While last night’s vice presidential debate covered some international issues — including climate change and U.S. relations with China, Iran, and Russia — foreign policy issues have largely taken a back seat in this campaign so far. Meanwhile, the number of worldwide coronavirus deaths surpassed 1 million, a chilling and tragic number that barely broke through the headlines about how our own president had contracted the virus. The fact that nearly a quarter of those 1 million deaths have taken place in the United States is a sobering reminder of the failure of American leadership — and we can’t forget how that failure extends globally, as our nation’s moral responsibilities and practical interests are inextricably tied to the rest of the world. As the Apostle Paul so aptly put it: “When one part [of the body] suffers, all parts suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous remix of this text says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The catastrophic rise in extreme poverty around the world, the alarming erosion of human rights in many countries, the elusive prospects for sustainable peace in the Middle East, the pernicious scale of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, religious persecution, and ongoing war and conflict should matter deeply to the body of Christ, even if they don’t grab headlines or get addressed in campaign ads. These and other international issues are often rooted in and perpetuated by racism, past and present. As Church World Service points out in their Platform on Racial Justice:
Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color (BIPOC) communities in the United States and around the world are disproportionately impacted by hunger, poverty, displacement, disaster, and climate change. This is not by happenstance. White supremacy and misogyny continue to target and destroy the lives and communities of BIPOC. This is a daily life oppression, carried out by unjust international and national economic and legal systems, militarism disguised as law enforcement, and discriminatory immigration policies.
How the U.S. conducts itself in the world does matter in this election and should be part of how we evaluate candidates and cast our votes. As Pope Francis reminds the world in his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the world is deeply interconnected and we are called by our faith to become and act as one human family.
A vison for the human family
Pope Francis has a penchant for impeccable, maybe even providential timing. His encyclical Laudato Si’ came out just months before the 2015 Paris climate summit and played a key role in influencing public opinion and galvanizing political will behind bolder climate action to protect “our common home.” Now, less than a month before the most consequential U.S. election in generations, the pope’s new encyclical provides a powerful rebuke to a politics of division, fear, and hate while also casting a vision for the human family that is deeply relevant to applying our faith to U.S. leadership in the world. Fratelli Tutti (on “universal fraternity and social friendship”) takes its title from St. Francis of Assisi and is inspired by his “fraternal openness,” which, the pope said, calls on people “to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.” The encyclical also references and was inspired by a document on human fraternity and interreligious dialogue that Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, signed in 2019. As E.J. Dionne writes, “We are not accustomed to hearing from a pope, a month before Election Day, who criticizes ‘myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism,’ and castigates those who, through their actions, cast immigrants as ‘less worthy, less important, less human.’”
Human rights and international aid and cooperation rarely, if ever, make headlines in national politics or elections. But from a faith perspective, they should. They factor into our discernment both as Christians and Americans because our moral obligations and concerns cannot be confined to our borders. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating to the world’s efforts to combat extreme poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and child mortality.
Global crisis requires global response
The World Bank reports that COVID-19 has dealt an unprecedented setback to the worldwide effort to end extreme poverty, raise median incomes, and create shared prosperity. The World Bank’s new poverty projections suggest that by 2021, an additional 110 to 150 million people will have fallen into extreme poverty. This means that the pandemic and global recession may push 1.4 percent of the world’s population into extreme poverty. And since the outbreak, more than 1.6 billion children in developing countries have been out of school, implying a potential loss of as much as $10 trillion in lifetime earnings for these students. Making matters worse, gender-based violence is on the rise, and early estimates suggest a potential increase of up to 45 percent in child mortality because of health-service shortfalls and reductions in access to food. I have spent his career advocating for greater global leadership to end the dehumanizing impacts of extreme poverty; these trends are heartbreaking.
In response to these staggering statistics, we desperately need members of Congress and a president who recognize that a global pandemic requires a global response, which, as the ONE campaign outlines, must include efforts to support the most vulnerable and the equitable global distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and treatment. We need leaders who will provide bold leadership in the fight to end AIDS around the world by 2030 and who will work with the international community through organizations like the World Health Organization and GAVI (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) to fight preventable disease. Through the Circle of Protection, Sojourners is calling on Congress to provide an additional $20 billion to support a global COVID-19 relief response to support people on the frontlines of the pandemic. As COVID-19 takes lives and drives a global financial crisis it is imperative that U.S. leaders pressure the G20 and the International Monetary Fund to increase debt relief and cancellation through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust and other expanded processes.
An abdication of leadership
The fragile state of human rights and democracy has also been exacerbated by this pandemic and the abdication of U.S. leadership in protecting and upholding human rights. A recent report from Freedom House found, “Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health. The crisis of democratic governance, having begun long before the pandemic, is likely to continue after the health crisis recedes, as the laws and norms being put in place now will be difficult to reverse.”
We cannot forget our priorities of working toward peace in the Middle East, or monitoring Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with and subvert our election and democracy, or addressing the persecution of Uighurs in China. Each of these topics warrants our resources and attention, even in a news cycle where attention is hard to come by.
Pope Francis places Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan at the center of his encyclical, writing, “The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan … Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside.” He continues by saying the “parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”
These words provide a moral compass to elect leaders who are determined to revamp and rehabilitate U.S. global leadership to build a radically more just, healthy, and secure world.