Many of the world’s religious leaders in attendance at the Parliament of World Religions taking place in Melbourne, Australia, are in partial mourning for the dream of a new world that President Obama promised, and decisively torpedoed in his announcement of major escalation of military forces in Afghanistan. While the conference sessions have officially ignored current political developments, the hallways are filled with heated discussions of the widespread disillusionment with Obama.
For political activists, the issue of Afghan escalation is primarily framed in terms of Obama’s failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam : one cannot win a war against a population that has been fighting for many decades for its own independence. No matter what America’s stated war aims, the people of Afghanistan perceive the American military presence as generating far more violence and destruction than they faced before the U.S. got involved.
For feminists anxious to protect the rights of women, the capitulation to Islamic fundamentalism in its treatment and denial of rights to women by the current Afghani government which America is pledged to support undermines any picture of the US actually providing a long-term strategy that would defend women’s rights.
And for working and poor people in the US who are told that serious health care reform would not only hurt the interests of the health insurance corporations and the medical profiteers (poor dears!) but also increase the deficit at a time when it must be reduced, the willingness to put hundreds of billions of dollars into war making with the deficit suddenly forgotten makes many wonder about distorted priorities once again.
For the religious leaders of the world assembled in Melbourne Australia for the Parliament, all these issues are quite salient. Yet what comes most directly to mind for many is the fundamental warp in the Obama Administration’s understanding of what could actually succeed in providing homeland security.
One reason many global religious leaders celebrated the outcome of the 2008 election was the perception fostered by the Obama campaign that the new President really understood that militarism and the use of force to achieve American objectives should be relegated to the dustbin of history, at least until every non-violent strategy has been exhaustively tried. We believed we had heard a clear message that Obama recognized the need to end global poverty and the suffering it has generated as the first step that must be given time to work before military options are embraced.
That approach was given teeth by the vice chair of the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison, who has worked with the Network of Spiritual Progressives to develop a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan (DGMP). The DGMP would have the US take the leadership in bringing the advanced industrial societies of the world to commit 1-2% of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education inadequate health care, and to repair the global environment.
It seemed obvious to religious leaders that the meltdown of the global economy and the obvious role played by the ethos of selfishness and materialism presented the new President with a once in a lifetime opportunity to remake the global economy in ways that would redistribute wealth to the poor, thereby generating the very consumer demands that could rebuild the global marketplace by taking the monies that were not being spent and putting it in the hands of those whose immediate needs for food, clothing, housing and basic material needs would generate a global economic revival and end unemployment.
But the only way that could happen would be for the Obama Administration to have put its full energy behind a new approach to homeland security. Obama would have had to teach Americans that lasting security could come from generosity, whereas the strategy of domination of others had proved futile and a guaranteed loser.
Even when Obama started pouring trillions into the hands of Wall Street banks and investment firms there was still a hope in the religious world that he would remain faithful to the peace-oriented insights he had articulated during his campaign.
No wonder then that the global religious leaders convening in Melbourne are expressing dismay to each other. They have long known what Obama seems not yet to have absorbed in a serious way: that the path to peace must be a path of peace, and that you cannot bomb and kill your way to security. This simple insight is the one thing shared by most of the world’s religious traditions, and it is to testify to the path of peace that thousands of religious leaders are assembled here to affirm a truth that Obama and the world must take seriously.