Can I Make A Difference?

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

Talk given at the celebrate Conference, Easter 2001
All of us wonder whether anything we can do will possibly make any difference in shaping events. As a young campaigner in central Liverpool I was struck by how often people would say to me: “what difference can I make? What’s the point? Nothing ever changes! But doing nothing never changed anything.
Whether it is in your personal life, in the community, or in the wider world it is only by getting involved that things will change. All too frequently we feel like the little boy in robert Louis Stephenson’s writings who says “the world is so big and I am so small I do not like it at all, at all.” Overwhelemed by the impossibility of situations we shrug our shoulders or wring our hands and walk away. It’s somebody else’s problem or somebody else’s resposibility. They will be better placed than me to do something. I tell my children that there are two kinds of tribes living on two islands: the Poor Mes and the Can Dos. They and we have to decide on which island we want to live. Do we simply want to wallow in pity and self obsession or try to get things done. It’s not a bad idea to begin by extinguishing the word CANT from our vocabularies.
But before I turn to these themes let me invoke the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from his poem, Kubla Khan, written two centuries ago. They provide a timely and salutary lesson for those who put their faith in man-made artifacts; and a warning about those who build them: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree Where Alph, the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea…. The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves Where was heard the mingled measure From the fountain and the caves It was a miracle of rare device A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!….. That with music loud and long I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! And all who heard would see them there And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair Weave a circle round him thrice And close your eyes with holy dread For he on honey dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of paradise
Perhaps we, too, should beware, beware of flashing eyes and floating hair, and the honey laden words which beckoned us to our own London pleasure dome. It is instructive to note that modern day travellers can find no trace of the Kubla Khan’s great dome and that all that remains of Marco Polo’s Xanadu are dusty ruins and archaeological fragments. Three or four years ago at Celebrate I said that pouring resources into the Dome would be a waste of money which could be better used in tackling the indebtedness of the Third World. I argued that it would be a more appropriate way of celebrating Our Lord’s Jubilee and bring lasting progress for people living in grinding poverty. For me, the Dome represents a mislaced sense of priorities. Nye Bevin once said that politics is the religion of priorities. And so I suppose lesson one for anyone wishing to try and make a difference is to get your priorities sorted out and then stick to them firmly. Lesson two is not to put too much faith in yourself, determining to do without God’s help. Material progress devoid of spiritual meaning becomes worthless.
Man made artifacts have a habit of falling apart in our hands. They offer no firm foundation for endurance. Contrast the ephemeral nature of the man made dome with the awesome consequences of the empty tomb; the materialism, the consumerism, and worldliness of the dome with the timelessness of the cross. What Coleridge describes as a miracle of rare device may be decreed by temporal rulers but their passing, like the passing of the rulers who decreed them, is guaranteed. For a Christian, the truly miraculous and the eternal is what captivates and holds us, from one generation to the next. In setting out to make a difference we mustn’t forget this. Too easily a political party can beomes a substitute for our faith and our church; our manifestos a substitute for the gospel. For the Christain, every year is the beginning of a new year of jubilee. This is set in the biblical tradition of Isaiah. Jesus Himself invoked this tradition when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth and said that He had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour . For Jewish people the jubilee year would bring threefold blessings – a time when fields would be left fallow to regain their goodness, a time when captives would be freed, and a time when unfair burdens would be removed. Jubilee betokened a time for spiritual renewal; a time for turning to God and for fulfilling His laws. Here was a passion for justice, and a passion for mercy. Christians need to hold these two words in tension. This brings to mind the story of a man whose wife was celebrating her sixtieth birthday. He commissioned a painting of his wife. The artist promised that he would “do her justice.” No, said, his client, just be merciful. There is another story, about two pre-Raphaelite artists this time: Rosetti and Morris. Rosetti, whenever he saw a beggar would empty his pockets of money and having given it to the beggar would go off and think no more about it. Morris, by contrast, whenever he saw a beggar, would never give a penny but went off to work for a world in which there would be no more beggars. Rosetti was all heart and Morris was all head. We need to have both heart and head, pursuing justice and mercy. When we set out to make a difference we need a combination of heart and head. Relying on one at the expense of the other is like flying a twin engine aeroplane on just one engine; or breathing using only one lung. I was recently talking to a high ranking journalist who told me that once he began to think about faith became totally persuaded by its claims. He was puzzled, therefore, why so many Christians privatise their faith, shy away from speaking about it, or simply keep it to themselves.
