Global Harmony in Microcosms

December 6, 2011 | 6 comments
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A Japanese former ambassador to China recently offered some provocative thoughts on the global promise of America, suggesting that the American melting pot is a kind of pilot project for world peace. Could the same be true of the LDS Church?

Here is the quotation that caught my attention:

I have always considered America — a smaller version of our world — as a grand “testing ground” for the entire human population on earth. It is a testing ground where diverse peoples coexist, cooperate and create innovation. If this experiment succeeds in America, there is hope that mankind may succeed on a global scale. If it fails, mankind can expect no bright future. America exemplifies the future of mankind.

While there is a lot more to the phenomenon of America than this, I think Mr. Miyamoto is right that, (the United States of) America,* with its immigrants from everywhere, is a kind of crucible in which people from all over the world will either find constructive ways of living and working together, or not. It represents in microcosm the challenges of the world as a whole.

One limitation of America, of course, is that it is far from clear how well solutions achieved there can be brought back out into the wider world scene. Those who live in America are changed by the experience, and so what comes to work for them may not work for their relatives and countrymen back home. Equally, institutions, conditions, and habits that enable and support harmony in the U.S. may not be very portable. The very success of the American experiment to a great extend depends on and also encourages people coming and staying. To the extent that American immigrants function as representatives of their societies of origin, it is a real limitation if they tend not to go back. Hence if, as Mr. Miyamoto says, ‘what we are seeking to create is a “global civilization” for the entire world,’ then we will need some other strategies.

One such strategy may be an institution like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an institution that functions at a global level, including members from all over the world, which builds ties among them even while they continue to live in the lands and societies of their birth. One of the most effective tools uniting this multicultural church is the missionary program, which takes young men and women from around the world and sends them to live in places far from home for 1.5 to 2 years, often learning another language to do so.

There is perhaps no better way to build bonds of affection than to serve, and missionaries return expressing a love for the people they lived among that may run deeper than their love of their home community. Equally importantly, the missionary program creates a cadre of members, future leaders, who between them have intimate knowledge of loyalty to a great range of cultures and societies. Thus even while at the highest levels the church continues for now to be led predominantly by Americans (for reasons of history, economics, or whatever), these are Americans who with each passing year are more familiar with and tied to their brothers and sisters around the world. It is, of course, important also to see more and more leaders of international origin, many of whom have served international missions themselves. While missionaries go abroad to spread their faith, if we want to build a world in which we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, the knowledge and affection they bring home will be equally vital.

America is a place that provokes people to work for unity, independent of religion. A global religion provokes people to work for unity, independent of place. It will take a lot more than these two phenomena to create Mr. Miyamoto’s “bright future”, but it’s a start.

*Having grown up outside the U.S., I am very aware that the word America refers to two whole continents, including much more than the U.S.A. Since I am using Mr. Miyamoto’s article as a jumping-off point, however, I will defer to his usage for the moment and use “America” as shorthand for the United States thereof.

6 Responses to Global Harmony in Microcosms

  1. Jacob on December 7, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I agree with the point that missionaries can bring home a certain knowledge and affection that is potentially effective for creating more global relationships. Though it’s unfortunate that although many serve and grow to love peoples of vastly different cultures, some often nevertheless adopt very xenophobic attitudes, particularly regarding undocumented immigrants.

    On a completely unrelated note (because I’m not sure where to complain) I’m confused as to what happened to Adam Miller’s stellar post on the veil and God as immanent in the earthly and the ordinary. It seems to have been removed for some reason.

  2. Sonny on December 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Very nice, Ben. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Ben Huff on December 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Jacob. I was a missionary in Japan, and unfortunately I did see a few missionaries with negative attitudes about the Japanese people and culture. I also had a friend whose brother came back from a mission to Mexico with a rather toxic attitude about the Catholic church. I think it is fair to say that these are the exception rather than the norm. There still may be ways the missionary program, training materials etc. could be tweaked to make these cases even more uncommon. Personally, I wish we had been encouraged to study the culture much more deeply. At least in my mission, though, we were definitely encouraged to include material on Japanese culture in our regular study, along with the language and gospel and scripture study.

    As for Adam’s post, I agree it had a very beautiful message about how imperfect and ordinary people are called to represent the perfect and transcendant God to one another. However, some of the bloggers felt that it was too bound up with specifics of the temple ritual to be appropriate in a forum as public as a blog.

  4. Sonny on December 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I served in Japan as well Ben. Sorry for the threadjack, but out of curiosity what mission were you in?

    I remember talking to several people in Japan that expressed a sort of awe at the U.S. for being so diverse. Japan is *so* homogeneous that I think they can’t fathom an culturally/ethnically diverse society working. Of course, there were those that thought our society was not working and opined that it was due to fact that we were not homogeneous.

  5. Ben Huff on December 7, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Yes, it is very interesting that this piece is written by a Japanese, considering Japan’s history of closing itself off to the outside world for centuries and its very high level of homogeneity still today. Japan has also always lived to some extent in the shadow of China, absorbing deep cultural influences although remaining proudly independent politically. Until the 20th Century, that is, when Japan militarily occupied large portions of China, etc., before in turn being occupied by the U.S. In this sense Japan is itself a fascinating study in the possibilities for peace and still has a bit of an uphill climb to overcome its problematic history with its neighbors in Asia.

    I am inclined to agree that many social problems in the U.S. stem to a significant extent from our cultural and ethnic diversity. To the extent that we overcome the challenges this poses, though, we are achieving something that could be a very valuable influence on the wider world.

    I was in the Tokyo South Mission (and had a great time).

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I served in the Japan and Japan East missions from February 1969 to February 1971. I was born in Japan, and worked in Tokyo with the US Air Force 1980-1983.

    To a certain extent, it is natural for a Japanese ambassador to ponder the question of how distinct nations can live together, since Japan has such a laboratory experiment history of being isolated from direct physical invasion for its entire recorded history, and literally isolated culturally from most international influences for hundreds of years prior to the US intervention under President Buchanan (probably the one positive accomplishment of his term in office), and then thrusting itself onto the world stage in an accelerated effort to catch up with western society. That was facilitated by intentional study and adoption of specific institutions from other nations, such as medicine and a legal system from Germany.

    The conquest of Japan by the USA established for the first time a subordinate role to another nation. The genius of MacArthur’s administration of the Occupation was allowing the existing Japanese hierarchy to fit under his leadership. And it shifted Japan into a new phase of acquiring skills and ideas from other nations and adapting them to Japanese society.

    Because the Japanese language is so difficult for most people to acquire, the vast majority of the effort in engaging with the rest of the world has been made by Japanese learning English and other languages and living overseas. There is a continuing tension between Japanese culture and attitudes and the alternative viewpoints and cultures of other nations.

    There are some ways in which the Japanese experience is analogous to the situation of the Latter-day Saints, who are asked to maintain citizenship in a distinct culture even while we are invited to engage with the world and succeed, in many cases, on its terms. Like the Japanese, the burden of learning the “language” of the wider culture falls on us, since few outsiders are interested in becoming “expatriates” living “embedded” among the “native” Mormons. Institutions like the Church universities and colleges not only function to educate the Saints, they also act as ambassadors to their non-Mormon peer institutions for the Church, and they help to mediate the encounter between the culture of Zion and thaat of the larger world.

    The challenge of building unity and cooperation in a world of diverse nations and ethnicities can profit from the study of both the United States (and a number of other American nations with substantial immigrant populations) and the Church. And the nature of the Church membership as having the characteristics of a distinct ethnicity of its own makes study of the Mormon experience a doubly significant nexus for research on this question.