By Fr. Bud Grant
Ebola in Liberia, Boku Haram abducting Nigerian girls, Venezuelan election corruption, Ukraine at war with pro-Russians (and Russians), rebels shooting down a Malaysian passenger flight, Israeli killing of hundreds of civilian Palestinians — even those in UN sanctuary — Argentina defaulting (again), Turkey’s deputy prime minister telling women not to smile in public, a Somali woman killed for having her head uncovered, Congress still denying climate change, Libya’s post-Kadafi government collapsing, Iraqi Christians expelled by a self-styled ISIS caliphate, refugee children caught in political infighting. This litany of global woes was recited to me ex tempore by a friend whose job it is to monitor such things. He concluded anxiously, as if innocent of the fact that I am a few decades older than him, “have you ever experienced a worse year?”
In fact, I have often thought that today’s news sounds vaguely familiar, as if the media merely recycle tropes (beached whales, shark attacks, sex trafficking) to demonstrate the aphorism that “history repeats itself.” But listening to my friend I found myself doubting my own cynicism: maybe this is the worst I’ve known.
But, wondering aloud, I suspect that much of the horrible news we are reeling under represents the last gasp of a wasted effort to resist modernism (or what ardent ideologues would call “Western ideas”). In other words, the very violence of these outbreaks may be an expression of the desperate frustrations of those who intuit that theirs is a lost cause.
One might be sympathetic to them. Don’t those on the receiving end of colonialism-imperialism-globalism have some right to express their outrage at this centuries’ long assault on their cultural independence? Demonstrably, these “developing world” societies have not fared well: resources exploited by multi-nationals, economic opportunities deliberately restricted, political borders arbitrarily drawn, tribal traditions eroded by Western-saturated film, music and fashion. Even here, many are anxious that we, too, have lost something essential in the mad rush toward capitalist, consumerist, secularist excess. Is Christianity any less threatened than is Islam, Hinduism, tribalism?
But we have not yet gotten to the core of this spiral of ethical complexity. Consider that those protesting against Western influence are, typically, powerful men. Among the most fundamental threats these men fear is that their women and girls will taste liberation from indigenous oppression. Many global woes are essentially assaults on women, girls and “mother” earth.
I am empathetic to the tragedy of the loss of ancient tribal cultures and native religious experience, but the crux of the crisis is less West vs. non-Western than hegemonic male vs. everyone else. One essential solution is to extend to women education, health care and economic opportunity. Should powerful men feel threatened by this?
A few years ago I visited a village in India where women were offered loans through a Catholic Church agency. We Americans sat outside on benches. Children, then women, were seated on the ground facing us. The men formed a standing phalanx to the rear. Monkeys leapt in the branches above and hobbled water buffalo moaned in their cuds. We were regaled with stories of how the Grameen-like system was improving the whole community. Note: only women could get loans and only women served on the loan-granting board. Through a translator I dared to joke: “since this is working so well, what do you need men for?” For a scary moment there was silence, and then a bubbling wash of laughter rose to the spangled night sky, somehow making the stars shine the brighter. Even the men tossed back their heads in glee.
If we are to conquer the seemingly relentless and overwhelming forces of violence that sprawl across the world, from regional war to global warming, it will be because we recognize rights and empower women to take their place in the governance of our communities … including religious ones.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)