Many of us are all too keenly aware of our personal inadequacies and failings – the times we fall all too obviously short of the ideals of our faith. This can lead to a loss of nerve. In setting out to make a difference it is important to have confidence in your self. (cf Jesus: attitude of Nazareth, prophet rejected in his own town/ people will say what do you know about it/ what right do you have to speak on this or that/ my first experience of the student union, local council, parliament). If we allow our personal and collective sin or lack of self esteem to silence us about our belief we will be denying our countrymen the clues to life and the keys to heaven. When the late David Watson was once accused of being a Christian hypocrite he replied to the heckler: “Maybe, but there’s plenty of room inside for one more.” The man or woman who hasn’t fallen short of their ideals doesn’t exist and the man or woman who never made a mistake never made anything. Chrsitains should be less bothered about introspective questions, endless theological niceties, and obscure issues of dogma – and bother more about the condition of our confused and chaotic society; and talk more directly into that crack. In 1943, Winston Churchill wrote these words: “Religion has been the rock in the life and character of the British people upon which they have built their hopes and cast their cares. This fundamental element must never be taken from our schools and I rejoice to learn of the enormous progress that is being made among all religious bodies in freeing themselves from sectarian jealousies and feuds, while preserving fervently the tenets of their own faith.”
In today’s world we need to renew that fervour and proclaim our faith, without either sliding into sectarianism or a wishy washy syncretism which seeks to appease everyone and ends up speaking to no- one. Forming Christian citizens – who balance claimed rights against duties, who participate at every level of society, and whose attitudes and actions are informed by their faith – should be our greatest priority. They should not be afraid of being different, – or being signs of contradiction – but we do them no service if we do not adequately prepare them for the battles which they will face.
All too frequently the great world religions are caricatured as part of the problem preventing peaceful co-existence rather than as an essential part of the solution. Religious belief and spiritual impulse is an innate part of man’s makeup. The peaceful coexistence of secular society and religious belief will be one of the great challenges for civil society during the coming years. Those who simply view all religious belief in negative ways frequently omit to recognise the times that people of faith have enriched our political and civic life. Figures as diverse as Thomas More and William Wilberfoce, and Lord Shaftesbury; Keir Hardie and William Ewart Gladstone were all principally inspired by their religious beliefs. So, too, were the founding fathers of the post war European Community – Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi. Schuman and Adenauer believed deeply that Christian heritage formed the very basis for Western European civilisation. They saw national antagonism as a major factor in the success of totalitarianism and the outbreak of cataclysmic conflict. Who can doubt that their resolve to create reconciliation and peaceful coexistence has brought unprecedented stability in western Europe.
Two summers ago I visited Albania with the bishop of Brentwood, Bishop Thomas McMahon. We saw there the abandoned mausoleum which Albania’s Marxist dictator, Enva Hojxa had erected in the heart of Tiranna. Hoxja had committed himself to the eradication of religion in Albania – and among the last of his victims was a Catholic priest who was executed in 1975 after performing an illegal baptism. The marble mausoleum is now being used as an unofficial ski-slope by local children. Just over the road a new cathedral is being built and on the day we arrived the Archbishop of Tiranna was ordaining ten deacons from among one hundred young seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
Albania reminded me of the Ukraine and other communist fiefdoms which I visited before the collapse of communism. In the Ukraine I met Ivan Hel and Bishop Pavlo Vasylk. They had spent seventeen years and eighteen years in Soviet jails because of their faith. I met a young priest who had returned from Chernobyl where he had been sent without any protective clothing to clear radioactive waste as a punishment for celebrating the liturgies in the open. I saw churches there which had been bricked up by Stalin’s soldiers in 1946. Not a day had passed without the people laying fresh flowers outside.
Stalin once mockingly asked “how many battalions does the Pope have?” The election of a Polish Pope in 1978 and the crucial role which he and all the churches played in challenging Marxist totalitarianism more than provide the answer .
These were people whose lives made a profound difference. None of this should make us belligerent or impervious to our own failings. During this Jubilee Year Pope John Paul called on the Church to reflect on its own past and to atone and repent for those times when the principles of the Christ’s Gospel have been abandoned. In his Apostolic letter, Tertio Millenio Adveniente, in 1994, he said that: “The sins of the past still burden us…It is necessary to make amends for them, and earnestly to beseech Christ’s forgiveness…One painful chapter of history to which the church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth…”
But this is not a call to diengage because sometimes we get it wrong.
In plural and democratic societies argument must be joined and debate waged . Although believers cannot impose their views they have a duty to speak out when they encounter injustice. Wilberforce recognised that as he patiently campaigned for forty years to see the abolition of slavery..
As is so often the case the British Chief Rabbi, Dr.Jonathan Sacks, points us towards the truth. Writing about the enormities which led to Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen said: “People ask where was God at Auschwitz? They should ask, where was man?” Dr.Sacks rightly argues against quietism or pietistic faith and urges us towards civic engagement.
We stand at the passing of a century disfigured by brutality and violence executed on an unprecedented scale. The holocaust is the most obvious example. But the litany of terrifying infamies is almost endless: the blood has been shed of more Christian martyrs than in any preceding century, the monstrous ideologies of fascist and socialist totalitarianism have claimed millions of victims, and even as we speak, in countries such as China human rights are violated daily. The Chinese oppression of Tibet has led to he destruction of some 6000 Buddhist monasteries, 600,000 Buddhist religious have been killed or proscribed. The persecution of the Church in China also continues unabated.
