-income countries “may not reach 60% coverage until 2023 or later.” This inequity in vaccine distribution, though not inherently unfair, is both a moral matter and a global health risk. As COVID variants emerge and continue to circulate, whatever gains are being enjoyed in health and economic recovery in richer states will be at risk unless the virus is contained in poorer ones. In addition to waiving intellectual property constraints, researchers recommend significant investment and assistance in supply chain and logistics, training and availability of health workers, ethics-guided vaccine distribution, and better international cooperation in ensuring global access to high quality vaccines. 

Israel-Palestine

In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 224-page report in which it concluded after a legal analysis of relevant articles of the International Criminal Court’s statute (2002) and Apartheid Convention (1976) that Israel’s practices concerning the Palestinians had crossed a threshold and could be legally described as crimes against humanity, including the crime of apartheid. The organization was not the first to draw this conclusion. B’Tselem and Yesh Din, two Israel-based human rights organizations had done the same legal analyses earlier and reached similar conclusions. The publication of HRW’s report elicited the expected polarized reactions, but one thing is clear: there is no such thing as a “status quo” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The realities on the ground are evolving, and not for the better. The question before the world—Israelis, Palestinians, UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court, the United States, civil society, and so on—is whether those findings matter. Would a human rights-based approach work apart from independent Palestinian statehood? Some contrasting views can be found here, here and here. (The Knesset is hosting an event with human rights groups on the matter today.)

Hunger

Famine continues to threaten the lives of millions around the world. The World Food Program, winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, reports that approximately 41 million people in 20 countries are on the brink of famine. It notes that contrary to common belief, much of the hunger is man-made, driven by problems like conflict, loss of jobs and land, inequality, the mishandling of COVID-19, and so on. With attacking water resources being a common war tactic, the lack of clean water is worsening matters as diseases like cholera spread and threaten whole communities. Food aid alone is insufficient. Effective solutions will require comprehensive efforts from all stakeholders to address conflict, “the single biggest driver of hunger today,” the WFP maintains.

Religious Liberty at the U.S. Supreme Court

On June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled in Fulton v. Philadelphia that “the refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS [Catholic Social Services] for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” The case is one of many in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world in which the tensions between the practice of religion and non-discrimination provisions are at issue. In his 77-page concurrence in Fulton, Justice Alito noted that “the decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops” because it hardly addresses the core issues and many more cases like it will inevitably find their way back to the Court.

American Christianity and Politics

As the American church continues to wrestle with the politicization of Christianity, Elite Source Pro has created the “God Bless the USA Bible” scheduled for distribution this September. Being marketed as “the Ultimate American Bible,” the King James Version contains texts of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, and a handwritten chorus of Lee Greenwold’s “God bless the USA.” Critics are seeing in the venture an expression of White Christian nationalism and are concerned that linking American founding texts with what they believe is inspired Scripture will inevitably cause confusion. One writer observed that not only does the mingling suggest God’s endorsement of America to the exclusion of others, but it is also unclear which texts would be authoritative in cases of conflict. Despite the political context within which this Bible is being released, Elite Source Pro’s president reportedly denied that the Bible has anything to do with current politics.

Modern-day Jonah

On a lighter (or darker) note, earlier this month, at 45 feet deep, Massachusetts diver Michael Packard suddenly found himself in the mouth of a humpback whale. Terrified and in death’s jaw, he awaited the inevitable. But about thirty seconds later, the whale surfaced and spit him out. The fascinating story reminded many of the biblical story of Jonah who, unlike Packard, was swallowed by a fish and spent three days in its belly before it expelled him along with other stomach contents. Packard had only a few bruises to show for his adventure and a heart full of gratitude for having lived to tell the tale! Hear the story first-hand here.

Time for a National Truth Bureau?

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – John 8:32

In 2018, Theresa May, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, appointed the nation’s first Minister of Loneliness. Many around the world chuckled, amused in equal parts by the novelty of the post, its title and that a nation known for its grin-and-bear-it ethic would admit to having an emotional problem. One writer likened the step to the United States’ appointing of a Secretary of Humility. May’s decision, however, did not occur in a vacuum. A study conducted a year earlier had found loneliness to be a significant mental health problem potentially costing the UK billions annually. May chose to address the challenge directly, appearances be damned.

The United States must similarly face its own modern problem: digitally-enabled mis- and dis-information. The country is awash in both and they are no longer a mere inconvenience, something to be worked around or cynically used as a tool of politics, but an existential threat that may justify the creation of a dedicated governmental organ.

The Problem

Though the definitions are politically fraught and far from universal, misinformation is generally understood as false information that is in good faith believed to be true and disinformation as the intentional distortion of information for the furtherance of some purpose. This post conflates them—d/misinformation—because in effect and common parlance the two are often inseparable and the distinction is irrelevant for its purposes; what is pertinent here is that both are false.

Jason Young of the University of Washington captured their socio-political implications and far-reaching effects when he described them as more than just “a set of incorrect facts but also … a colonizing knowledge and value system that’s designed to undermine some of our basic values as a community like trust in institutions, trust in sciences, public debate, even … our own families.” The current U.N. Special Rapporteur on the freedom of expression will also note, in her upcoming report, how d/misinformation has endangered lives worldwide by undermining democracy, human rights, sustainable development and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Most concerning in the U.S. context are its implications for national security. By exacerbating the country’s complex and multilayered divisions, fomenting extremism, and exaggerating policy differences, d/misinformation is weakening the country from within. Ordinarily, policy differences, even vast ones, would be benign and evidence of a vibrant democracy, but driven by d/misinformation they become malignant and evidence of a disintegrating one because when a society ceases to share the same facts, the basis for collective decision-making is compromised. Moreover, as already seen in 2016, the possibilities of AI-enabled d/misinformation as a tool of destabilization or warfare are staggering.

