Thursday 9 December 2010

Address to MOT Courage2B Conference

The following address was given on 2 December 2010

Dear friends, thank you for your invitation to speak to you this afternoon. My theme is ‘Courage, Encouragement and Hope’. I want to talk about what this means for ourselves; as well as for the young people whom we hope to influence to live as positive, contributing, members of society. Yet if we want to be an effective influence on others, then we have to be prepared to walk the walk, as well as talking the talk – or perhaps I should say, to dance the dance! We have to do the same homework ourselves, looking at society around us, and our own contribution to it.

Now I shall of course be talking from a Christian perspective – but I hope to be able to speak in a way that makes sense to those of other faiths or of none. It seems to me that the fundamental question that we have to ask is what sort of life do we seek for ourselves, for our societies, for our young people and for generations to come. And to answer that question, we have to think about what it is to be human, and to live as humans ought to live.

Our starting point for considering human life within the wider world, is one generally shared by other theistic religions. We understand God as creator and sustainer of all that is. The Psalmist (Ps 95:4) wrote ‘In his hands are the depths of the earth – and the peaks of the mountains are his also’. You may have noted that this verse was written on the t-shirts which many of the Chilean miners were wearing as they were finally brought to the surface after 69 days underground.

My point is that there is nothing at all outside God’s ambit - God creates everything that there is. And therefore, if all of existence owes its being to God, then everything is of concern to him. This is the starting point for faith communities – and particularly churches – to take an interest in every aspect of our world, and to believe that we potentially have something positive to contribute.

This is particularly true when it comes to human activity. The Book of Genesis says, in its first chapter, that ‘God created humankind, in his image’ (Gen 1:27). There is thus something very special about being a human being – reflecting a spark of the divine life, carried within us. Human life is truly sacred. We all are intended to flourish.

By flourishing, I do not mean that we are all entitled to an opulent lifestyle. Not at all! Indeed, we know in theory – even if we have not acknowledged it yet in our behaviour – that our planet cannot sustain 6 billion people pursuing the capitalist, consumerist lifestyle which the advertising world implies is our right! Human flourishing is something far more fundamental, and must be a possibility for everyone.

This is why we also use the term ‘the common good’ – the rightful pursuit and enjoyment of what is good for us, that we all should share in common. This concept of common good, of flourishing, is rooted in what it essentially means to be human, and what, in such terms, are our basic human rights. These begin with a necessary standard of material well-being – adequate food and clean water, housing, clothing, health-care and so forth; with particular provision for the very young, the very old, the sick and disabled, and other vulnerable individuals unable to look after themselves. These human rights also include access to decent education, which opens up opportunities for employment, and brings each of us the dignity of having some choice in our own destinies.

The common good also entails a stable, safe, just, society which accords everyone respect materially, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. In this description of human existence as encompassing heart and soul and mind and physical embodiment, I hope I have reminded you of words of Jesus, who said that humanity is created ‘to love God, with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength’.

The teachings of Jesus give further instruction on how we should live: doing to others as we would have them do to us. This principle, often known as the Golden Rule, is of course shared among those of many faiths, and none. It is a principle that underlies all our understandings of what it is to live with fairness and justice – two of the virtues of ethical living, which we want to have the courage to uphold in practice in our lives, and to encourage our young people to embrace, in both their words and their actions.

This attitude of reciprocal justice and fairness underlies the second great commandment of Jesus’ teaching: that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. We should direct our lives – and encourage young people to direct their lives – towards ensuring that others are in receipt of what we would like for ourselves, especially where those others face any sort of need or vulnerability.

Within this ethical context of mutuality and reciprocity, Jesus came, he said, to bring ‘life in abundance’. This ‘abundant life’ cannot possibly be understood as the affluence only of some, at the expense of others. Abundant life consists of the fair and equitable availability of the material, spiritual, emotional and intellectual provisions which I have outlined. This is the potential we seek for our young people – and the potential we hope that they will work to bring for everyone within their own communities.

Surely this is what it means to be a good citizen, making a positive contribution to the well-being of the people of our nations, of our planet. Within South Africa, our Constitution reaches the same conclusions. It says that every citizen, every resident, of this country, should enjoy their full opportunities and rights, no matter what their gender or race or beliefs – and should live free of discrimination on a very wide range of grounds. It does so because we are committed to the common good, the human flourishing, of everyone – each in accordance with their own particular circumstances and free choices. Intrinsic human worth, lived out and enjoyed by individuals and in community, is the right of every citizen, every resident within our borders.

On this basis, we can always begin conversations around the essential question of what it is to be human and to live decently; and how we achieve it more fully for the people and societies of our countries. Furthermore, in such conversations, we must increasingly situate ourselves within this globalising world of ours. This means we have no option but to recognise that our obligation to be ‘good neighbours’, in promoting reciprocal flourishing, applies not only to those near by, but to everyone else: across both space and time. Therefore we must pay attention to, and take account of, both those who share our global village today, and those who will inherit our legacy in generations to come. Inevitably, one area in which this challenges us is responsible care of our environment.

Therefore, to sum up what I have discussed so far: when we ask ourselves, and when we ask young people, to consider the question of how we want to live as individuals in our communities, and what sort of society we want to be a part of, we must look to very basic questions of what it is to be human.

