by Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor

Journal of Sustainable Human Development

According to Christian tradition, a baby was born to poor migrant parents about 2000 years ago in the outskirts of Bethlehem of Judea – an obscure town approximately 5 miles south of Jerusalem in what is now the occupied West Bank. It was dark and cold that night, and they could not afford to pay for a room to stay so ended up finding refuge in a stable where animals were kept.

It was there that the baby was born, just like every human baby is born. For Christians, this means that God became human flesh and, not insignificantly, via the womb of a woman. It means that God assumed all the limitations of the human condition, including ethnicity, gender identity, and all limitations of body and mind: like us in all things but sin.

The birth of this child, as described in the ancient texts that are now recognized by Christians as divinely inspired, is a paradoxical mix of darkness and light, fear and joy, simplicity and grandeur. The baby cried, and angels sang. As the mother was barely recovering, some illiterate shepherds came to visit. Then a group of rich and highly learned foreigners showed up to pay their respects. A bright new star appeared in the sky as a sign of hope in the midst of the oppressive violence that was common throughout the Roman empire. But some local authorities felt “threatened” by these “signs of the times” and conspired to kill the child, so the parents were forced to flee across the desert to find some measure of safety in Egypt.

Fast Forward to Christmas 2011 CE

Two thousand years later, we find ourselves living in a world that is as confusing and paradoxical, perhaps even more so. The Roman empire has given way to a globalized world in which some old “empires” remain and new ones emerge from time to time. There has been notable progress in many areas: slavery is no longer recognized as a valid institution, universal human rights have been defined, humans have traveled to the moon and back. The amount of human knowledge and the power of technology have grown so much that we may now be entering the Anthropocene, i.e., a new era in which human activity is capable of influencing the structure and dynamics of the human habitat. But such developments are also bringing about a global ecological crisis and a new era of anxiety and uncertainty about the future of humanity.

The world’s population is approximately 7 billion people. Global consumption of goods and services is approaching 60 trillion dollars, with 80% of commodities going to 20% of the population. Empirical data shows that consumption is growing faster than population, even though over one billion people remain in abject poverty. The global financial system is in total disarray, with banks refraining to lend money to legitimate small businesses but eager to engage in the trading of “derivatives” and various other financial instruments also known as “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Worldwide, the rich-poor gap is increasing increasingly. Billions of tons of minerals and fossil fuels are being extracted from the earth each year, and billions of tons of waste and pollutants are being dumped back into the environment. Climate change, induced by global warming, is already impacting some human communities. Sexism and the patriarchal mindset of control and domination still rule in most parts of the world, including all the major world religions. Old and new forms of violence are actually increasing as the way of settling conflicts at the local, national, and international levels.

Exclusivist Practices are Unsustainable

Religion is the hope of humanity, even though religious practices often distort religious insights and make them practically useless and even harmful. But the voice of God continues to resound in the events of history, always seeking what is good for people albeit in terms adapted to the “here and now.” At a time when human civilization is facing a crisis unlike anyone encountered before, it is instructive to reflect on the ageless lessons that have been preserved for us in sacred texts such as the Bible. The Christmas story is a timely example.

It is pointless to discuss the historicity of the various accidental details that serve to convey the wisdom encapsulated in these texts. It is the embedded wisdom that we need to reclaim and understand in terms applicable to our “here and now.” For instance, reflection on the Christmas narratives reveals a consistent pattern of darkness, promise, waiting, and light. It was in a dark night that the baby was born. It was in fear that the shepherds heard the good news. The bright start that had guided them disappeared, and the erudite visitors “from the East” had to wait until it reappeared again. Then, and only then, they found the baby and recognized in him the new light of the world.

The texts also reveal a consistent pattern of inclusive unity in diversity. Nobody was excluded from active participation in the Christmas story. The local shepherds were poor and Jewish. The pilgrims “from the East” were rich and Gentile (i.e., not members of the “chosen people of Israel). Joseph was a carpenter. Mary was a young woman who became pregnant while still unmarried. Angels were included. Animals were present when the baby was born. The only “exclusivist” behavior in the entire story was that of those who had a vested interest in the status quo and decided it would be “prudent” to exclude this baby from the list of the living.

But exclusivist practices can be sustained only by the force of violence (whether legally or illegally) and, in the long term, nonviolence is more powerful than violence. Exclusivist practices have been the root cause of much pain and suffering in human history, and both secular and religious powers share the blame. In the religious arena, one such practice was the initial exclusion of Gentiles from the early Christian church, happily reversed in apostolic times. Another was the Eurocentrism of the same church after it became the official religion of the Roman empire, leading to the persecuted church becoming the persecuting church, conflicts between the western and eastern wings of Christianity, and utter disrespect for the religious traditions of people outside the Roman sphere of influence. Even to this day, the exclusion of women from roles of religious authority remains the standard practice in most religions, and culturally-conditioned gender inequality still prevails in most regions of the world (for more on this, click here and here).

Inclusiveness in the Transition to Sustainability

The challenge of the transition from consumerism to sustainability is to be inclusive, not exclusive. The challenge is unity in diversity, not unity in uniformity at the expense of excluding those who believe differently, or think differently, or look differently. The challenge is integration, not mere assimilation. The challenge is to overcome narrow-mindedness, intolerance, racism, sexism, self-righteousness, and all manner of violence. The challenge is to cease pointing fingers at each other and start working together for the common good. In brief, the challenge is for humans to become more fully human, and at this point in human history this entails outgrowing homo economicus and becoming homo ecologicus.

This means that materialistic economic development must cease to be the top priority of human activity, and human development in harmony with nature must become the top priority. There are no limits to knowledge. There are no limits to wisdom. For those with a religious outlook in life, there are no limits to faith, hope, and love. The prioritization of human development over the accumulation of capital and commodities is the crucial issue facing humanity, and applies equally to individuals and institutions, both secular and religious. There are positive signs that this fundamental shift in priorities is beginning to emerge in the minds and hearts of people of good will. The following are some examples:
A New World is Being Born

A new world is being born. It is impossible to predict the specific sequence of events that will accompany this birth, but the “signs of the times” are already visible and it is reasonable to anticipate that the following “Christmas patterns” will be experienced:

  • A pattern of increasingly collaborative work (research, reflection, resolve) by all global citizens: “However sustainability is defined, one thing is true: the vital need for human society to address its challenges will end up transforming the ways we all work, live, and compete. It will have extraordinary implications for organizations and the people who lead them—work processes, organizational models, competitive strategies, and leadership methods are all going to be affected…” MIT Sustainability Initiative
  • A pattern of gradual but radical dismantling of all exclusivist practices and policies. This will entail deconstructing the complex web of gender-related exclusions that we have inherited from the patriarchal system of male domination that emerged during the agricultural revolution (circa 10,000-5,000 BCE) and continues to corrupt the original “unity in diversity” of men and women in both society and religion.

  • A pattern of gradual but radical renunciation of all forms of violence: physical, cultural, psychological, ethnic, sexual, economic, political, religious, … Peace is inclusivist. Violence is exclusivist. Violence, in one form or another, must be used to enforce exclusions. Violence is the greatest obstacle to integral human development. Therefore, violence-triggering exclusions are also an obstacle. All people of good will need to experience the power of all-inclusive nonviolence.
Christmas happened 2000 years ago, when the Baby was born; but in a very real sense it is happening again. The newborn “babies” are all men and women who are becoming “global citizens” committed to human solidarity and ecological sustainability. Let us pray for them and work with them, that we all may grow in wisdom and stature for the glory of God and the good of humanity.