Americans are largely aware of the problem. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 68% of U.S. adults believed “made-up news and information” was negatively impacting confidence in government institutions while 54% said it was having a negative impact on people’s confidence in each other. Nearly 60% blamed politicians, 53% activist groups and, although there were partisan divides in attitudes towards the media, 36% blamed journalists, noting their practice of inserting opinion in the reporting.

Americans are also pessimistic about resolution. Although 79% believed steps must be taken to restrict d/misinformation, only one in ten thought any progress would be made in addressing it and 56% percent said it would only get worse within the next five years; only 20% viewed d/misinformation as protected speech. Interestingly, despite misgivings about the media, 53% still gave them the primary responsibility of addressing the problem.

The question now confounding academics, analysts, human rights advocates, and policymakers is how to address d/misinformation ethically and lawfully without infringing on fundamental freedoms of expression.

Because strategies like blocking websites or accounts, Internet shutdowns and so on threaten the freedoms of expression and opinion, many are focusing on increasing the regulation and accountability of tech companies and social media platforms and perhaps even creating a government agency that focuses on the regulation of the fast-changing technical dimensions of digital media. Others have emphasized community-based approaches (e.g. teaching media literacy or “information hygiene”) that leverage the resources provided by public libraries and focus on addressing the affective elements of the spread of d/misinformation.

Time for a Truth Bureau?

Given the scope of the problem and the diverse actors contributing to it, the government should also consider creating a national truth bureau whose mission would be to ensure that the public has access to factual information on consequential matters of public interest. I will acknowledge that the idea of “truth” seems utopian and belonging to theologians and philosophers, but here I’m focusing on facts, those empirically verifiable data upon which a rational society makes judgments and bases action. The name Truth Bureau is nonetheless appropriate because it captures the core idea that there are some things that are knowable—not everything is a matter of opinion.

This solution considers all information, even disinformation, protected speech (as under international human rights law, with the exceptions noted in Art. 19(3), ICCPR) and does not infringe on the freedom of expression. It does, however, require that we rethink the role of government concerning information.

Human rights law recognizes a broad “right [of people] to seek, receive and impart information” (RTI) derived from the freedom of expression (Art. 19(2), ICCPR), which is found in the national constitutions of most countries. Governments of advanced democracies have largely observed the negative obligation to respect that right by neither interfering with press freedom nor restricting people’s access to various kinds of information, but that is no longer sufficient. The unrestricted free flow of information has, through d/misinformation, become a restricting mechanism that prevents people from being well-informed, so the government must now also perceive itself as having a positive obligation to provide accurate information to ensure both the meaningful exercise of the freedom of expression and participation in democratic processes.

Tools like the U.S.’s Freedom of Information Act, India’s RTI Act, or the European Union’s Freedom of Information which focus on the provision of information concerning the government and its workings, are not built to address the present challenge.

A viable truth bureau would be established as an independent organization and its officers would be experts from various fields (not political appointees), sworn to impartiality. Unlike communications commissions, which focus mostly on high-level communications law and regulation of the media space in general, the truth bureau would focus on content and be responsible for:  

  • Disrupting d/misinformation networks. Through various channels, the bureau would use its sophisticated media presence to inject factual information into public discourses. It would issue ongoing statements, opinions, tweets, create informercials, and so on, to counter false or misleading information, careful to indicate where matters are unsettled.
  • Supporting independent journalism. The bureau would find innovative ways to support the important but struggling journalism industry. For too long, the effectiveness of traditional media as truth-tellers who check the government’s power has been compromised by (a) their concentrated corporate (and finance) ownership, which prioritize ratings and revenues at the expense of the content, diversity and quality of the news, (b) little investment in the critical and time-consuming work of journalism, and (c) the ease with which the powerful are able to access and use them to shape worldviews, change inconvenient narratives and further their interests. Now with competition from digital platforms, traditional media need help to not only stay afloat, but to also develop a sustainable model that prioritizes keeping audiences well-informed.
  • Measuring levels of disinformation and improving methods of detecting it. Given the speed with which d/misinformation travels, the Truth Bureau would create sophisticated instruments for measuring national levels of d/misinformation and keep the public aware of all available tools for fighting disinformation online. It would also address visual disinformation and Big-Tech’s algorithm driven disinformation silos or assign the responsibility to a capable entity under its oversight.
  • Making recommendations for addressing d/misinformation in various sectors. The bureau’s recommendations may include providing technical or normative guidance on (a) the regulation of tech companies, (b) how to address obstacles to press independence, or (c) whether the country needs to establish truth commissions to address long-standing social problems like racism.
  • Becoming a national resource in the fight against d/misinformation. The Bureau would employ researchers to cover various subjects, but it need not do all primary research. It may refer citizens to other appropriate sources, making sure the information is accessible in presentation and content to the average citizen. The Bureau would have a mechanism through which Americans can contact it with requests for information. If it succeeds, in the long term it would reduce the ill-effects of d/misinformation by training the population to become more sophisticated consumers of information, able to wrestle with complexity and draw their own conclusions. It would also be a model for other countries facing a similar challenge.

