IN his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, Pope John Paul II made an impassioned plea to rescue humanity from its current predicament. His words were timely, for on the cusp of a new millennium, we see the human spirit under siege as seldom before.
Across the world, the voices of millions are crying out in desperation for relief and guidance. Many of our fellow human beings still live in abject poverty.
The New World Order, with its promise of peace through collective security, has come upon a baptism of fire. And still it would appear that no common frame of reference, no new consensus, no global ethic has emerged to assure the peoples of the world that they can lead peaceful, secure, and decent lives.
We must learn the lessons of the 20th century, no matter how hard, and apply them.
The Pontiff warned against indifference, especially when it expresses itself in denying the rights of others. Injustice is perceived and conflict results when the gap between self and other seems larger than the common ground. It is the fundamental split between ''me'' and ''you,'' between ''us'' and ''them,'' which is at the root of all conflicts, including the nightmare of violence and terror.
The salvation of contemporary society lies in respect for every culture. From our perspective in the Middle East, where a historic accommodation of differences is slowly taking place, there is no point more crucial than this. For after decades of conflict, Arabs and Jews are finally beginning to recognize each other's hopes, fears, and beliefs.
Freedom and justice cannot simply be defined by the absence of tyranny and oppression. Freedom, as the pope said, is a measure of humanity's dignity and greatness, while modern totalitarianism is an assault on our dignity, denying us the most elementary and inalienable rights. Totalitarianism is a challenge to the individual's spiritual growth and the moral vitality of nations.
Healing the family of nations
Systems of thought that tend toward exclusion, that define the other as a threat to be eradicated rather than an ally to work with, lead to the assertion of a monopoly on the truth and a denial of diversity. The results of such assertions are only too clear in the wars that scar the last years of this century.
The United Nations must rise to the challenge. Fashioned in the aftermath of World War II, but effectively frozen by the cold war, the UN now has the opportunity to bring together our disparate ''family of nations.''
A renewed UN could help to forge a consensus for the new millennium based on a participatory, inclusive approach. But this will not occur until the states who are the members of the UN find the political will to lay aside narrowly defined national interests for the sake of a greater good.
The task of consensus-building therefore is crucial. In these transitional post-cold-war times, human rights represent a yardstick by which we can judge the success of our endeavors. They represent a minimum standard of conduct toward fellow human beings that becomes more pertinent than ever when they are daily abused on a massive scale.
However, we should aim further than a minimum standard and articulate a positive common code of inclusion and respect. Only such an ethic can bring to many societies a new kind of politics in which people matter. Only such an ethic can build a bridge across the gap between ''us'' and ''them,'' and make us realize that we are all ''us.''