The path to peace
As the second year of the new millennium draws to a close, the Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill to man seems a distant, unattainable dream, an almost mocking commentary on man's inability to get on with his fellow men.
As Pope John Paul pointed out in his Christmas Eve sermon in Rome, people all over the world were 'anxious and distressed because of the continuation in various parts of the world of war'.
It is in times like this that we need to believe, if not in the redemptive power of religion, at least in the basic goodness of mankind.
We celebrated the arrival of the millennium in a spirit of optimism, perhaps believing that the world would indeed be a better place in the years to come. The events of the past year have tended to dent this hope.
September 11 illustrated in the starkest possible way the capacity for evil and destruction that lurks in human beings. The war that followed wrought revenge on those who had supported the suicide attacks on New York and Washington, but in the process also brought fresh misery to hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to flee their homes and now face the prospect of a harsh winter in refugee camps.
Look at what has happened in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is denied the right to attend a Christmas Eve mass, the latest indication of the intractable violence that has held Israel and Palestine in its grip for five decades. It is impossible for a dispassionate observer to apportion blame solely on one side or the other. What is apparent is that both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered greatly, and that leaders on both sides have proved to be inadequate to the task of building peace.
Other parts of the world, too, seethe with conflicts, large and small. The Indian sub-continent remains troubled, with tension between India and Pakistan, and a simmering civil war in Sri Lanka. Africa is awash with small, barely reported conflicts which have blighted the future of entire generations of people.
Armed conflicts are not the only blight on human happiness. Governments that suppress their citizens, keep them in poverty and deny them the basic benefits of living in this century are still not a thing of the past, even though the Taleban has been overthrown. Once more, corrupt, inefficient, self-perpetuating regimes are still far too common in parts of Africa and elsewhere.
So, in the light of all this evidence of the vileness that lurks within man, what cause do we have for optimism?
We have cause for confidence in the future because we are also surrounded by the evidence of the basic altruism within man that has enabled human societies to grow and prosper over the ages. Consider the report in today's South China Morning Post of the anonymous benefactor who donated $500,000 for a small girl with a heart condition to travel to Australia and have a life-saving operation. In the course of the year, this newspaper has run many other stories showing the selfless streak that also exists in human beings. Another example is that of fireman Chiu Shun-on, who lost his life trying to save a drowning boy.
Experience shows us that co-operation, rather than conflict, is the norm in human beings. Family, friends, and society at large are geared to help and support individuals, not to hunt them down. The enormous material, social and cultural progress that mankind has made over the millennia has been possible not because human beings are basically destructive and conflict-prone, but rather the opposite.
Having said which, large social groups, including nations, tend to be more belligerent than individuals. As history shows, nation states are prone to going to war with each other.
The record of the late 20th century has, however, given us reason for hope. It has shown that wealthy states rarely go to war with each other. It has shown that even less wealthy states do not go to war, provided their citizens are enjoying ever-rising standards of living. It has also shown that countries with representative governments do not tend to go to war.
The challenge of building a more peaceful future then, is in large part the challenge of building a more prosperous future. Good governance and sound economic policies will not abolish war, but in the long run they will definitely help to reduce the number and intensity of global conflicts. In the words of the Psalmist, turning swords into ploughshares and swords into pruning hooks is what we should be looking to do.