A Truth Bureau may share the quirky nomenclature of Theresa May’s Minister of Loneliness (which, interestingly, Japan recently adopted), but if given a chance, it may accomplish the unthinkable: begin to heal and unite a dangerously fractured nation.  

Tolerance for divided nations: Lessons from the Jews and the Samaritans

*In light of recent events in Washington, DC, and the references to Christianity in some of the reports, I am re-posting the second half of my Dec. 7, 2020 piece on intolerance. I recommend also reading the first for a fuller understanding of my take on the meaning of (in)tolerance, its dangers and the human rights issues at stake.

The story of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans began around 721 BC when ancient Israel’s northern kingdom was captured by the Assyrians. The resulting intermarriages between the Jews and the Assyrian Gentiles produced ethnically-mixed descendants who were thoroughly despised by the Jews of the southern kingdom.

By the time Jesus came onto the scene many centuries later, the Samaritan community had evolved. It had developed its own distinct ethno-religious identity and practices of worship, many of which were shaped by and in response to their rejection by the Jews. The hostility between the two communities had calcified, with prejudices running deep on both sides, but geographical realities made it impossible for them to completely avoid each other.

The New Testament records three stories in which Jesus, who was Jewish, both defined and modeled tolerance for his followers in his interactions with the Samaritans.

Christ’s model of tolerance

First, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he encountered at a well (Jn. 4:4-42), Jesus showed how tolerance is not indifferent; it respects, listens to and hears the other. For her part, the woman was clearly bothered by Jesus’s Jewishness and unable to see him apart from it. When she began to relay the religious differences between their communities, he listened. Although he disagreed with her views and firmly presented his own, he was neither contemptuous nor dismissive towards hers. As they sparred over rightful places of worship, he never ceased to see and treat her first as a person. In fact, he cared enough to tell her difficult truths about her life. By the end of their conversation, he had won her over not only through the substance of his words, but also through respect and gentle persuasion.

Second, in his story about the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), Jesus taught how tolerance is marked by love and kindness, and how it never ceases to see the good in the other. His Jewish audience was surprised that he would commend a Samaritan’s goodness above that of a priest or Levite, but such is the nature of intolerance: it stops us from seeing the good in those with whom we disagree and is content with a caricature that allows us to hold onto our prejudices. Those prejudices then prevent us from treating them with kindness. Jesus shattered the idea that kindness was to be shown only to those with whom we agree.

Third, when his request for hospitality was rejected by the Samaritans, Jesus showed how tolerance does not harm those who oppose or reject us (Lk. 9:51-56). His angry disciples, on the other hand, wanted to destroy the offending village with fire. Recognizing that their intense reaction was likely inspired by wounded pride and their own national prejudices, Jesus swiftly rebuked them before they headed off to another village. In that response, he taught that zeal for one’s beliefs or good causes never justifies the destruction of those who do not share it. If one’s offer of friendship is rejected, the proper response is to move on without anger and remain open to making or receiving another some other time.

In the preamble to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance, the U.N. General Assembly wrote of how “[the] disregard and infringement of … the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The story of the Jews and the Samaritans is a warning to nations that the divisions intolerance births do not just disappear—they only grow and under the right conditions explode.

How “(in)tolerant” are we?

“We think and let think.” –John Wesley

We all come from somewhere. And our experience and perception of the world will necessarily be determined by a complex and unique combination of biological, personal, familial, social, economic, religious (or nonreligious) and national influences. This inescapable fact of human diversity led the drafters of the core international human rights instruments to recognize freedom of thought, conscience and religion as nonderogable, and the closely-linked freedom of opinion as without exceptions or restrictions. Because of their intimate link to human personhood, these rights are considered fundamental and their violation an affront to human dignity. When they are undermined not only by the state, but through everyday practices of intolerance, deep nation-threatening divisions remain.

Unsurprisingly, responsible states have sought to protect these rights by promoting the virtues of inclusive societies that are tolerant and diverse. But with “tolerance” meaning different things to different people, it, along with “diversity,” has been elastic enough to be both practiced superficially and weaponized. In the contentious public square, tolerance has too often become an ideology that threatens the very freedoms it is designed to protect.

I. (In)Tolerance and the trouble it breeds

Defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own,” tolerance is at its heart about acknowledging and accepting that people are different. Disagreeing with or criticizing another’s views or practices is not intolerant, but refusing to acknowledge them is. To acknowledge those views and practices is to neither endorse nor support them but rather to accept them for what they are—the views and practices of others. No more, no less.

The definitional distinctions may be clear enough but the practice of tolerance is inherently delicate and uncomfortable. It not only requires that we put up with something we would rather not but that we also exercise some humility, the kind that makes us entertain the slightest possibility that not only might there be different and perhaps equally valid ways to view things but we could be wrong. Practicing tolerance is especially challenging when the views we must tolerate threaten our interests. In those cases, tolerance requires not just forbearance but courage. As Clement Rogers observed, “it is easy to be tolerant when you do not care.”

