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On Human Identity

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mandelaEarly in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’


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