Such an alliance has deep roots in the three intellectual and moral traditions of Christianity, Islam, and socialism. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, liberationist tendencies have been present from the beginning. From the ancient scriptures of Israel, we learn that God was experienced by Moses as a God who acts in history in defense of the oppressed, and God called upon the people of Israel to develop a just society unlike other nations. But during the course of time, Israel developed a kingdom, becoming like other nations. Some prophets, like Amos, denounced the turn from the Mosaic covenant. But others, like Isaiah, justified the kingdom. Thus a duality emerged between a religion accommodated to kingdoms and empires, and a purer religion that stood for social justice. This duality persisted in Christianity, with popes of the European Middle Ages allied with kings, but with some priests and nuns establishing religious orders, seeking religious purity. The duality expressed itself in Latin America, where the Church was allied with the Latin American estate bourgeoisie, but Latin American liberation theology proclaimed a God who, in the struggle between the rich and the poor, is on the side of the poor (Anderson 1986; Gutierrez 1973, 1983).
In the Islamic tradition, similar dual tendencies prevailed. The initial Islamic community formed by the prophet Mohammed was a political-religious community that possessed a social project involving the construction of a righteous community. But Muslims lost this purity, and there emerged empires with corrupt rulers who lived lavishly and oppressed the people, thus provoking movements for a restoration of Islamic purity. The restoration movements often possessed reactionary manifestations, such as literal interpretation of sacred texts, or rejection of inquiry based on reason rather than revelation. But movements for Islamic renewal sometimes had social revolutionary expression, as was reflected in “Islamic socialism” and in Islamic alliances with the international communist movement (Ansary 2009: passim; Schulze 2000:32-35, 51).
The tension between exploitative and emancipatory tendencies in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam expressed itself in the context of societies that integrated religion and politics, so that political discourse was shaped by religious tradition. Kings and emperors justified and legitimated their conduct with reference to religious values, and prophets critical of them also based their condemnations in religious tradition and sacred texts.
The democratic revolutions of the West severed this integration of politics and religion, creating the modern separation of religion and state and a secular political discourse, for the most part. But societies and their political discourses must have a foundation in some system of values. In the modern era, this function was fulfilled by democratic values, which affirmed that all individuals have rights. The democratic affirmation of the equal rights of all was a great step forward for humanity. However, in focusing on the individual, democratic theory severed persons from the social organism, and freed the state from social responsibility.
Led by a rising merchant class that sought to claim political and legal equality with the nobility, the democratic revolutions at first proclaimed merely political and civil rights. But popular movements from below sought to reestablish political responsibility toward society, and they thus forged an expansion of the meaning of democracy to include the protection of social and economic rights. Later movements of the colonized peoples of the world expanded social responsibility to a global scale, and thus formulated a concept of democracy to include respect for the rights of nations to self-determination, sovereignty, and development. Thus the democratic values that shape contemporary global political discourse have become comprehensive: they include the responsibility of the state to protect the political, civil, social and economic rights of citizens, and to respect the rights of nations to self-determination, sovereignty and development. In their contemporary formulation, democratic values affirm the responsibility of the state toward society.
These democratic values have been codified in various documents of the United Nations. They can appropriately be called “universal human values,” inasmuch as they have been affirmed by the nations of the world, regardless of region, language, culture or religion (see “Universal human values” 4/16/2014).
The universal human values proclaimed by humanity are the contemporary counterpart in the world-system to the sacred texts and moral traditions that provided moral rules of conduct for political elites in ancient Israel and in the Christian and Islamic kingdoms and empires of the pre-modern era. They have the similar function of constraining the conduct of the powerful, calling them to act with justice toward the people, for the well-being of society. And they have a similar content: treat justly and tend to the needs of the people, especially the poor and the vulnerable; and treat with justice and respect the rights of all neighboring nations. Just as the kings and emperors of the pre-modern era often ignored the moral obligations of religions tradition, the global elites of the world-system today ignore universal human values. And just as the prophets in ancient times condemned the apostasy of the rulers, so in the modern era secular prophets have emerged that have condemned the global elite for its violation of the universal human values that humanity has proclaimed.
The Third World socialist project that has emerged during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries repeatedly affirms universal human values, both in theory and practice. Like the liberationist tendencies of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition, the Third World project calls forth leaders who live modestly, who govern with wisdom, who develop policies in defense of the poor and the needy, who seek justice for their peoples, and who cooperate with neighboring nations to create a sustainable world-system.
Meanwhile, religion has not been relegated to the past. Even as political discourse has become secular, the people continue with religious beliefs and practices. Today, the majority of people on the planet are believers in one religion or another. And from the vantage point of their religious values, they criticize the conduct of global elites, joining the Third World socialist leaders in the chorus of denunciation of the immoral conduct of the global elite.
An example of the denunciation of global elites from a religious perspective is found in the discourses of Pope Francis. In recent posts, we have seen a number of convergences between the Pope and the Third World project with respect to particular issues: the moral obligation to reduce poverty and inequality, the right of the nations of the world to self-determination and to development, the need for a democratic reform of the United Nations and of the global financial infrastructure, the human duty to protect nature, the rejection of militarism and the search for peaceful settlement of differences among nations, and the development of international relations on a foundation of solidarity and consensus (see “Pope Francis: A progressive discourse” 12/11/2015; “Pope speaks for nature and the excluded” 12/12/2015; “Pope Francis: Care for our Common Home” 12/1/4/2015).
As I noted in a previous post (“Pope speaks for nature and the excluded” 12/12/2015), the Pope hopes for the development of a more just world through a turn of political leaders toward fidelity to fundamental moral principles, whereas the Third World movements and governments see the issue as political, as requiring the taking of power by popular movements. This difference reflects the fact that the Pope is a head of a church and is not a political leader or a chief of state. But in spite of this difference in views with respect to the process of social change, the progressive religious perspective of the Pope and Third World socialism have the same fundamental goals. Progressive religious movements and Third World Socialism can be allies in the global struggle against capitalism in its neoliberal stage.
Progressive Christianity, progressive Islam, and Third World socialism have in common a rejection of the global neoliberal economic war against the poor, the military interventions by the global powers, economic and cultural imperialism, ideological manipulations, irrational consumerism, and indifference to the wounds inflicted upon nature and the excluded and impoverished of the planet. The three intellectual and moral traditions stand in opposition to the savagery of an unsustainable capitalist world-system in full decadence. Their cooperation in global political alliance is indispensable for ensuring a sustainable future for humanity.
Anderson, Bernhard W. 1986. Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Ansary, Tamim. 2009. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1973. A Theology of Liberation, English translation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.
__________. 1983. The Power of the Poor in History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Schulze, Reinhard. 2000. A Modern History of the Islamic World. New York: New York University Press.
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