These difficulties explain why some of the most vocal proponents of tolerance are also often its most egregious abusers. Why else would the most influential cultural and educational centers increasingly accept a narrow band of ideas, prevent the exploration of reasonable contrary views, and exclude those who challenge prevailing orthodoxies from important nation-shaping conversations? Such practices not only chill and suppress freedom of opinion, they are also a coercive form of persuasion that makes these institutions what one writer called “enforcers of uniformity” rather than advocates of diversity.

Intolerance has far-reaching effects. By delegitimating the thoughts and experiences of others, it fosters feelings of rejection that lead to division. After all, if you don’t care what I think, how could you care about me? And because humans, by nature, seek belonging, the excluded will seek spaces of acceptance where they can express themselves. These spaces become their own ecosystem, developing quite apart from “the mainstream.” The longer they remain separate, the more they become to that mainstream more than just incubators of competing ideas. They become wholly other, and their contributors become “those people”—objects of contempt and derision.

This contempt, which runs both ways, is most evident in the coarsening of the national discourse as people no longer exercise restraint in communicating differences, and expressions of disagreement are personalized. Terms like “anti-intellectual” or “closed-minded” are interpreted by those to whom they are directed as euphemisms for “stupid.” The stupid, in turn, brand the intellectually “sophisticated” as “fools” who confuse sophistication with wisdom. The uncontroversial becomes controversial as disagreements cease to be about issues and ideas but about sticking it to the other side and injuring those we believe reject and despise us. In the process, “those people” may indeed become radicalized.

In this volatile climate, it may not be long before one side views the other as sub-human and possibly worthy of elimination. Without effective interventions, it may be only a matter of time before the right circumstances call for it.

II. Masterclass in tolerance: Jesus and the Samaritans

The story of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans began around 721 BC when ancient Israel’s northern kingdom was captured by the Assyrians. The resulting intermarriages between the Jews and the Assyrian Gentiles produced ethnically-mixed descendants who were thoroughly despised by the Jews of the southern kingdom.

By the time Jesus came onto the scene many centuries later, the Samaritan community had evolved. It had developed its own distinct ethno-religious identity and practices of worship, many of which were shaped by and in response to their rejection by the Jews. The hostility between the two communities had calcified, with prejudices running deep on both sides, but geographical realities made it impossible for them to completely avoid each other. The New Testament records three stories in which Jesus, who was Jewish, both defined and modeled tolerance in his interactions with the Samaritans. Divided societies may find it worthy of emulation.

Christ’s model of tolerance

First, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he encountered at a well (Jn. 4:4-42), Jesus showed how tolerance is not indifferent; it respects, listens to and hears the other. Clearly bothered by Jesus’s Jewishness and unable to see him apart from it, the woman began to relay the religious differences between their communities. He listened. Although he disagreed with her views and firmly presented his own, he was neither contemptuous nor dismissive towards hers. As they sparred over rightful places of worship, he never ceased to see and treat her first as a person. In fact, he cared enough to tell her difficult truths about her life. By the time the conversation was over, he had won her over not only through the substance of his words, but also through respect and gentle persuasion.

Second, in his story about the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), Jesus taught how tolerance, which never ceases to see the good in the other, is marked by love and kindness. His Jewish audience was surprised that he would commend a Samaritan above a priest and Levite for his good deeds, but such is the nature of intolerance: it stops us from seeing the good in those with whom we disagree and is content with a caricature that allows us to hold onto our prejudices. Those prejudices then prevent us from treating them with kindness. Jesus shattered the idea that kindness was to be shown only to those with whom we agree.

Third, when his request for hospitality was rejected by the Samaritans, Jesus showed how tolerance does not harm the opposition (Lk. 9:51-56). His angry disciples, however, wanted to destroy the offending village. Recognizing that their intense reaction was likely inspired by wounded pride and their own national prejudices, Jesus swiftly rebuked them before they headed off to another village. In that response, he taught that zeal for one’s beliefs or good causes never justifies the destruction of those who do not share it. If one’s offer of friendship is rejected, the proper response is to move on yet remain open to making or receiving another some other time.

In the preamble to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance, the U.N. General Assembly wrote of how “[the] disregard and infringement of … the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The story of the Jews and the Samaritans is a warning to nations that the divisions intolerance births do not just disappear—they only grow and, under the right conditions, explode.

Voting Christian

The Hebrew Bible records that while camped at Gilgal after crossing the Jordan River, Joshua encountered a warrior with a drawn sword. Aware that he was in a hot zone, Joshua asked him whose side he was on, the Israelites’ or their enemies’. “Neither,” the man replied, identifying himself as “commander of the army of the Lord.” Joshua then recognized the warrior’s divinity and fell on his face in reverence.

In that critical moment, right before the Battle of Jericho, the warrior reminded Joshua of three important principles that have implications for how Christians vote.

First, God is not a member of any political party or national military organization. He may have been involved in Joshua’s battles, but he was not just another player in the wars of the period; he was and remained above them all. To reduce him to a political player was to misunderstand him. This independence is evident in the life of Jesus Christ. Though neither contrarian by disposition nor opposed to the existence of political parties or interest groups in principle, he was not a member of any political (or religious) group. Given the weaknesses inherent in human institutions, he recognized that wholesale unquestioned alignment with any faction would likely compromise his vision and endanger his unique mission. He was thus fiercely and unapologetically independent in his views, addressing contentious and complex politico-religious issues carefully, on a case-by-case basis, guided by love for God and people and a commitment to truth. Where his views aligned with those of a faction, the alignment was incidental and only to the degree to which the latter were in agreement with his guiding principles.