Last summer a 33-year-old priest was dragged away before the eyes of his congregation. That evening his battered body was found on the streets of Beijing. The Cardinal Kung Foundation, which reported the death of Fr.Yan also reported the arrest and torture of a seminarian from Hebei province, where about half of China’ Catholics live. Wang Qing was beaten, hung by the hands for three days and force- fed a filthy liquid that caused gastro-intestinal illness. In another recent incident four men caught attending a clandestine Mass in Hebei province were sent to a labour camp. . A few week ago another story came out of China (one child policy). The challenge for us is are these far away places about which we know very little or are we prepared to get involved in a single issue group, in a political movement or party, by taking individual action – through letter writing to ambassadors, to governments, t members of Parliament? China will need to learn the art of coexistence. But they are not alone.
Developments in East Timor, two years ago, graphically illustrate the role which the church, and individual Christians, can play as an advocate for justice and as a force for stability and perhaps, in the longer term, as in South Africa inspired by men like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as a force for reconciliation. In East Timor the pursuit of justice led the church to pay a heavy price . The Nobel peace prize winner, Bishop Belo,, had to be evacuated while his home and offices were destroyed.. Nuns ,priests and lay workers were murdered and churches burnt down. In Bishop Belo’s words, was because the church has been “the voice of the people, the defender of human dignity.” Given the privileges and opportunities which we enjoy, isn’t there a lesson here for us too?
But do we bother to take a view about issues such as the sale of arms to countries such as Indonesia – some of which were used to kill up to 200,000 East Timorese? And which are now being used on the Moluccas Islands and in Ambon and in other parts of Indonesia where Christians have been suffering grieviously? Do we bother to inform ourselves about these issues? Do we bother about the British taxes used to finance the coercive one child policy in China? Do we bother about Britain’s economic involvement in a brutal military dictatorship such as Burma?
Last month I gave evidence to the American Congressional caucus on human rights about genocide in Burma and pointed out that British companies such as Premier Oil continue to invest in Burma. If this were an American company its owners would face prosecution and imprisonment for providing economic succor to this most barbaric of regimes. We would do well to emulate the American Administration’s total economic embargo rather than permitting sanctions busting by predatory British firms. It’s hardly an ethical policy.
Eighteen months ago,I returned from visiting Karen refugee camps and military bases on both sides of the Burma – Thai border. I subsequently initiated a debate in the House of Lords. Since then, the genocide has continued. There is a belief among the Burmese military that they can take life with impunity. This must be challenged. In the last 5 years 30,000 Karen have been killed, 300,000 have been displaced. Genocide charges should now be laid against those responsible. If we have learnt anything from our experiences in Iraq, East Timor, and Kosovo, surely it is that despotic and brutal leaders cannot be appeased and that quiet accommodation leads to more brutal measures having to be taken later. why should a life in South East Asia be worth less than a life in South East Europe?
For 14 months a young Lancashire Christian, James Mawdsley, was in solitary confinement in Burma, locked up in a tiny prison cell in Burma. Jailed for 17 years. He has been imprisoned because his faith led him to peacefully demonstrate against an barbaric regime: trying to make a difference. James was tortured the last time he was in a Burmese jail but he decided to go back when a Karen school in a refugee camp, where he was a volunteer worker, was burnt down by Burmese military. The church should be very proud that it is producing men of James calibre and commitment; that fired by his faith he recognises that sometimes a personal price has to be paid in peacefully challenging injustice and suffering. His personal witness and sacrifice, and his idealism, are a good omen for the future of the church in this country. I have encouraged people to carry a small stone with them to remind them of James – and to remind them to pray and work with him and for him. When small stones move, landslides can happen. It is precisely because James knew how to answer the question “why bother?” that we shoiuld get in behind him.
Other young Christians have thrown themselves into campaigns closer to home, against eugenics, abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, embryo experimentation and human cloning. Through their work for agencies such as LIFE, CAFOD, the Jubilee Campaign and the hospice movement – groups such as Jospice or Zoe’s Place -, they are combining their faith with practical actions. They, too, know the answer to the question, “why bother?” A few months ago some new statues appeared on the plinths at the front of Westminster Abbey. One of these has been filled by Maximillian Kolbe – the Franciscan who took the place of a Jewish prisoner facing an execution squad at Auschwitz. Fr.Kolbe had been offered the opportunity of a quiet life by the Nazis. In return he must ag ree not to make political comment. Instead he write the editorial which sent him to Auschwitz and his death. He said: “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can and should do is to seek Truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is within. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of the extermination camps, two irreconcilable enemies lie in the depths of every soul. And of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
When confronted with the question “why bother?” he chose to give his life. By comparisson, we have it very easy. Too often we take our liberties, our freedoms and our priviliges for granted. Fr.Kolbe knew, just like James Mawdsley and the others I have described, that there is no point in bothering if it is merely for worldly recognition. Perhaps they would have agreed with the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and with whose words I shall end, when asked why she ministered to lepers. she replied: “I would not pick up a leper from the street for a million dollars, but I will do it for the love of God.” That, surely, is the reason why we, too should bother.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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