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By Fr. Maurice Emelu
One of the benefits of an organized society is pluralism, which in the context of this article should not be understood in the metaphysical sense of one-and-many. Pluralism herein connotes a situation of diversity where people of varied interests, value systems, demographic strata, religious, cultural, ethnic, educational or political backgrounds come together to collaborate, and sometimes collide, with one another for the common good of society. A unique relationship is formed in the process, wherein participants do not necessarily shed their uniqueness for uniformity. Instead, they try to find a meeting point (unity) that is fundamental to our nature as rational beings, without which the benefits of diversity, in an organized group, would be stillborn.
Thus, in every society, and among any organized group, there are rights and interests. Rights are not very much understood as well, as one may assume, because of the complexity related to the definition of what constitutes rights especially when “civil rights” are weaved in with opinion polls. Nonetheless, based on the objective norm of morality flowing from the natural law, which is in the DNA of every person as God put it there, we recognize some inalienable rights existing in most cultures and beautifully couched in the age-long Judeo-Christian tradition, namely, that human life is sacred. Accordingly, some of the ancillary values that go with life (called rights) are inalienable. This framework may have informed a secular articulation of human rights as written up in the thirty articles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights of December 10, 1948, in recognition of the fact that, some truths about human life are self-evident in character and not a product of historical, empirical, political, ethnic, religious or cultural convenience.
Among these truths (rights) include; the right-to-life (comprising freedom and equality in dignity), the rights of all human beings to freedom of belief and religion, freedom of expression, and private property, etc. [UN 1948 Declaration of Human Rights is an important read.] It’s been proven through terrible wars, causing unspeakable destruction, like WWI and WWII, that the neglect or outright repudiation of these rights leads to untold hardship, disharmony, endless conflict and oftentimes war. In that climate, peace is impossible. So the repudiation of our rights is one of the evident sources of conflict but there are others, as we shall see in the following analysis.
Sometimes, rights dovetail with interests and this is where it gets tricky. Not that the two must be confused, as human rights are universal and unique, interests aren’t. Regarding interests: there are as many as there are different individuals, groups, families, races, cultures and religions in the world. Interests, so described, are preferences and a definition of any moral law, based on preferences, is a recipe for moral anarchy and manure for disharmony, as we see in today’s world. Some interests are reasonable but others are not. Many people confuse their rights with their particular interests, and want those treated as sacred just as the right to life is sacred. But isn’t this problematic? The victim in this kind of scenario is peace and unity, at various levels, because holding and promoting unflinching claims to “my personal interests” even to the point that those interests preclude the fundamental rights of my neighbor gives rise not only to disharmony but can lead to disastrous situations in society and for society. What is the way out of that deadlock? The way is a compromise based on openness to Truth.
This compromise is not as easy as it seems, and indeed, herein lies the big challenge and the raison d’être for this article. How can people from different backgrounds, with different unique interests, live together in peace as well as protect their own interests? In practical terms how can, for instance, the Nigerian national confab not become a meeting of egoistic-interest groups capable of hampering any good efforts towards collaborative bargain for the protection and enhancement of the inalienable rights and the common good? How can I get beyond my state, class, education, ethnicity, religion, tribe and economic interests to further peace, or collaborate with my office co-workers or others where there are limited opportunities for a pay raise or a promotion. How do I not become a stumbling block for their healthy and just ambitions?
Certainly, studies show that insofar as there is an organized society of people, conflicts sometimes arise. Such conflicts can also be between individuals (e.g., when a business partner wants to take the most lucrative part of a business deal), or between groups of people (e.g. when an ethnic group wants to lord it over others in any given political setting) or within a group of people (e.g., a child in a family, a student in a class, or an employee in an organization steps beyond the zone of indifference pursuing his or her own self-interests etc.). In addition, scarcity of resources, different attitudes, perceptions, disagreements about needs, goals, priorities, non-supportive communication, poor or inadequate organizational structure, lack of teamwork and lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities could fuel conflicts especially when individuals decide the only way to go is through “survival of the fittest” motivated by self-centeredness, and live in the so-called ‘dog eat dog world’. Without excluding the possibility of other factors like poor judgment, ignorance, irresponsibility or oversight, Pope Francis hit the nail at the head when he suggested that at the root of conflicts leading to disunity, violence or war is selfishness. What then is the way to peace? What can we do to prevent our own personal conflicts of interest from impeding peace?
Many times, civil laws help deter acts against peace or resolve conflicts but not all the time because it depends on the socio-political and economic curve of the governments (and constitutions) that made those laws. Moreover, interpretation and application of laws could be problematic. Alexander Pope, the great English poet, is probably correct when he surmised, “Of forms of government let fools contest.” A clear example is the denial by some individuals, organizations and governments of the right of the unborn child to life, a right consistent with the UN declaration. Does this therefore not portend a kind of relativistic approach in the interpretation and understanding of human rights and dignity? (In fact the various Popes and many other scholars in our times continue to refer to the dangers of relativism.)
A common answer will be in the negative for in spite of idiosyncratic rendering of human rights, through redactions of some civil laws, the self-evident character of the truth regarding our human rights are rooted in the principles of the natural law, morally speaking, and these trump opinionated-appraisals. It is also a primer to the fact that most people desire peace, and nature supports peace hence order in the cosmos. God never creates chaos, people do. Pope St. Pius X in E Supremi (1903) said, “The desire for peace is certainly harbored in every breast, and there is no-one who does not ardently invoke it.” So it is to this legitimate desire we appeal.
“Peace is possible,” is the consistent refrain from Pope John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” (April 11, 1963) to John Paul II’s letter for the “World Day of Prayer for Peace”, (January 1, 2003) and Pope Francis’ message on “World Day of Prayer and Fasting for Syria” (September 7, 2013). And the way to peace amidst conflicts of interest is both personal and social.
Personal if we eschew selfishness and go beyond a mere legalistic interpretation of justice to find the justice of love (using the words of Benedict XVI), a justice that goes the extra mile in being my brother’s keeper. Also let’s remember that the big wars outside start with the little wars in our own heart against our neighbor.
Social, when we make the proposals of Pacem in Terris on the four pillars of peace – namely, truth, justice, love and freedom – the cornerstone of our relationships, public or private. Would this not be the tremendous harbor of peace despite individual interests? The world is crying out for peace, let’s do it! ————————–