His case-by-case approach suggests that voting Christians must do the hard work of assessing candidates, analyzing their positions on a wide range of issues and carefully selecting those whose views and character most closely align with biblical priorities, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation. The strategy seems unwise given the dominance of party politics and its paralyzing effect on the function of governing bodies, but it is nonetheless the Christian way and in the long term probably the most effective way to prevent the further entrenchment of destructive partisanship.   

Second, God does not serve human purposes, humans serve his. Before realizing with whom he was speaking, Joshua took the warrior for a potential tool, someone he might use to further his military and political agenda. The man quickly disabused him of that idea—God could not be used. He had his own agenda and it was Joshua’s task to get on that. In politics, the tendency to want to use God (his name, people, language and principles) for the furtherance of some transient political goal is as common as daisies. In their voting, Christians have a responsibility to enlighten those who might hold cynical views of Christian utility by not allowing themselves or the faith to be used as an instrument of destructive politics. Christians are to use the political process to advance God’s purposes for government, the core of which is the protection of human wellbeing.

Third, Christians must make a choice. Joshua learned in the brief exchange that his campaign was but one battle in a major war, and it was he, not the warrior who was clearly on a mission, who had to pick a side. Joshua chose to humble himself and follow God, but that was only the beginning of what would be a protracted struggle. Elections are similarly only a beginning, an important battle in a much bigger war. The hard work of shaping and building a better nation remains after we have cast our ballots. To avoid getting lost in the ongoing culture wars, stuck in the mire that can become advocating and advancing myriad causes, or simply being exhausted by the opposition, Christians are asked, from the onset, to choose to follow God and remain committed to him until the work is done.

A “great” nation: Lesson from King Solomon

“[Country] will cease to be great when it ceases to be good” -Alexis de Tocqueville

Back in graduate school, I was often struck by how much our discussions of international affairs revolved around the idea of “power”—hard power—understood in terms of economic and military might, not the “soft power” of norms, values and ideals. The nations of our conversations became chess pieces in constant competition, propelled by “power” (or the desire thereof) and a yearning to “win.” The people who constituted them—individuals with moral agency capable of making choices based on something other than self-interest and power—became the chess board, an unavoidable but separate and passive backdrop. The dominance of the power narrative and the decoupling of nation from people guaranteed the conflation, even outside the classroom, of “greatness” with military and economic power. A 10th century Hebrew king, for good reason, begged to differ.

“Righteousness makes a nation great,” wrote Solomon. The fabled king came to this rather interesting conclusion during ancient Israel’s Golden Age when the nation was enjoying unprecedented peace and prosperity. He had centralized power in Jerusalem in efforts to promote tribal unity, struck numerous (though sometimes questionable) alliances with neighboring nations for political and commercial purposes, adjudicated civil cases, maintained a formidable army, overseen the nation’s first maritime expeditions, built a grand temple unparalleled in its time, and written thousands of songs and proverbs. With Israel’s economic, military and cultural life flourishing, Solomon became so famous that foreign rulers traveled from afar to have an audience with him. They were dazzled by his legendary wisdom.

But there was a problem. Never satisfied, given to luxury and excess (think gold-plated floors, gilded cedar and 700 wives), and seemingly driven by a desire to outdo everyone, including David his esteemed father, Solomon’s Israel was rotting from the core. In a single generation, the nation that had become the envy of the known world saw the conscription of workers for the construction of extensive vanity projects, cessation of territory, growth of resentment and division rooted in burdensome taxation and income inequality among Israel’s classes, and most notably the loss of Israel’s worship and distinctiveness. By the end of his 40-year reign, Solomon had, through his policies, radically changed the essence of the nation he had inherited and a painful disintegration was underway.

What is the righteousness that makes a nation great?

It was within this context that this larger-than-life figure concluded that righteousness, not commercial achievement or military might, was both the path to and substance of national greatness. The idea seems foreign, naïve, even radical in our post-modern neo-realist world because “righteousness” is an intimate term that seems better suited for personal not national relations, and belonging to religion and “the religious.” We can readily appreciate the idea of a righteous person—the morally upright type that those of us who are keenly aware of our imperfections respect from afar. But a righteous nation? The idea was conceivable in Solomon’s thinking because to him nations could not be decoupled from the people in them—nations were people. That meant they could be judged by the same measures used to judge the individuals who constitute them, and that also meant righteousness was an appropriate term in evaluating national behavior.

Solomon’s understanding of the righteousness that makes a nation great has three important prongs:

First, righteousness demands justice. A great nation will recognize the importance of justice and take it seriously. Justice is more than “law and order;” it involves embracing just principles and action, giving all their due and oppressing no one. The institutions/courts of a great nation administer justice impartially, and in everyday dealings people are treated equitably regardless of their social standing. Great nations recognize the corrosiveness of injustice and how the denial of rights undermines trust, breeds bitterness and thins the fabric of a nation. No matter how great its military arsenal, an unjust nation is inherently weak because it is the proverbial house that is divided against itself.

