Getting Out the Word in Perilous Times

An Address to the Canadian Church Press Convention
May 8, 2002
By Senator Douglas Roche
roched@sen.parl.gc.ca

It is hard for me to believe that it is thirty years since, as Editor of the Western Catholic Reporter, I was the local host for an ecumenical meeting of the Catholic Press Association and the Canadian Church Press in Banff, Alberta.

Those were heady days for religious journalism. Inter-faith gatherings were becoming common, the religious values of our society seemed steady, and postal rates were still at affordable prices.

I spent a good part of the 1962-65 years of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and relished Pope John's "open window," the seminal concept of the Church as the "People of God," the move to collegiality by the bishops, and the Constitution on the Church's moving description of the "joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties" of all peoples as the Church's principal social concern.

In my travels to many countries in those early years, I made what I considered an amazing discovery. I discovered that most of the world was non-white, non-western, and non-Christian, and that as a white western Christian I had better learn to get along with the majority.

The unity that the Church sought in reaching outward provided a sweeping vision – certainly enough for a pungent editorial every week.

Times changed. I went into federal politics because I wanted to advance my ideas about social justice on a wider platform. The Church and the world began to change too.

In the Catholic Church, reaction against the reforms of Vatican II set in and the Church, it seemed to me, got into a grimmer mode. The whole spectrum of Christian Churches seemed to lose their social outreach despite the heroic work done by numerous activists. The message, and certainly the impact, of Christians on the political culture of Canada lessened considerably. Church attendance plummeted, sex scandals became common, and even the name of Jesus was held by some to be disruptive of the new standards of politically correct multiculturalism.

Since I have always adhered strongly to the idea of the Church as a rock, I don't have much fear of Christianity going out of business. I concede, however, that in the turbulent times we have passed through, some religious publications in fact did not survive. But your presence here at this convention testifies to the survivability of the Canadian Church Press.

That you are still able to hold a mirror up to society – which is what religious journalism is all about - ought to be your first inspiration at this convention. Neither television, the Internet nor the deflated balloons of past optimism have done you in. You may be scarred, but you can truly sing the great Sondheim song, "I'm still here!"

Well, I'm still here too, though my days in the Senate are dwindling. I come before you, knowing of your travail, and deeply desirous, in our respective paths, to "get out the word in perilous times."

It is not rhetoric but reality to say that the world is becoming more perilous by the day. Nuclear weapons proliferation is taking place. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. The environment is being sacrificed to the demands of corporate greed. The war culture has surged in every region of the world.

You know the numbers and facts in all these instances. You try to communicate this information. But you - and I - are hitting walls. The political establishment is not hearing us.

Take the G8, the epitome of rich and powerful countries, who have appointed themselves directors of the world and who will soon meet in Kananaskis, Alberta.

Together the G8:

These figures mean that they maintain nearly all the nuclear weapons in the world, account for most of the world's spending on the military, are the principle arms traders, and the stingiest in providing aid to the poor. Surely, religious journalists ought to be exposing the duplicity of governments that assert they don't have the money to end world poverty but, at the same time, spend enormous sums on warfare.

The G8 professes to be concerned about terrorism. If they were really concerned, they would divert some of their huge wealth to repairing the social deficit and despair in so many countries in the world, which are breeding grounds for terrorists of tomorrow.

The outdated definition of security that the G8 clings to – a proliferation of arms and the capacity to wage modern warfare – should be replaced by an understanding of human security based on the right to live without poverty, hunger, disease, human rights abuses, and war.

This expression of social justice values is lost in the welter of secularism that has permeated our society. To put the human being at the centre of public policy still appears to policy-makers an aberration because they think in terms of systems, not people. Unfortunately, too many in our society still think in the simplistic terms of keeping a wall between church and state. The values of love, compassion, tolerance and justice that religion brings to modern discourse ought to be fused with – not barred from – public policy.

Religious editors want to advance the relationship of faith to the values of society; I try to do this too, by infusing human values into the political process.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2002 have, aside from being a horror in their own right, undermined social justice advances. The attacks brought out, once again, the war mentality that has never been far beneath the surface of daily events. Violence has been the response to violence. And I am sorry to say that the voices of the Christian Churches have been far too soft in responding to the resurgence of the war culture. September 11th has given a cloak of cover to the nuclear retentionists and other war planners who would steal yet more of our precious resources so badly needed to meet human needs in order to prosecute their wars.

The Churches may be involved in some clerical scandals, but the real scandal of our time is that the Church's message of love and reconciliation is lost upon peoples who receive from the main-line media a daily dose of the war culture. Religious editors need to be valiant, and then some, to stand up firmly against the onslaughts of secularism and give people the kind of information they need to construct a socially just world.

The Anglican Primate, Michael Peers, in his recent address, rightly challenged Christians to answer the question that is uppermost in these perilous times: "What is it that I really stand for?"

Let me tell you where I stand and what I want.

I want a world that is human-centered and genuinely democratic, a world that builds and protects social justice and development. I want a world where human security, as envisioned by the principles of the United Nations Charter, replaces armaments, violent conflict and wars. I want a world where everyone lives in a clean environment with a fair distribution of the earth's resources and where human rights are protected by a body of international law. In short, I want a world that is at peace with itself.

