Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Listeners, viewers worldwide tune in to 2014 Nobel event

Peace Prize Forum has a long reach

Minnesota Public Radio's Gary Eichten, left, feeds questions to William Foege, M.D. Photo credits: Stephen Geffre

Minnesota Public Radio’s Gary Eichten, left, feeds questions to William Foege, M.D. Photo credits: Stephen Geffre

Planners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Forum, hosted by Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, took full advantage of electronic technology to connect with peace-lovers across the globe. Plenary sessions and special-interest sessions featured connectivity with students and other interested participants in 41 countries, in locations as diverse as Norway, Africa, and Japan. In a workshop exploring the phenomenon of “crowdsourcing” — using the best efforts of widely-scattered volunteers to do scientific research for peaceful purposes — resource speakers in Copenhagen and Oxford contributed their expertise via the Internet, sharing PowerPoint slide shows from overseas.

In the large group sessions, participants outside the Twin Cities were invited to send questions to the presenters through the “Google Plus” platform. It was not uncommon to hear the moderator announce, “This next question comes from Osaka, Japan,” or “We have this observation from a student at the American College of Norway.”

Anyone with live-stream capabilities on his or her computer could view any of the sessions in real time.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize Forum featured four distinct themes, each one developed on a separate day. On Faith and Peace Day, March 1, a sellout crowd filled the Minneapolis Convention Center to hear from His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (Ironically, although the Dalai Lama came advocating peace, his presence in the U.S. provoked a starkly belligerent response from the the government of the People’s Republic of China, which deemed his appearance in the U.S. to be “highly provocative.”)

On the following weekend, three more themed days explored peace issues related to Law and Business (March 7), Science and Health (March 8), and Global Concerns (March 9). Keynoters addressed large crowds at Ted Mann Concert Hall on the U of M’s West Bank campus.

Unsustainable inequalities

Kicking off Law and Business Day was New York University professor Michael Posner, a noted human rights advocate. He told the audience that he believes the U.S. investment community behaves badly because its priorities are skewed. Said Posner, “I’m surprised how many CEOs tell me, ‘The pressure I feel to meet quarterly expectations from investors is crushing.’ The average CEO doesn’t survive in office more than four years. This is partly why.”

WS Nobel College_speaker

Strand explained that Scandinavians see a company’s stakeholders to be both employees and shareholders.

He responded to a question, “Why do [people] hate business so much?” by saying, “I don’t think it’s right to hate business. It can be and has been a force for good. The challenge is to insure reasonable profits while creating an environment that honors human rights.”

Addressing the topic of sustainability in Scandinavia was Robert Strand, director of the Nordic Network for Sustainability, based at the Copenhagen Business School. He stressed the need to develop good business practices that serve the common good. In Scandinavia, he explained, the typical ratio between CEO salaries and the average employee in a CEO’s firm is 30 to 1. In the U.S., by contrast, the average ratio is 300 to 1. “That in itself,” he said, “is unsustainable.”

Strand explained that Scandinavians see a company’s stakeholders to be both employees and shareholders, the consequence of which is that worker upward mobility is far more possible than in the U.S. He said conservatives in the U.S. talk as if upward mobility is “the American dream,” but then quoted economist Richard Wilkenson. In an on-line TED talk, titled “Inequality,” Wilkenson famously declared, “If you want to achieve the American dream these days, you should seriously consider moving to Denmark.”

A small view of the world

A highlight of Science and Health Day was a presentation by Dr. William Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. A Lutheran pastor’s son and a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, Foege is credited with having taken key steps to help eradicate smallpox. Emphasizing the need to respect and embrace all of humanity, he told his audience, “Every atom inside of us has been somewhere else. Every atom inside of you has, for example, spent time inside of a gay person. Of course, if you’re homophobic, this could be bad news for you.” (That line drew extended applause from the crowd.)

He described with enthusiasm the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry is beginning to embrace philanthropy for the common good. “In the last 15 years, there has been a sudden acceleration in medical progress. The number of corporations getting involved in global health is exciting. Merck started it by giving away a medicine originally developed for use in dogs. It was tested on humans in Africa. It turned out to be effective in stopping river blindness in human beings. Merck has given away one billion free treatments of their drug by now.”

Foege believes the tipping point in global health came in the year 2000. The credit, he says, goes to Melinda and Bill Gates, whose foundation has led the way in promoting and financially supporting global health.