Second, righteousness values ethics. A great nation will protect its norms. Born of years of shared history, experience, negotiation and a general sense of right and wrong, norms reflect the shared values that promote social cohesion. Much like plaster binds together the pieces of a mosaic, norms give citizens that important sense that “we are in this together.” In stable democracies, norms are so embedded in the national psyche that they are taken for granted. For instance, even though elected politicians continue to be distrusted the world over, citizens still expect (or hope) they will maintain some sense of moral judgment in their decision making; that they will not intentionally mislead the public; and that they will work for the betterment of the people not themselves. As these norms hold, the politicians feel the pressure of the expectation and order their dealings (or the perception thereof) as close to the norm as possible.

When norms decay through neglect or the failure to hold violators accountable, corruption, division and chaos soon follow as happened in Solomon’s Israel. Unlike David, Solomon taught the people to prioritize material wealth over communal relations, which resulted in the unfair distribution of wealth and social division, and to view worship as a commodity tradable for political favors, which led to idolatry. Slowly but surely, swept by the politics of expediency and optimism, the people accepted the “new normal” partly because enough of them were blinded by material prosperity and unable to appreciate the cost of the erosion of norms until it was too late. 

Third, righteousness values truth. A great nation will practice what it preaches in domestic and foreign affairs. It will act with integrity, honor its commitments to other nations, compete fairly, and win opponents over by persuasion and good example not by threats and bullying. When it errs, as all do, it will acknowledge its shortcomings and work hard to regain trust and respect.

It is clear from the preceding that the righteousness that leads to a nation’s greatness remains aspirational for most countries. To attain it, nations (that is, the people who constitute them) must both desire and work for it. But most important, Solomon’s story shows how the greatness of a nation is inextricably tied to its leadership: unrighteous leadership cannot a great nation make, but it can a great nation break.  

Turning cheeks and tables: A Christian response to racism

I remember walking into an interview room a few years ago and being greeted with a look of surprise and disappointment. The interviewer who earlier in our phone conversation had sounded excited to meet me was anything but. I smiled politely then sat through a hostile interview that felt like an interrogation. As I sat there wondering if I should get up and leave and risk confirming a stereotype, I hoped against hope that I would say something that might, even for a moment, make the interviewer seriously consider me for the opportunity he seemed to have already determined I was unworthy. No such moment came. I knew I had experienced one of many challenges that racial and ethnic minorities endure daily around the world. I accepted it and moved on. But the death of George Floyd has been a reminder that although the fight against racial prejudice and its effects can be exhausting, passive acceptance is not and cannot be an option, especially for Christians.

I. The scourge of racism

Racism in all its manifestations continues to be among the world’s deadliest human rights problems. It kills in ways small and large, visible and invisible, and people of African descent continue to bear the brunt of the scourge. Not only are they disproportionately affected by all leading causes of death because they lag far behind in income and education, the everyday discrimination they face—through indignities like receiving poorer service in a restaurant; being threatened or harassed; being treated as unintelligent and with suspicion and less courtesy and respect than others; and so on—is resulting in their having poorer mental health and possibly killing them prematurely. For them racism is death by a thousand cuts. Some researchers are also arguing that by reducing levels of trust and mutual reciprocity (social capital) in communities, racial prejudice may be increasing the risk of premature mortality for black and white Americans. Indeed racism may be killing us all.

The limits of policy and legislation

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the conversation in the United States continued to revolve around familiar themes: racial discrimination in policing,  disparities in employment, healthcare, education, and so on. In response to widespread protests, the U.S. Senate debated an anti-lynching bill, Minnesota banned chokeholds, companies issued statements against racism, Washington DC painted “Black Lives Matter” on a street leading to the White House, and many worn suggestions regarding better policing were passed around. All gestures were encouraging and welcome in a country that was angry, hurting and struggling to come back to life as COVID-19 lingered.

The global protests that followed confirmed that the United States is not alone in its struggles with racism. Exacerbated by immigration and rapidly changing demographics, racism is prevalent in Latin America (e.g. Brazil, Chile), the Middle East (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia), Asia (e.g. China, India), Europe (e.g. Germany, United Kingdom, Nordic countries), North Africa, and Australia. Despite the ubiquity of national laws against racial discrimination, supplemented at the international institutional level through instruments like the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to which 182 countries are party, recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and ongoing programs like the UN-led International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), evidence of racism abounds worldwide.

These tough realities make one thing clear: policy and legislative proposals have limits. They may regulate or stop some acts or manifestations of racism, but they cannot eradicate all conceivable acts because they do not address the attitudes and ideas that produce them.

II. Why racism is difficult to eradicate

The fact that racism (and its close relative ethnic prejudice) have persisted throughout recorded history raises the obvious question—why? No blog post, certainly not this one, can fully address this question. Here I highlight just three reasons, based primarily on a biblical understanding of complex human nature and supported by views in psychology and anthropology.

First, there is within the fabric of humanity a desire, rooted in pride and insecurity, to be or feel “better than” or superior to others. Because hierarchy requires differences to which we can attach notions of superiority and inferiority, those seeking supremacy will find differences (real, superficial or manufactured), magnify them, and interpret them in ways most advantageous to themselves. And race—understood here in terms of skin color—is a powerful and convenient attribute and tool in the quest for superiority. This desire to be unequal is evident even within largely racially homogenous communities. One need only look at the role of skin color in India’s caste system and Brazil and Venezuela’s so-called “pigmentocracy” for contemporary examples. These examples and indeed sub-Saharan Africa’s tribalism demonstrate how efforts that focus on challenging the viability of the very concept of race, though intellectually robust, are unlikely to overcome the power of “difference” inherent in skin color or other random attribute (be it a physical feature, religion, social class, geographical location, or even diet) in the quest for supremacy.

