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Spiritually Rudderless

Robert C. Koehler

Another deep cry, followed by a shrug. The world is at war, at war, at war. But it only hurts them, the helpless ones, the anonymous poor, who absorb the bombs and bullets, who bury their children, who flee their broken countries.

Sixty million people have been displaced by the current wars, the highest number of uprooted since World War II. But who cares?

“In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis.”

The words are those of Ban Ki-Moon, executive-secretary of the United Nations, who, along with Paul Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, issued a joint cry of anguish last week: Things are worse than they’ve been in a long time. Not only are wars tearing apart Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and other countries, but the conflicts seem to be increasingly lacking in moral constraint.

“Every day,” said Maurer, “we hear of civilians being killed and wounded in violation of the basic rules of international humanitarian law, and with total impunity. Instability is spreading. Suffering is growing. No country can remain untouched.”

These words may be factually accurate, but you can’t really call them a “warning.” A warning can only be addressed to someone with the power to change course, make different decisions, sidestep the looming disaster.

“. . . the world has responded with disturbing paralysis.” What else has “the world” ever done?

The momentum of human annihilation cannot be interrupted.

Oh, I hope such a statement is inaccurate, but in this moment, all I can see is that we’re trapped in the geopolitics and economics . . . of Armageddon. The world’s national leaders are inadequate stewards of humanity and the needs of Planet Earth. Politically, the world is sliced into nation-states, which fiercely prowl their perimeters, guarding their own interests from both external and internal threats. This behavior is called war, and war, in point of fact, has no rules, humanitarian or otherwise. Peace has rules. War has only a goal: victory.

Stir in economic interests — the force called money — and the pot really starts to boil. The interests of money transcend national borders. Its agents and stewards, the global corporatocracy, serve only the interests of economic growth, which has even fewer moral constraints than nationalism. Unchecked economic growth is tantamount to the consumption of the planet, not just physically (using up its resources, ravaging the environment), but culturally and spiritually as well.

Once upon a time, the planet was festooned with local cultures: sociocultural systems on a human scale. People had a participatory relationship with the world in which they lived. Under such conditions, perhaps the words of Ban Ki-Moon and Paul Maurer could constitute a real warning. People could take heed and rein in manifestations of blatant inhumanity. They could assume a sense of behavioral responsibility that reached seven generations into the future.

This is not the world we live in now.

Writing about the crushing impact of global economic development/exploitation on local cultural integrity, Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of the organization Local Futures and co-director of the documentary, The Economics of Happiness, talked about the changes she has witnessed in a region of northern India called Ladakh.

“In part, the Ladakhis’ confidence and sense of having enough emanated from a deep sense of community: people knew they could depend on one another,” she wrote at Common Dreams. “But in 1975 . . . the Indian government decided to open up the region to the process of development, and life began to change rapidly. Within a few years the Ladakhis were exposed to television, Western movies, advertising, and a seasonal flood of foreign tourists. Subsidized food and consumer goods — from Michael Jackson CDs and plastic toys to Rambo videos and pornography — poured in on the new roads that development brought.”

The local economy and the local culture got swallowed, over the course of several decades, by what she called “the consumer monoculture.” The resulting changes were more than just superficial. People, you might say, started to become spiritually rudderless.

She described what this can look like: “For more than 600 years,” she wrote, “Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side in Ladakh with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried. But over a period of about 15 years, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly, and by 1989 they were bombing each other’s homes.”

And so we begin to get at the deeper forces at work in today’s world. Consumer monoculture centralizes the power to act. We can consume the news — read about war, read about climate change — but where then in our distress, if indeed this is what is aroused, do we turn? What do we do? Perhaps we blame “them.” At both the macro and the micro levels, humanity turns to violence. This is the all-purpose solution of the powerless.

And the world convulses at what may be the dawn of World War III. Sixty million people have been displaced by the current wars. We reach into our souls, looking for the force that is larger than war.

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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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