“Another Me” – Rising to the Challenge of Justice and Peace in the 2020

Dr. Hugo Slim serves at Blackfriars, Oxford University

It is such a pleasure and an honour to be with you today. This is my first time speaking to Dominicans since I started my new role at Blackfriars in Oxford.

And I must thank Father Aniedi for plunging me straight in at the deep end. It will be for you to decide if I sink or swim in Dominican waters! If I do sink, I know the presentations which follow this one will teach me how to swim.

Champions of Justice and Peace

Each of you has much greater everyday experience of working with people for justice and peace than I do. My career started working face-to-face with suffering people but I then became swept up in teaching, writing and policymaking.

Most of my career has been spent imagining the suffering of others rather than seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling it first hand.

So I see you as the practical people in our discussion today. I sense that you are people like St James who believe deeply that we must “be doers of the word”.

As people of action, you also share the Psalmist’s faith that we “will see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.” The kingdom of God starts here.

Before joining Blackfriars, I finally got round to reading some of St Catherine of Sienna’s great Dialogue.

One of the great joys in life is when a phrase jumps off the page straight into one’s heart, and stands there as a guide to life.

This happened to me reading Catherine’s Prologue. When she asks God what Christians become in His love, God answers that they are “another me”.

As you struggle for justice and peace in so many different places around the world, you fulfill God’s desire to become “another me”.

This is wonderful. Christ’s life showed us how living out God’s love involves great joy with others and inaugurates positive change and significant social progress. But it can also involve the suffering of the cross on the way to a risen life.

So, the life of a champion of justice and peace is inevitably glad and sad; joyful and painful. It is a real life.

Aniedi asked me to paint a big picture of some of the challenges facing the world today – the world in which we are called to be “another me”.

So, I will try to do two things:

  • First, I will set out three big trends today that demand justice and peace
  • Secondly, I will think about how Dominicans can work positively in today’s world.

Some Big Trends

This is an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive because the world is full of more people than ever before and is changing fast.

There is a genuine “make or break” feel to our times.

For billions of people, there are so many good things about being alive today: more comfortable lives with better shelter, health, education and income than many before them.

But human society is still a very unequal society.

Geography, gender, identity and social class still determine that billions of people live relatively easily and well, while billions of others suffer hard lives of unfairness and discrimination. And these deep differences of living conditions and opportunity are very close to us wherever we are in the world.

I want to focus on three big trends which I think will be important in shaping your challenges as champions of justice and peace: climate crisis; risks to peace, and the expansion of our virtual lives.

Our first concern must be with climate justice.

Climate change has arrived in every country. In the Arctic, a new habitable continent is emerging from ice, while large parts of other continents are becoming unlivable because extremes of heat, fire, flood and drought, like parts of the Sahel and Afghanistan.

This poses two questions for justice.

First is the immediate challenge of working out an urgent form of climate humanitarianism.

Climate crisis is pushing hundreds of millions of people into disaster now. Changing conditions are reducing their livelihoods, making families much poorer, and increasing rural-urban migration and family separation as a coping mechanism of last resort.

Justice demands that we agree basic life-saving measures for all who experience climate disaster.

How much should we invest in anticipating heatwaves and floods, and so protect and support people in advance? How shall we best support national institutions to deliver regular climate aid as extreme weather hazards become chronic in people’s lives? How shall we legally recognize and support people as they move?

The second question for justice is about climate transition over the longer term.

Human society has to adapt to climate change by reorganizing our land-use, our living space and our economies.

These transitions will have enormous implications for justice and peace because people will compete over mitigation and adaptation measures, and new definitions of “basic needs” and “quality of life” need to be worked out in new human environments dominated by heat, flood, wind, drought and changing patterns of infectious diseases.

We need to work out what justice and injustice looks like in parts of the world with changed environments and newly migrated populations.

Do we have a right to move repeatedly? Do we have a right to be cool? Do we have a right to be dry? How shall we share new land? When is a damn or drainage system a just climate mitigation measure, and when is it unjust and aggressive? What is a just adaptation technology that cools us down, keeps us dry or extracts more drinking water? What is unjust adaptation? How can we stop migration becoming trafficking and exploitation?