This vision may appear to be utopianism, but it is actually the vision expressed recently by civil society leaders meeting at the United Nations. The mainline media ignored this story of values.

The truth of the matter is that peace is a basic prerequisite for the exercise of all human rights and duties. It is also obvious that there is great demand for peace and social justice in the world today as evidenced by the peace accords that have been reached in El Salvador, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Guatemala and most recently Angola, and sought so desperately in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. The agreements reached fill us with hope, but also with sadness when we consider the many lives that have been lost and continue to be lost on the long road to peace.

Simply put, we cannot absorb the price of war and the price of peace at the same time. With all the advances of modern science and technology – nuclear bombs with destructive yields beyond imagination and new strains of biological agents – this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for civilized humanity.

The choice is clear: we must choose peace if we are to be faithful to the human security agenda. But peace is the most abused and maligned of words. Peace is not the interval between wars, while new wars are being planned. It is not a unilateral peace while enemies are left under threat of further hostility. And it is not a compromise between rivals who cannot get their way through war. Peace is the end result of identifying the root causes of global problems and striving, with creativity and determination, to check conflicts in their early stages. Better still, we can use the great body of knowledge we have amassed to prevent conflict. I challenge you as religious journalists to get the story out that peace is our right.

Over the past two decades, the United Nations has recognized that the Right to Peace should be added to the already recognized human rights. We should recall the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its declaration that "everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person." To that, the United Nations General Assembly added the Right to Peace in a Declaration in 1978, which proclaimed that "every nation and every human being, regardless of race, conscience, language or sex, has the inherent right to life in peace."

This was reinforced in 1984 by the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace which explicitly emphasizes the need for peace before rights and fundamental human freedoms can be fully realized. The Declaration also makes clear that in order to achieve this, the policies of governments must be directed towards the elimination of war.

Since then, UNESCO – the United Nations Economic and Social Council –has spearheaded the Right to Peace. In 1997, the former Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, declared that the Right to Peace should be added to the list of already recognized human rights. This does not so much mean a "third generation" of rights, as academic circles like to frame it, but a right that transcends and enables all other rights. How can a citizen in Zimbabwe exercise his democratic right to vote if he cannot get to the ballot box for fear of being beaten?

After a meeting of experts on the Human Right to Peace in Las Palmas in 1997, and in response to an international system plagued with conflict and violence, UNESCO prepared a Draft Declaration on the Human Right to Peace. It stresses that war, armed conflicts, violence and insecurity are intrinsically incompatible with the human right to peace, and stresses that peace is not only a human right, but also a duty. Twenty-eight countries immediately expressed their support of the draft Declaration and the need to enshrine peace as a human right. Thus, it is clear that serious work is indeed being done to codify this right.

In this era of globalization, where threats to peace cannot be stopped at the border, the protection of the citizen is the pre-eminent challenge of society. But instead of protecting "personal sovereignty," governments continue to prepare for war. This is in vain. Today's threats cannot be tamed through buying more guns and building higher walls. Something more is demanded of us and the Right to Peace concept provides the blueprint. Here again, the United Nations is paving the way and you can illuminate it.

In its simplest form, realizing the Right to Peace means burying the belief that some are virtuous and unconditionally right, while others are wrong. It is only through an effort to understand others better and respect them that we will be able to break the vicious circles that lead from insults to confrontation to violence. In essence, this means education. Certainly, in education, tools and textbooks are important. But nothing can replace the friendly words of a teacher, the hugs and smiles of a parent or the informed pen of an alert journalist. Education must transcend boundaries – whether of geography, wealth, ethnicity, age or language.

With increased globalization comes an increased temptation to turn inwards and seek comfort in all kinds of convictions - religious, ideological, cultural and nationalistic. Universal access to education and knowledge can reduce and eliminate these barriers, enhancing our understanding and acceptance of others.

The United Nations is working hard to meet this challenge. UNESCO is now implementing a project entitled "Towards a Culture of Peace," which aims to replace the dominant war culture with one of peace. Through dialogue and negotiation, the Culture of Peace seeks to tackle the root causes of conflict and put in place a set of values and attitudes that reject violence. Peace is the final goal, and the Culture of Peace is the concrete plan to achieve it. In implementing this plan, UNESCO is now engaged in hundreds of educational projects and events and is working closely with some 1,500 civil society groups (see: http://www3.unesco.org/iycp/uk/uk_sum_decade.htm). Here are but three:

The list of projects continues into the areas of human rights, gender, democratic participation, cultural understanding and information technology.

The U.N. has proclaimed the current decade "The International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World." To build the foundations for peace, we must begin with education and teaching within the family and at school and in people's subsequent social activities. This means safeguarding the rights of our young people and nurturing their development. This is the purpose of the 2002 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children this week in New York. It is now understood that, to end the war culture, we must invest in our children and help activate their potential free from self-serving outside influence. Are you paying special attention to this Special Session in your publications?

The Right to Peace is not a mere abstraction. I claim that it is a fundamental human right and a practical guideline for action, which should be part of the lives of all people and enshrined in the laws of every country. I appeal to all families, educators, political leaders, sporting and cultural associations, the media, and especially religious leaders to spread this message of tolerance, non-violence, peace and justice. In the end, achieving peace depends on each of us, no matter how great or small the scope of our individual responsibility.

Religious journalists can indeed get the word out in these perilous times, and the word is - peace.