We must consider what it is for everyone to experience fairness and justice, in the pursuit of fundamental human rights, shared together for the common good; that is, to strive for the well-being of every human person, and for the good stewardship of creation. These are concepts rooted in – though not exclusive to – the faith communities. In consequence, since human well-being encompasses every aspect of human existence, there is no reason to consider that faith communities should confine themselves to promoting the common good in some artificially defined ‘private realm’ while the public sector is left to its own devices.

Let me now turn to what it might mean in practice for us to work with young people to create a world in which each of them can flourish, can reach towards their full potential ‘in heart and mind and soul and strength’ and ‘loving neighbours as themselves’. In other words – how can we promote growth and maturity in the emotional; spiritual; mental / intellectual; physical / material dimensions of our lives; and how can we best be ‘individuals-in-community’, where neither the narrowly selfish needs of individuality nor stifling group interests wholly dominate? How too can we ensure that people are first and foremost treated as fully rounded, and not, for example, as if all that matters is the competitive status that comes with wealth, or power, or fame?

Well, perhaps the next thing I must say is that one important source of courage, encouragement and hope, in tackling these questions, comes from the realisation that each one of us can make a difference. This is something that far too often we do not realise. But believing that what we do does not matter very much, can undermine our readiness to aim for the best for ourselves, and for our society and wider world. For it is true that not all of us can become successful in the way that is often portrayed to us by the media and the world around. Not all of us can become rich; not all of us can become famous; not all of us will get to the very top of the professional tree and have leadership, authority, and status.

But – here is the most important thing of all – all of us most certainly will be significant. Every single one of us here is already leading a significant life. We are significant in many ways, every day – through our attitudes, our words, our actions. We have an impact all around us, through what we choose to think and say and do; and through what we choose not to think and say and do.

Our choices affect those who are closest to us – families, friends, neighbours, and often through wider circles of influence through colleagues, and those we come across as we go about our daily lives. Whenever we interact with another person, either directly or indirectly, it is as if a stone is dropped into a pond of water. There are always ripples; and the ripples travel to the very edges of the pond.

So when we are faced, and when we face others, with questions about what sort of life we seek, we should be encouraged that we really can make a difference. We really can be either part of the solution, or, alas, part of the problem. We need to realise that by choosing to do nothing, we actually are making a choice – a choice not to help solve the challenges of society, but rather the choice to allow injustice and unfairness to continue.

For those of you living in countries like South Africa, there is additional reason to take courage, to be encouraged, to live hopefully. In young countries like ours, like most of Africa and much of the developing world, there are so many changes happening. And young people have very significant influence in ensuring these changes are for the good. Within South Africa, over 30% of the population is aged 15 or under. Across sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is 40%. In some places, like Angola, it is closer to 50%. Young people are our future – not a hypothetical tomorrow that is years, even decades away – but the future that is already on our doorstep, knocking to come in. Young people have far more potential to shape their own lives than perhaps they realise! It is as the poet Wordsworth put it: Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”

So how shall we help our young people aspire to be the best they can? At the heart of this is helping them to see that it is in their own interest to promote the well-being of the whole community. The principle of treating others as one would like to be treated and loving one’s neighbour as oneself requires us to pay attention to the needs of others, to their concerns and their aspirations. This is what true ‘respect’ is all about, whatever some rappers might say! Respect entails genuine listening in the way we interact with others. I love to remind people that God made us with two ears and one mouth – and so we should draw the conclusion that he intends us to do twice as much listening as talking.

We must also encourage one another to talk truthfully. In the Bible we are told that ‘the truth will set us free’. Or, to use a well-known proverb, ‘honesty is the best policy’. For honesty is the way to build trust – and trust is like the oil in the machinery of the life of society. Trust is what enables us to live and work in harmony together. Trust communicates to you that I truly do have your best interest at heart; and trust enables me to understand that you have the same attitude towards me. Trust enables us to live not in narrow competition with each other – but in what the Archbishop of York has called ‘gracious magnanimity’. It helps set us free to live, and speak and act, knowing that at a very fundamental level, we are all ‘on the same side’ – we are all on the side of wanting to promote human flourishing.

This leads me to another principle from Scripture – from the same book of Genesis, with which the Bible begins – and that is the concept of Covenant. Covenant is about committing ourselves to work together for the greater good of all – and through sharing goods such as love, friendship, trust, which are multiplied, not divided, when we give them to others. This is very different from money and power and influence – if I share my money with two of you, I am left with only a third. But if I share friendship with you, between us we have three times as much as when we started!

Living together guided by the principles of covenant is quite, quite, different from living according to the principles of contract. While contracts concern our interests, covenants concern our identities; and while contracts deal in transactions, covenants deal in relationships. In other words, contracts are interested in what we can get out of one another – covenants are interested far more fundamentally in who each of us is, and how we can thrive and grow together, for mutual benefit. Contracts are about competition – if I win, you lose; while covenants are about cooperation – if I win, you also win.

Covenant is the basis for encouraging our young people to create a society in which everyone can win, everyone can flourish. When we have the courage to live by covenant, we will find ourselves encouraged to grow into all the new opportunities that are opened up before us. To live by covenant is to live with hope.

My prayer for you today, is that you may have the courage to live lives of encouragement, and lives of hope – so that you may be blessed, and be a blessing to the young people you seek to influence for the best. And in the same way, my prayer is that God may bless them, and make them also a blessing to others, in all our communities, in the generation that lies ahead. Thank You.

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