He defined peace as “rewriting history in hopeful terms before it happens.” Civilization, he said, is best understood as “the way people treat each other.” Then he added, “Civilized behavior is organized kindness.”

Foege had harsh words for those who use misinformation to spread fear in the population, retarding good health outcomes. He was particularly scornful of the pseudo-scientist who wrote in The Lancet, the British medical journal, that there was “a good chance” that inoculations could lead to autism in children.

“[This man] has done more damage to global health than possibly anyone else,” Foege maintained, arguing that the results of such misinformation are notoriously difficult to undo. He suggested that autism is probably caused by something before birth, not after.

On the topic of child labor and the misery caused by poor working conditions in underdeveloped countries, Foege said, “The slavery of today is caused by Americans and others in the developed world who benefit from those in the Third World who give us cheap clothing, cheap food, and cheap hotel rooms. We should be ashamed of ourselves for tolerating this.”

He berated policymakers whose myopic behavior would eliminate U.S. partnerships with other nations in the field of global health. He said, “A hostile congressman once asked me, ‘Why do you spend CDC money — dollars from America’s hard-working taxpayers — on people overseas?’ I asked him, ‘Did you get your flu shot this year?’ He said he had. I told him, ‘In that flu shot you received something called the Leningrad strain, shared with us by our friends in the [then] Soviet Union. So now you have Soviet antibodies flowing in your veins. They shared their expertise with us. Shouldn’t we be sharing ours with other nations as well?”

Looking for ‘ordinary peacemakers’

Keynoting Global Concerns Day was Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner appeared in the colorful African dress that is her trademark when addressing audiences. She explained that her unusual attire has at times caused her more than a little inconvenience — sometimes with amusing outcomes.

Liberian Lutheran Leymah Gbowee’s keynote brought the Nobel event to a conclusion.

Liberian Lutheran Leymah Gbowee’s keynote brought the Nobel event to a conclusion.

Foege defined peace as “rewriting history in hopeful terms before it happens.”

“Once on the way to give a speech, I was detained at Dulles Airport, outside Washington, D.C., along with lots of ‘funny looking’ people. You know the type — long beards, turbans, dark skin, anything that might suggest a potential terrorist is trying to get into the country. I faced the prospect of waiting for hours at the end of this long line of detainees, with the certainty I would miss getting to my appointment in time. My impatient young daughter suddenly raced away from me and found a U.S. flag on a pole, in which she wrapped herself. She then approached the security officers, one after another, and started hugging them around their legs. In five minutes, probably to get her out of the room, there came the announcement over the loudspeaker, ‘Ms. Gbowee, welcome to America. You’re free to go.’”

“We need,” Gbowee said, “to be able to see people for who they are, to look beyond their headdresses, costumes, skin color, and customs.” She urged her listeners to look at strangers like a curious book reader. “Open the book. Don’t judge by the cover.”

She called for “ordinary citizens of the world” to become “ordinary peacemakers.” Reflecting on her experience, helping to get armed enemies to lay down their weapons and make peace in Liberia, she told how the mothers of boys, teenagers, and young men who had become mercenary soldiers made peace with their children.

“[The young mercenaries] had grown their hair long and had been wearing dreadlocks, signs of their membership in the killing squads. Their mothers showed their readiness to welcome them back into peaceful society by going to them and giving them haircuts. It was an act of reconciliation. The former killers saw it as a powerful act of peacemaking.”

Said Gbowee, “The good people of this world have stepped back and allowed the minority with evil intentions to take over. It is high time for people of good will to step forward and set things right again.” Until we step out with courage, she said, evil people will come and occupy our space.

“There are plenty of things we can do to turn the tide,” she maintained. “The international news carries stories about injustices and massacres around the world. The majority remains silent. That needs to change. We can find ways to help people change the way they think. What we settle on might be something very small, but we need to start.”

Other keynoters at the conference included Sister Helen Prejean, an activist against the death penalty; Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of The Eurasia Group; and Deane Marchbein, M.D., director of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres).

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is hosted annually on the campuses of Augsburg and the U of M. Sponsoring institutions are the six U.S. Lutheran colleges and universities with Norwegian heritage — Augsburg, St. Olaf, Luther, Augustana (Sioux Falls), Concordia (Moorhead), and Pacific Lutheran University.

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