More than 2,500 years ago the Greek historian Herodotus observed that if anyone were given the opportunity of choosing from among all the nations of the world the best set of beliefs, he would inevitably choose those of his own country. Herodotus further asserted that everyone believes his own native customs and religion to be the best. For his time, Herodotus was widely traveled, and his writings show that he was as much a cultural anthropologist as a historian. His worldview had been shaped during the aftermath of a great war, and he undertook his great historical project in the hope that if the different nations could understand and respect one another, future destructive wars could be avoided. He felt that profound respect for one’s own customs, beliefs and religion would naturally lead to the same respect for the different but just as deeply held values of others. His benign, optimistic view of humanity has not been the hallmark of any age between his and ours. The struggle to achieve the kind of mutual understanding that leads to mutual respect is still on the agenda of our global civilization.
Globalization, whether economic or cultural, is a phenomenon present today in every area of human life. But it must be managed wisely. Pope John Paul II, in speaking to such diverse audiences as the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican in January and to those attending the jubilee year Mass for workers on May 1, sounded the same theme: Globalization must include solidarity. Globalization has profoundly transformed economic systems by creating unexpected possibilities of growth, but it has also resulted in many people being marginalized, whether by unemployment in the developed countries or by being consigned to even deeper poverty in the developing world. The pope has proposed that certain precise commitments be made to move closer to global solidarity, and he noted that some of these are quite urgent: debt forgiveness for the poorest countries, the sharing of technology and prosperity, greater efforts in conflict prevention and resolution and respect for human rights. The sufferings of all those whose beliefs or culture are in one way or another held in contempt is not merely an optional issue to be dealt with as circumstances or political or economic interests make it convenient. Failure to insure human rights flouts the dignity of persons and endangers global stability.
The pope again pleaded for a calm dialogue among cultures and religions that could bring about a new way of thinking and living. He said that all men and women must find new ways of living together and respecting one another and added that quality education, science and information represent the best means for developing in each of us respect for others, as well as a sense of universality worthy of our spiritual vocation.
The pope’s plea for solidarity in our global civilization is a challenge to Americans. Like all other cultures, we think that our ways are the best. As a nation we are immensely rich and unbelievably powerful. It would be all too easy for us to remain in our security and comfort without taking heed of the pope’s message. But with our wealth and power also comes responsibility, if not to be the world’s policeman, at the very least to be an open partner in the kind of calm dialogue to which the pope refers. And it should be a real dialogue, among partners who view one another as cultural equals, free of the superiority and even the cultural imperialism that we hardly notice when we see the Coca-Colanization of this planet.
The truth is that Americans hardly understand, let alone respect, the culture of much of Asia or the Islamic world. The Asian and Middle Eastern languages, keys to these unknown cultures, are not widely taught. And without knowledge there can hardly be respect. Without respect, there cannot be a way of living that will help us all to avoid the conflicts, bloodshed and genocide of the last century. And even within our own country there is much work to be done. Racism is widespread; amid prosperity, there is a callous and cynical approach to the poor; xenophobia, once thought dead, is making a comeback. Even within our own church, we see signs of intolerance and exclusion in the shrill and abusive rhetoric that some feel free to use despite the pope’s call for "calm dialogue" in the supposedly more conflicted world of international affairs.
All of these issues and our memory of the conflicts of the past century force us to be modest and to have a penitent spirit as we approach the challenge of globalization, a challenge we should face in "calm dialogue" and with mutual respect.