Movements that advocate “equality” are thus pitting ideology against primal weakness. This invariably means the fight against racism will be long and hard, with no guarantees of success.  

Second, human fear and greed feed into the unending competition for power and access to scarce resources, and racism satisfies both. It soothes fear by ensuring that the racially (and ethnically) privileged retain as much political and economic control as possible and justifies greed by allowing them to view their disproportionate benefits as deserved. Psychologically, racist societies become like the con man who cannot afford to let up because he lives with the fear of being found out and perhaps being forced to relinquish some of his spoils. Thus to maintain the status quo, racist societies must contain threats by employing diverse tools of exclusion and subjugation to (a) ensure that “the inferior” remain “in their place”, (b) reinforce the “better-than-ness” supremacists seek, and (c) produce results or “evidence” to sustain the supremacy thesis. The evidence is then used to justify further racial prejudice and injustice, and round and round the destructive loop we go.

Third, like most ruinous human tendencies, racism hides well by hardening the conscience. Its effects can be likened to the stench in the house that we no longer (or pretend not to) smell because we have lived in it too long and know that identifying and addressing its source will prove more cumbersome than we would like. The fact that racist acts manifest globally, in places hallowed and low, perpetrated by liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, the cultured and uncultured, Christians and non-Christians, and those who would swear they are not racists highlights not only how well racism hides but also how it petrifies the conscience. This petrification allows communities to accept facts about racial disparities in various social, political, educational and economic outcomes as “normal” rather than as aberrant or possibly even evidence of injustice. The normalization creates an empathy gap that makes it possible to believe and indeed be at peace with the idea that the “inferior” are built for hardship; they can endure the daily slights and other challenges that are not wished upon others with the forbearance of a yoked cow. In societies with this perverse comfort with racism not even sensational tragedy can inspire the deep reforms needed to address it.

III. The Christian duty and distinction in the fight for racial justice and harmony

Because legislation and policy options cannot address these deep-seated, very human problems, Christians have an important role to play in addressing racism. But first, it is important to acknowledge that Christians have a mixed record in this regard. American Christians, for instance, continue to be divided by race in their views and attitudes about race relations, and Christians from all segments of the Church have been, in one way or another, complicit in their degradation. Christians have, in various periods, decontextualized biblical passages and used the Bible’s honest presentation of racism, ethnic prejudice and other morally wrongful conduct to support the existence and perpetuation of practices like slavery, miscegenation and racial segregation. By sanctioning these practices, the Church gave them moral and spiritual legitimacy, exacerbating racial tensions and injustice while also pacifying victims’ calls for change. On the other hand, Christians were instrumental in ending the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and continue to be active in their manifold professions and roles in countless civil/human rights efforts aimed at addressing various injustices.

Despite these inconsistencies, Christians continue to bear the Bible-based burden of being standard-setters who model a non-racial society within the church and a revolutionary force that aids the world in addressing racial injustice and disharmony outside the church.

The Church as a model of a non-racial community

Early Christians wrestled with issues of discrimination based on ethnicity, social class, culture, nationality, language and religion. Whether it was Grecian versus Hebraic Jews or Jews versus Gentiles, then as now, the problem was rooted in their failure to place their identity as Christians above all others. In New Testament theology, the only identity that matters for Christians is being “in Christ.” In Christ, personal characteristics such as race/color, sex, social class, gender, marital status, profession, nationality, and so on cease to be defining; they simply become diverse attributes through which each believer expresses his or her Christian identity. In other words, before they are anything else, Christians are Christians first. If properly understood and embraced, that core identity infuses and animates all others, preventing Christians from accepting and acting on racist ideologies, and restraining those who may be targets of various forms of racial prejudice from responding in ways that do not comport with Christ’s character.

Before they are anything else, Christians are Christians first.”

With Christianity prioritizing love and the kinship of humankind, the faith rejects ideas like white or ethnic supremacy. In fact, with its emphasis on service, Christianity encourages submission of self not the subjugation of another found at the core of racism and related forms of prejudice. And given its recognition of the value of every human as a being made in the image of God, the Church is to be a model of love, service and mutual submission triumphing over division. Together these doctrinal positions make Christianity especially suited to the task of racial reconciliation.

The Christian duty to aid racial reconciliation outside the Church

For Christians who embrace the primacy of the Christian identity, the challenge of aiding racial reconciliation outside the Church begins with recognizing that the world may not necessarily share the same beliefs, texts and priorities of the faith. Christians may thus be unable to transform the conscience, but they can influence it for good in their responses to everyday racism. Those responses involve (a) discernment and (b) action—discerning the source of the acts of racism one may be experiencing and acting accordingly.

Discernment is probably the most challenging aspect of the Christian’s response. Often a product of maturity and experience, it requires that Christians slow down enough, even in the heat of confrontation, to assess the source of the offensive act(s). Sometimes the source is indeed a visceral belief in racial or ethnic supremacy, but sometimes it is not. In communities with poor race relations it is easy to assume that any tensions between people of different races must necessarily have racist elements, but some acts are simply the product of ignorance, fear, insecurity, arrogance or misunderstanding. For instance, when a police officer angrily confronted me as I sat quietly in a coffee shop reading about a European terror group, I recognized the ignorance and assumptions behind the confrontation. And although I was not oblivious to the racial dynamics that may have also been in play and certain my reading selection was not his concern, I somehow stayed calm enough to tell him I was doing research for a law professor. His face softened and we both smiled (admittedly uncomfortable smiles). One thing was clear: in everyday encounters, correctly identifying the source could make the difference between violence and peace, freedom and incarceration, or indeed life and death.

