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Our Task is Not Complete

A recent gathering of Nobel Peace laureates displays a potent blend of spirituality, morality, and politics
by Carter Phipps

“Don't mix religion and politics!” I heard this injunction often in my formative years, a stern warning from elders that conversations mixing these two volatile elements of human life could easily, like a bad chemistry experiment, end up exploding in your face. For a political progressive, coming of age in a small town in the Bible Belt, it was good advice. But as I grew older, I found it more and more difficult to accept that statement at face value. After all, few things in life are more important than politics—it's the way in which we make our voices count in the governing of our ever-smaller world. And how can we govern effectively if we have divorced ourselves from one of the sources of our deepest values, namely the spiritual dimension of life?

Today, as the dynamic tension between spirituality and politics, church and state, the sacred and the secular grows ever more important and complex, the relationship between these two pillars of human culture seems up for question and reinterpretation as never before. That's why it was of particular interest to see spiritual, moral, and religious sentiments so prominently on display at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome. The brainchild of Mikhail Gorbachev, this gathering has been held annually since 1999. And at last autumn's summit—from the opening day's “Man of Peace” award presentation to Yusuf Islam (better known as Cat Stevens) to the speeches of Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa—the language, tone, and overall tenor of much of the four-day conference resonated with a deep spiritual and moral conviction. But it was hardly at the expense of politics. Indeed, laureates such as Irish peace activist Betty Williams, former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez, former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, and Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum have risked their own lives for peace and a better world, and they are no strangers to geopolitical realities. Much of their time together was spent discussing the intransigent problems that afflict our twenty-first-century society—global terrorism, poverty, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental devastation.

The original intention of this annual star-studded summit was far-reaching: “to propose new guidelines to the world for international policies that are more in line with the times” and to initiate “a general revision of international relations . . . based on the concept that national interest . . . must be completely reexamined within the framework of an increasingly complex and interconnected world.” Five years later, Gorbachev's sense of the laureates' collective purpose has only grown more impassioned. As Betty Williams, 1976 Prize winner for her role in initiating Northern Ireland's Movement of the Peace People, remarked on the opening day: “I met President Gorbachev last night in the hotel lobby and I said to him, 'Mikhail, what do you want to come out of this summit?' And he said, 'I want to say, enough is enough! We must turn this around, the way our world is going.'”

However, good intentions are one thing; real change is something altogether different, a fact that the laureates know all too well from the challenges they have each faced in their own work. And throughout the week in Rome—from the featured panel on Terrorism and Other Threats to Humanity to the session on The Role of Ethical Economies in Overcoming Inequality and Division to the panel discussion on Multi-Ethnicity and Human Rights—there was a palpable sense of urgency that the high-minded ideals and deep discussions must translate into practical application. A formidable challenge in any circumstance, it is made even greater by the fact that the laureates have no formal institutional means to work with global governing bodies and no executive arm to carry out even the most well-intentioned ideas, policies, and programs. Yet they may have something much more important at their disposal: moral weight. Indeed, few individuals on the planet carry greater moral authority than those who have been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. And as a nonaligned group, they are in a unique position to call the world's attention to critical issues and hold our collective feet to the fire. It is a responsibility that many of them seemed more than happy to uphold.

“To ignore horrible, horrible problems just because you can't begin to solve them is a kind of indifference that I think is a moral death,” declared Paul Lacey, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning organization American Friends Service Committee and a practicing Quaker. “The greatest force for moral good is the imagination: that capacity to conceive of yourself in another person's situation, to feel what it would be like, and therefore to change the way you live your life.”

Morals and ethics were front and center during the week, perhaps even more so than explicit references to religion and spirituality. Still, when practicing Catholic and 1983 laureate Lech Walesa exclaimed that “the more we advance technologically, the more we need values—values and ethics, that's the key,” it was hard not to feel the weight of his religious convictions in the air. And the language of ethics hinted at a rarely seen potential—the possibility of spirituality, morality, and political activism merging into one passionate, wholehearted response to the many problems that beset our global society.

In a recent New York Times editorial, cultural critic Paul Berman powerfully articulated why this kind of response is so desperately needed and why our moment in history demands an inculcation of deep values into civic discourse:

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas . . . but [we] speak of what? . . . of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and non-coercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorist speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things.

At the high points of the week in Rome, there was a sense that these celebrated activists may have a unique capacity to mobilize themselves in the service of a larger calling, to “speak sanely of deep things” and actually be heard. And they have a natural sense of the importance of translating their own feelings about the state of the world into inspired, practical action. In a time when the spiritual and the political are so often separated and compartmentalized and where both often lack a larger unifying worldcentric view of the challenges we face as a species, it is hard to imagine a more critical task.

Each year, the summit ends with a collective statement prepared by the laureates, a document expressing their united thoughts on the state of the planet. But this time, Gorbachev and others were pushing for more. There are plans underway to develop a more permanent organization that would be focused on implementing the agenda and conclusions of the gathering, to try to move this unusual collection of global heroes toward a more practical orientation. As 1995 laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat so poignantly said, “We have a duty. We received the Nobel Prize for Peace. There is still not peace in the world. Until peace is achieved our task is not complete. It is our duty to see to it.” Is it possible for this forum to evolve into a globally influential bastion of moral strength and radical activism? It's hard to know for sure, but judging by the quality of those four days in Rome, it would seem that some small part of that task, at least, has already begun.


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