And these are just human rights. What about non-human rights? How shall we value non-human life and biodiversity at a time when our own human lives are pressed up against environmental limits?

How should we divide transition budgets between saving human lives now and planting trees for tomorrow?

How can we move beyond an anthropocentric worldview and respect God’s balance of human and non-human value in creation if many of us are fighting for our human lives?

One of our biggest challenges in the next ten years is to work out just, peaceful and practical answers to these questions.

The economic transition of climate crisis will challenge justice and peace dramatically.

Climate change will cause a massive relocation and revaluation of the global economy, which will bring new winners and losers.

Agriculture and industry will die in some places and be born anew in others, as economic activity is physically relocated away from areas at risk of flooding and heat. Factories will move. Jobs will move. People will move. Money will move.

As the economy is relocated and transitions, geography will be revalued.

Oil spaces in the Middle East, Texas and Russia will be greatly reduced in their economic value. Parts of the world that are drying up, like North Africa and the Mediterranean, will stop producing food and be dramatically devalued. Cold places that are warming up will become the bread baskets of tomorrow and increase enormously in value.

This revaluation of the world economy will pose enormous questions for justice, as billions of people fall into poverty and want to move, while billions more boom and profit with new wealth.

Just and peaceful adaptation to a new economic geography will be a huge challenge.

Dominicans need to be with people at the frontline of climate change and its economic transitions, and the inevitable conflict and disputes they will create.

Dominicans will need to help redefine human rights and human duties in environments of extreme heat, flood and continuous human movement, and in new transition economies.

You have already seen this challenge well in advance and have rightly been campaigning for a new approach to the human rights of climate change at the Human Rights Council.

My second trend is other risks to peace from rising authoritarianism, political conflict and the risk of big war.

There is a lot of peace in the world for which to give thanks. Billions of people live in largely peaceful societies. This is a great blessing but not a given.

Our times are politically exciting because the world is experiencing a major shift in global power.

The power of Western states and Russia is now profoundly challenged by the rise of other major powers, like China and India, and important “middle powers” across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

There is justice in this shift. Many countries who had previously been colonized, exploited or humiliated by Western empires are taking their rightful place in international society again. The world is now “polycentric” or “multipolar” and is no longer controlled largely by one power.

But this return to an age of “great powers” carries serious risks for world peace.

Great power competition is intense today. After a period exploring cooperation, China and the USA are now “decoupling” economically, digitally and politically. They are becoming political and military enemies even as they still trade together and engage on global challenges like climate and health.

The risk of “big war” that sees major powers like the US, China, Russia, India and Europe deploying the full forces of their enormous weaponry is real again. This would be catastrophic with levels of death and destruction we have not seen since the 20th century.

Big war is even bigger now. It has expanded from three traditional “domains” of land, sea and air combat into three new domains: outer space, cyber space and information space.

Each of these new “domains” sees great powers competing over new global commons in outer space and digital space. Justice urgently needs to decide how best these spaces are shared for the common good.

We can expect outer space – religiously envisaged as the heavens – to become a major place of war. It is already because terrestrial warfare is controlled from satellites in outer space and weapons are fired at earth through outer space. In the next ten years, weapons will also be fired from earth at satellites, and in outer space between space ships.

Warfare is changing from the age of industrial warfare to a new era of computerized warfare, driven by artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons and the internet.

AI poses big new questions for justice. “Warbots” are no longer simple weapons in the hands of individual humans, but are increasingly non-human combatants making decisions for themselves.

Cyberwarfare would see devastating attacks against digital systems that control a nation’s energy, banking, health and logistics services, so “crashing” whole societies. Here too, new rules of justice are urgently needed. These attacks may see less bodies and buildings blown apart but will cause chaos, impoverishment, hunger and sickness.

Great powers are preparing for big war – largely in the newly labelled “Indo-Pacific” – but avoiding it so far, preferring instead “sub-threshold warfare” in which they undermine each other with disinformation and cyberattacks.

Alongside the uncertain risk of big war, there are three certain threats to peace: extreme authoritarianism, extreme capitalism and political violence.

Authoritarian government and capitalist competition is rising around the world, and the new great power contest is being shaped as a contest of values between authoritarianism and democracy, with China and Russia leading for authoritarianism and the US and Europe for democracy.