Action, the second step, is indispensable. Once the source of the offensive act is discerned, Christians must act. The ignorant should be informed, the fearful and insecure encouraged and the supremacists resisted in ways covert and overt. In responding, Christians, both targets and observers of racism, have two options: turning the cheek or, in righteous anger, turning tables.

Turning the cheek may be the right course when the perpetrator proves too blind, immature, ignorant or arrogant to be corrected. This may mean simply humbling oneself, biting the tongue and walking away from fruitless confrontation. It always involves forgiving the affront because without forgiveness all that remains is anger and bitterness, dangerous emotions that only feed racial disharmony.

The tables, however, must be flipped over when the injustices or indignities of racism are so egregious or have risen to the point that they deeply offend or shock the conscience. This may involve employing the wide range of tools of civil/non-violent disobedience, legal action, advocacy, and so on. All actions require courage.

What Christians do not have is the luxury to sit out the fight against racism. Opting out because we (a) have been perpetrators of racist acts in the past and disqualify ourselves, (b) do not believe we can make a difference, (c) fear being rejected by our families or communities, or (d) do not want to be involved in something that is inherently ugly and risky is not an option because none of these reasons overcomes the Christian imperative to resist evil. And make no mistake about it—racism is evil.


COVID-19’s Global Impact

The novel coronavirus is impacting almost all areas of human life. Below are some useful reports and analyses on how the virus is affecting global politics, human rights, health and economics.

Global Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing long simmering tensions between the United States and China. As the U.S. death toll continues to rise, the finger-pointing and blaming between the leading countries is spilling over and having a negative impact on international efforts to contain the pandemic. In A Modern Tragedy? COVID-19 and U.S.-China Relations a Brookings scholar analyzes this dangerous problem.

Human Rights

A series of human rights concerns have emerged since the outbreak of COVID-19. The most significant are hate speech and crimes directed at racial groups, migrants and refugees thought to be sources of the virus and the promulgation of ideas that the elderly are expendable, their lives an acceptable cost in efforts to restart economies. The U.N. released the policy brief The Impact of COVID-19 on Older Persons and the Secretary General issued an Appeal to Address and Counter COVID-19 Hate Speech to address the problems.

Global Economy

The global economy has been and continues to be devastated by the virus. The International Monetary Fund released a report, World Economic Outlook, April 2020: The Great Lockdown, analyzing COVID-19’s impact on the world’s economic activity and what could happen if mitigation efforts fail or succeed. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs published a policy brief that details the impact of the pandemic on Europe and implications for the rest of the world. And, the International Labor Organization published a paper COVID-19 and the World of Work that analyzes the virus’ impact on workers in different sectors of the economy throughout the world.

Food Insecurity

With high unemployment rates and disruptions in supply chains, access to food during and after the COVID-19 health crisis is no longer just a concern in less economically developed countries. Europe’s virus-driven economic crisis has reportedly resulted in the same concerns. In the United States, there is already evidence of increased food insecurity, particularly in households with young children. The World Food Programme now estimates that over 250 million people will become food insecure partly because of the pandemic. This number is double that originally reported in the pre-COVID-19 Global Report on Food Crises 2020.

Global Health

Most health and economics experts agree that the speed with which the world recovers will depend on how effectively the medical realities of the virus are addressed. To that end, doctors, scientists and researchers throughout the world are working hard to understand the virus and develop a vaccine. The University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy is one such group. Their report, The future of the COVID-19 Pandemic, is worth reading.

Addressing COVID-19 in Africa

Poverty complicates things. As Africa sees an increase in COVID-19 cases, it is already apparent that to avoid catastrophic outcomes the continent will require a much more robust, even different approach from that employed in the West. The challenges richer states are experiencing in containing the virus are leading some governments in poorer states to employ somewhat overly aggressive measures in their efforts. The logic is clear: they have high numbers of poor people and fragile health systems that cannot handle serious outbreaks, so containing the virus quickly is paramount.

One of the biggest challenges facing poor countries is that social distancing and handwashing—the primary means required to slow the spread of the virus—are not easily implementable. Social distancing, for instance, is difficult in high density areas where it is not uncommon for numerous households to reside in a single room, and regular handwashing may be complicated in some areas by limited access to clean water. Moreover, with many of these states already having high unemployment rates and few, if any, social safety nets, shut downs may dangerously compromise access to food and essential services. And, because the poor cannot afford not to work, there is a real risk, in the long term, of the cure becoming deadlier than the virus.

Given these realities, in addition to testing, contact tracing, and isolating cases, there are two additional measures that will benefit African countries: (1) continuing humanitarian (and especially) food assistance and (2) debt relief for the poorest. The former will require that African governments ease movement restrictions, so that organizations like the World Food Program can continue to have access to areas most in need and the latter will free up resources so states can focus on fighting the pandemic. Both require international cooperation at a time when it is deeply strained and a global economic recession is already underway. Yet without it, we all remain vulnerable.