Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Childhood faith

There is a beautiful Swedish hymn called ‘Barnatro’, Childhood Faith, by Einar Westling (1896-1971), which was popular in my childhood in Norway – and since Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are so similar languages, we have no problems understanding each others’ languages all over Scandinavia. The message in this hymn is that ‘childhood faith, you are the golden bridge to heaven’. Beyond the hymn, I would add that it is in teenage years we learn the basic values for the rest of our lives; later, as teenager and in adults we begin to doubt, ask questions, and sometimes lose our foundation and direction. Today, I will borrow some of this analogy and discuss some aspects in our turbulent international world, where many of the accepted truths are being questioned and even thrown overboard. Yes, I am thinking of President Donald Trump and his hasty executive orders, and his many extreme statements. Besides, he is not the only one who challenges polite conversation and good behaviour, to put it mildly, and he may be a mouthpiece of political fashions and trends, nationally and internationally.

Back to the basic ethics and moral standards, which are common in Christianity, Islam and other major religions, and in international humanism. From childhood and at school, mothers, female teachers, yes, even fathers and male teachers, certainly grandparents and others who help socialise children, teach us good behaviour, which includes the ‘golden rule’: Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you; or put positively: Do to others what you want others to do to you. For details, I always recommend Karen Armstrong’s books, including the short booklet ‘A Letter to Pakistan’ (first launched at the Karachi Literature Festival 2011). The Catholic Nun turned international bestselling interfaith researcher writes about all the three Abrahamic religions and the basic, decent principles that we all must live by. If we want to live in God’s light, and if we want to shine his light unto others, the golden rule is the simple foundation for humanity everywhere; it goes without saying, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, refugee or ruler, white or black, man or woman, etc. – as we are all one and the same in the eyes of God, international law and basic human values. It is true that the golden rule has been broken many times; in colonial history and North-South relations, in the World War II holocaust, in American segregation, in South African apartheid, in relations between the rich and poor, and in many other situations in politics and everyday life. In recent decades and years, we seem to have begun questioning aspects of the golden rule, the ideals of equality and everyone having the same rights to the fruits in God’s garden. At the same time, we speak about greater equality, and in many fields it has improved. But new under-classes have also begun developing and becoming permanent in otherwise affluent societies. On top of it, we have begun to allow that individuals, groups and even political parties use discriminatory language, talking about ‘we and the others’; the latter are often defined as people belonging to minority religions, having darker skins, being immigrants, refugees, or being different in other ways.

When Donald Trump this week signed executive orders to ban people from seven countries from entering USA, all Muslim-majority countries, he did it as part of an extremist and nationalist culture, yet, using the presidency to enforce it. If it were only he as an ‘untraditional president’ who did it, it would be less worrisome. The problem now is that many ordinary people and leaders in USA – and in other countries – accept and secretly agree with what the President and the rulers around him have done. The order is said to be temporary, to last for three months, but that we don’t know for sure; besides, a lot of damage has already been done, even if, or when the courts overturn the executive orders. It is a thinly veiled excuse to say that USA did this to ‘keep America safe’ and ‘protect the country from terrorism’. Sadly, it is likely that it will be counterproductive (I am generally of the opinion that the ‘terrorist threat’ is largely exaggerated; along with the ‘Russian threat’, it somehow fills the space after the end of the ‘cold war’). The leader of Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister, has clearly warned the new American president following his actions in the first week, especially regarding nationalism, torture and other humanitarian issues. USA has signed international agreements and conventions, and must live up to them in future. He has expressed worries on behalf of many European leaders. He has not said if he believes some, or many, Europeans agree with Trump’s movement and the new administration’s reactionary thoughts that can become policy in USA, and will encourage the far right in Europe, too. Dr Evelin Gerda Lindner, leader of the International Network for Humiliation Studies and Human Dignity, and the new Human Dignity University, has repeatedly in her books and lectures underlined that we can create enemies by our own actions; we can behave towards other people in such ways that they dislike us and begin to hate us – and that these attitudes can get stuck in people’s minds so long that they stay even when people have forgotten what the reasons were. The worst we can do is to humiliate people and countries, says Lindner, a medical doctor and psychologist; her parents have a refugee background during and after WWII as the Polish and German borders were redrawn. See her book, ‘Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict’, Connecticut/London, 2006.

We must ask: What will the outcome of Trump’s unfortunate ban on entrance to USA from seven ‘pariah’ countries be? It will not be good for USA; even those who love America may turn against it; everyone will remember it for decades to come. It has humiliated many decent people and countries, and worried all of us. I began my article by saying that we should stay with our childhood faith and values; the basics about how we human beings should live together. The new American president seems to have forgotten much of it – although he says he wants to make America great again. What Trump’s opinions are may not be so important in the long run, even if he is the ‘world’s most powerful man’. It is more worrying if the land’s administration, institutions and the international trends are supportive of the asocial political decisions and undercurrents. Let Trump and those close to him focus on trade and help creating jobs, not on people’s values, which they don’t know how to do. As a matter of fact, in Trump’s business fields, he does make sense, sometimes, perhaps even often; I wish he succeeds in those fields. But let his presidency stay away from the ethical, moral value fields, including issues related to other religions. The new administration must rethink what they say and do – for their own good and for that of the world. The world’s richest country must show generosity and mercy to people in need, indeed displaced people; America must become fairer at home and abroad for the time it has left as superpower. There are so many good and kind people in the land, people all faiths and world views, who keep in their hearts and minds the childhood values I began writing about in my article today. Can’t they and we all help the new president succeed in his job, or at least, do less harm?

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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