Authoritarian government can create social order which is sometimes better for people to live in than the violent anarchy that can follow it, as many people have discovered in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

But extreme authoritarianism is intolerable, and every authoritarian regime inflicts extreme suffering on certain groups.

There is a long Christian tradition of resisting tyranny, and resistance to authoritarian governments will continue to be a necessary and courageous part of working for justice and peace in many countries in the next ten years, as it was in the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

Extreme capitalism must also be resisted. Many of you have been bravely engaged in resistance to destructive capitalist greed for years. Unregulated greed will increase wherever governments and companies pursue unjust adaptation in climate transition, which protects them but gravely damages other people and the planet.

Dominicans need to continue to challenge unjust capitalism.

War is not the most common or most deadly form of organized violence today. Political violence kills more people than war and it is growing all around the world.

Where governments are weak and corrupt, the gun is used to assert commercial and political control by gangs and mafias. Millions of people in countries like Honduras and Nigeria are dominated by political violence, which dictates power and authority around them.

Living in the middle of political violence, and finding ways to resist it, is extremely difficult but Dominicans must stay close to those who endure this.

A third big trend is the huge expansion of virtual lives. Billions of people today live simultaneously in physical space and virtual space. We are doing so now!

We have digital bodies and data doubles.

Much that is humanly important happens digitally today in our virtual lives. We meet each other virtually and show our love for one another digitally. We work and socialize virtually. This human contact is real and meaningful, just as letters, phone calls and printed photographs were also real.

We are also increasingly governed virtually through our data double – a digital avatar that shows who we are in a virtual trail of data on location, health, education, income, preferences and contacts.

Our digital body can encounter everything that is human, including: love, compassion, help and liberation; but also hatred, deceit and oppression.

The pandemic has shown how living in this second world can improve our lives in myriad ways. But, if we are poor, we can be excluded from this virtual world. And, for all of us, it is also a world of danger. We can be robbed, hated, attacked and cancelled in virtual space.

This means that justice and peace must be championed in virtual space too. We cannot avoid this second world because so much of human importance is happening there.

Dominican work and values must be alive and recognizable in virtual space. God wants “another me” wherever people are living digitally today.

How should we work?

I do not know enough about Dominicans in action to say much about this. I have not yet seen how you “do the word” in different places around the world. So, I will just share some thoughts.

It seems to me that the Dominicans have two great advantages as a movement for justice and peace today.

First, you are not specifically western or eastern, southern or northern. You are multipolar like today’s political world.

You are everywhere and work with the hearts and hands of people from all civilizations. In Dominicans, God finds “another me” in every culture, language and political system of the world.

This is incredibly precious.

Secondly, you are “another me” in explicitly female and male forms as sisters, friars and lay people. This seems so important because it embodies the truth that both women and men are seeking justice and peace.

This commitment to both sexes preaches powerfully to the patriarchy that still dominates and distorts so much of the world.

I was also struck by St Catherine’s emphasis that “infinite sorrow” should be our primary reaction to sin and injustice.

This contrasts dramatically with today’s championing of “outrage” and its subsequent division, censure and cancelling that leaves no space for a change of heart, forgiveness and reconciliation.

When Dominicans express sorrow in the face of the injustice, they recognize our common failings and encourage positive change and mutual cooperation in the building of justice and peace.

Like Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, we are unwise to try to rip out and destroy everything bad within us and around us because ripping and cancelling will damage what is good in others, in ourselves, and in systems we need to change.

Growing good things, sharing God’s love and encouraging forgiveness is better than weeding and destroying when we are championing justice and peace.

I also think that Dominicans must be ready to work openly and in secret, just as Jesus did.

Working for justice and peace can often be done publicly, but sometimes resistance and creative peacemaking are best done in secret.

Finally, I think it is important for Dominicans to be propositional in justice and peace. You must preach the truth of injustice – how it works and who it hurts – and also preach suggestions for what can be done practically now and over time.

As you encourage others to be “doers of the word”, you need to suggest things they should do.

This, of course, is the hard part, which I now leave for you all to solve in the rest of your week together!

To view this talk on YouTube, please click here.



Posted in Peace & Justice Blog

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