An Amazing Quartet... and the Massive Choir that Sings with Them


Here's your Quiz Question of the day: what do these four have in common:

Pope Francis

          Arno Peters

                    The Dalai Lama

                                   Bernie Sanders?

A hint or two: the answer is not national origin. The four got their start in life on four different continents; one is Argentinian, one German, one Tibetan, one American.

Neither does it refer to religious affiliation. One is Roman Catholic, another agnostic, one is Buddhist, one Jewish.

And you'll never find their commonality by checking their job descriptions. One is CEO of an organization that has been at work for centuries and now has branch offices in practically every corner of the world. The second one named became an authority on world history, then a mapmaker of renown. In contrast to the CEO, he did much of his creative work from his home office. The person we know as the Dalai Lama was chosen – at age 3! – to be the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, assuming his full responsibilities by age 15. When he opted for a Tibet that had too much freedom to suit the Chinese government, he became persona non grata and chose to live in exile in India. Bernie Sanders, following a very different trajectory, is a strong contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the U.S. in 2016.

So what do you think these four have in common? Here's what I propose: a passion for social justice. For fairness and equality. They look at the world billions experience every day and they call it rigged: it delivers high privilege to some and crushes others. The four differ widely in all the ways that usually count, but they all seek to change the system to make it fairer. That way, they say, we'll have a better world.

It helps to have an independent spirit and a double supply of courage if you're going to express such convictions. There will be opposition, whether from alternate convictions or from fear of losing cherished places of privilege.

Arno Peters, chronologically the first of the four, learned that. Releasing his world map in 1974, it started a debate that rose to a decibel level beyond anything previously known among mapping professionals and map users. Critics denounced it in the strongest terms they could find. In a letter received from Arno Peters, he stated “... the debate over my map was in reality not a struggle about a projection as such but about a world picture.”  (Complete quotation can be found on p. 41 of How Maps Change Things.) The bone of contention was not cartographic – how to create a map – but ideological. The simple idea that all nations, all people, should be treated fairly came across as much too radical.

Has the Pope fared any better? On the one hand he is tremendously popular among Catholics and non-Catholics; on the other, many Catholics, especially in the U.S.A., apply such terms as “left-ish” and “liberal” when he says that capitalism as we know it is far, far from perfect. When he identifies the challenge of our time as creating an economic system that will provide dignity and a decent living to the world's poor, most of the wealthy and satisfied choose to sit on their hands rather than applaud. Or open their wallets or vote in a way to make our democracy more caring. Even some cardinals, according to inside reports, would rather he would speak less about the rich/poor gap and more about, say, abortion (which he did not mention in his address to Congress).

The Dalai Lama, contrary to the common Western expectation that he should always be serene, “going with the flow,” commented sharply on the effects of capitalism, especially in America. As reported in an Indian newspaper (October, 2015), he spoke directly to the United States:

“... in your country there is much inequality – many people are poor while others are quite rich.

“… I am troubled by how many Indians have taken on western ways, particularly selfish and materialistic attitudes, the very things that have corrupted the American ethic …

“...Sooner or later you will have to change – to care more for one another, recognizing the oneness of all people.”

Neither is he all words, no action: when he was granted the Templeton Prize (the largest financial award regularly given to an individual; think of it as the Nobel Prize for spiritual leadership and humanitarian service), he gave all of it to charity. The largest share – 1.5 million dollars U.S. – went to Save the Children India, for their work to counter chronic malnutrition. Having no children of his own, he finds a way to share his life, his thought, his resources, with others, thus expressing what he calls “the oneness of all.”

And what of Bernie Sanders? I hear many people saying he'll never be elected, never even get his party's nomination. Why? He's “too socialist.” Too ready to push for fairness, for something closer to equality. His platform may be idealistic, but it's not practical. Advocating $15 an hour as the minimum wage may appeal to those whose wages would go up, but thousands upon thousands of others are scared. The thought of having to pay more for what we now buy is enough to turn them away. Still, courageously, Sanders keeps on making his point: fairness demands we do the right thing. And many economists are saying that the benefits to the nation of narrowing the now-widening gap between rich and poor would actually outweigh any supposed problem

The surprise is that four men with differences among them as wide as the world, meet to join their voices. They are an amazing quartet: singing in unmistakable harmony. Having reached their positions independently they – miraculously? – are singing from the same page.

Let me not leave you with the impression that this quartet stands alone in its field. These are gifted, to be sure. But so are vast numbers of other people. Others are joining a mighty chorus to sing a song that mingles with the message of the quartet.

Who knows how many are becoming more and more aware of what is known as the “99 percent + the one percent”? That's a shorthand way of saying that those at the top of the heap – a tiny fraction of the American people, say – are not pulling their fair weight. Not all the 99 percent have joined the choir, but their voices are beginning to be heard.

And let's be clear: this is far broader than just an American issue. The concentrating of wealth and opportunity worldwide is proceeding at such a pace that 1 percent of the world's population will own 50 percent of the wealth by 2016. And Oxfam, the Britain-based international humanitarian organization, predicts that in the next four years, the share of the world's total resources available to the poorest half of the people will shrink by $750 billion!

How we, the people of the world, respond, is right now shaping humanity's future. Some of us will give to charities that work to restore some minimal balance. Some – teachers, musicians, users of maps and readers of history, will insist on fairer presentations than we often get, convinced that what enters our minds affects our behavior. Some will speak from the foundation of their faith to call for a more just world for the whole creation. Some will go into politics, whether running for office or campaigning or voting to bring in the new and better world.

Even for those not in the quartet, there's plenty of room in the choir!