Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hallowed Secularism and International Law

9/25/2007-- We have an idea of what we would like from a regime of law at the international level. Of course, the main thing we would like to see is an absence of war, an absence of physical killing.

But, an absence of killing is by no means the ultimate standard. If the world had acquiesced in the occupations of land by the Axis powers in the 1930’s, there would have been peace of a sort. Genuine peace, however, requires an element of justice.

So, what we would like from international law is a just and regular order of norms understood and followed. There would have to be institutions to resolve disputes and mechanisms to allow expression of international opinion. Eventually, we would like to see a genuine human community emerge.

The book in the Old Testament that demonstrates some of these characteristics is the Book of Ruth. This book has little to do with international relations as such. But it has everything to do with the workings of customary law.

The book is set in the time of the Judges, which means before the kingship. A man from Judah moves to the country of Moab at a time of famine, taking with him his wife, Naomi, and his two sons. But, he dies. And, after marrying women of Moab, one of whom was Ruth, the two sons die as well. So, Naomi, having neither husband nor sons, decides to return to Judah. She tells the two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, for there were no prospects of marriage if they went with her. The other daughter-in-law leaves, but Ruth remaines with Naomi, swearing that your God shall be my God.

Upon Naomi’s return to Judah, Ruth meets a rich man, Boaz, a close relative to Naomi, who eventually performs the role of kinsman-redeemer by buying Naomi’s land—so that the land would stay within the family group--and marrying Ruth. The book tells of Boaz finding the nearest relation and gathering ten witnesses. The nearest relation refuses the right of redemption, which Boaz formalizes by giving the man his sandal, as “was the custom in former times in Israel” in the words of the account.

The book of Ruth shows a traditional society whose settled customs allow for peace and prosperity without armies and even without formal law courts. And these customs are trans-national. Ruth is a resident alien, as we would put it, but is cared for within this customary social welfare system. Ruth represents an ideal of the sort of international order that we would like to see, although the scale and complexity of modern life is beyond the point of sandals and gathering witnesses. Nevertheless, an international civil society, which is what Max Stackhouse has called for, would not be a matter of legislation or formal structure, but would have to grow in the organic way described in Ruth.

Hallowed Secularism would be one element in such growth. At the moment humanity is divided not just by nation but by civilization, which includes differences in religion. The world is moving in the direction of one world culture but it is a very limited culture of youth, technology and a certain kind of consumption.

Globalization and religion still mark boundaries among people. But, as the world becomes more secular, and as that secularism becomes more open to religion, humanity may find it easier to sustain a common culture, or, as I have said, a common culture with many local differences. This seems today totally out of reach, but I am speaking here of a time perhaps a century in the future. I don’t think our situation will remain then as it is now.

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