One can be forgiven for believing that the world is utterly unforgiving. Rarely, it seems, have things been as rotten as they are now. Nature is attacking us with a deadly global pandemic. Forest fires are incinerating America’s most populous state. America is torn between competing political factions who despise each other. Racial injustice has led to demonstrations, some of which have burned down large swaths of America’s cities.
What could God be thinking?
The Jewish people, I believe, can lead the world now, in this time of terrible crisis, in embracing inspiration and optimism. Only the Jews have reached the other side of a blistering 2,000-year exile intact. A fierce and resilient optimism motivated the Jews and preserved them.
The Jewish messianic visions foretell an era where there will be “no famines and no wars, no envy and no competition. For the good will be very pervasive.” It’s a future so bright that “even the darkness is not dark for Thee, but the night shines like the day.” Nations will never again raise weapons against one another, but “beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks.” The Jews, whom the prophets predicted would be dispersed throughout the world, would return to dwell safely in their land.
It sounds like pure fantasy. And yet, the Jewish concept of the Messiah has fueled everything from the rise of the world’s largest religion, Christianity, to things far less sacred, like Hollywood action heroes and James Bond, who repeatedly save humanity from certain destruction.
Ah, but what of all the civil wars, malaria, food shortages and rogue regimes? Most of all, what about the coronavirus?
That the world is actually getting better might not align with the news we feed on, which would have us believe that the world is in a tailspin headed to hell. But history tells a more hopeful story.
Prophets and sages alike predicted a world without famine, plague or war. For thousands of years, these words seemed absurd, too. These scourges of life were as firm a fixture of creation as the skies and seas.
In Homo Deus, Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari asks: What is on the agenda for humanity? “For thousands of years,” he explains, “the answer to this question remained unchanged. Famine, plague and war were always at the top of the list.”
All of that changed suddenly over the past few decades, where Humanity woke up to a new and unprecedented reality. While we didn’t solve these evils completely, we fundamentally transformed the relationship we have to them. Whereas they were once “incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces, they are now viewed as “manageable challenges,” we usually keep at bay.
In a pretty sweeping way, famine, plague, and war are no longer inextricable part of the human experience – certainly not to their prior extent. Instead, when they occur, we assume something must have gone wrong – a failure in logistics, distribution, governance or diplomacy. In each case, we try to understand what went wrong, who’s to blame, and what solutions we can formulate to prevent them from reoccurring. The goal is no longer to accept but to improve. Harari goes on:
“Such calamities indeed happen less and less often. For the first time in history, more people die today of eating too much than eating too little; more people die from old age than infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early 21st century, the average human is far more likely to die from binging at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.”
None of this is meant to make light of the hunger, the diseases, and wars that rage on still. However, it’s crucial we be aware of the progress we’ve made. It vindicates our boldest hopes and provides incentive us to press on further until tragedies like these cease to occur. We’re not there yet, but with a bit of imagination, we can now glimpse a world matured beyond the evils of its youth – the vision of a world redeemed.
Famine was once the most routine of mass tragedies. Millions perished the most terrible death imaginable, all for lack of food. Famines would routinely kill millions, if not tens of millions, and yet there was next to nothing humanity could do to prevent them.
Then, legions of agricultural scientists began to solve the problem. Famines are not entirely gone from earth, but there’s a formula to stop them. When they do occur, they’re generally the result of war or incompetent or corrupt governance – both of which are solvable, which means that famine is avoidable. As noted by Harari, “there are no longer natural famines in the world, only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it’s because some politician wants them to.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen framed the idea in a more positive light: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Humanity still has its own problems to work out, but our planet now consistently produces enough food to feed every one of its inhabitants.
While the coronavirus pandemic serves as a stunning reminder both that plagues still exist and the limitations of medicine and science, the fact remains that both the danger of the virus and the human response’s effectiveness mark clear progress in humanity’s battle against sickness and disease. Again, the past depicts how far we’ve come: in the old days, contagious illness could kill a quarter to a third of cities, regions and even continents. Death tolls regularly registered in the tens of millions, sometimes even hundreds. The Black Death killed up to a third of Europe. North American natives would see even more complete devastation: up to 90% would be killed by invisible maladies imported by explorers and conquerors from Europe.
Today, sudden death from infectious disease is a fear most of us don’t have to live with. Protective equipment, medical know-how, and methods of mass-coordination mean we’re better off than ever before. The next time a mysterious and contagious illness is discovered, we’ll be even more prepared and equipped. Most importantly, we have the scientific tools to know the hidden enemy – even every rung of its DNA. As the turnaround time for vaccine development gets shorter, the day where pandemics never occur night not be that far off. Humanity, inspired by the Messianic ideal, will not rest until it gets there.
War is perhaps the most persistent of these evils, and many believe it will never altogether disappear. Still, conflicts occur far less often than they used to, and they’re less deadly when they do. As Steven Pinker proves in his monumental scientific work The Better Angels of Our Nature, humans are less likely to be killed at the hands of another than ever before. Over hundreds of pages, Pinker lays out the case for “what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history,” humanity’s arrival into an era more peaceful and less violent than ever before.
Defense has now replaced conquest as the global military function, and social and economic improvements are now the most central elements of any military strategy. The US spent just a few months conquering Iraq but nearly a decade trying to stabilize and rebuild it.
Military academies like those at West Point and Annapolis have shifted focus toward civil engineering, leadership, and state-building. The US has even commissioned a project to turn aging bullets into seeding machines to help regrow entire forests – quite literally fashioning modern “swords” into super-modern “plowshares.”
The art of war has changed because we have. As explained by Pinker: “The decline in violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead.”
Most surprisingly of all, we Jews have actually been gathered again upon the sacred soil of Israel, where we increasingly dwell more safely than ever.