Annual Lecture 2016 – Empathy, Ethics and Peacemaking

Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, and former Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered this year’s Gandhi Foundation’s Annual Lecture on 1st October in St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London.

In introducing the lecturer to the audience the Gandhi Foundation’s President, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, said Lord Williams was one of the finest thinkers and human beings he knows. 

What struck me most about Rowan William’s lecture was its breadth of humanity and refusal to offer any quick fix solutions or gloss to situations of individual or national conflict. Time and time again, Rowan stressed the importance of taking time to listen to another’s point of view and not to attempt to prejudge or impose a ‘heroic act of generosity’ or ego driven empathy which can act to further alienate and antagonise.  What is essential, maintained Rowan, is to recognise and value our diversity in all its many aspects.  We should respect people’s differences and admit that often we really can’t put ourselves in others’ shoes when we have no real idea of what they are experiencing.  Instead, we should try to listen deeply to their stories and create the space for a slow development of trust and, hopefully, a common sense of humanity and communication to arise of its own accord. This takes time and effort and ‘faith’!  Eventually this will lead to our seeing ourselves from another’s point of view which allows us to realise that our wellbeing is very much tied up with the wellbeing of another. As Rowan vividly said, ‘I cannot literally see the back of my head’. It takes another’s view to give a deeper insight and perspective into our joint situation.  However, in this impatient culture, we all want rapid solutions. This impatience is not necessarily something new to the 21st century.

This slow, patient listening and getting to know the lives and concerns of the ‘other’ does not mean capitulating to others’ demands, nor showing indifference or a passive response to what may be a very violent situation. There needs to be the acknowledgment that change may need to arise on both sides, and that in spite of the pain and cost, ‘one chooses to remain in the room when an impasse seems to have been reached’. Gandhi Ji undertook a number of experiments in nonviolent conflict resolution which were designed to prompt a different response to a situation of deadlock. Often he shamed the other party into having to choose a different course of action, steadfastly refusing to mirror violence. The examples of conflict in Syria and South Sudan were raised.  What has all this to say in a situation where profound, ongoing and deeply violent conflict is raging, more often than not as a mere play of power on a global stage ?  Again, Rowan commended the model of trying to create the safe space in which leaders can communicate with each other not just about control but about the good of the communities which they represent.  In his lifetime, Gandhi Ji, in order to say what he needed to, spoke from within the context of a community, an ashram.  The importance of creating intentional communities for this kind of work was echoed in Northern Ireland in the Corrymeela community, where it was shown how Catholics and Protestants could peacefully live alongside one another in the midst of conflict. Rowan suggested that in present day conflicts, what was needed was not so much a UN Security Council, rather a Mediation Council which would help us to move from the ‘collective nervous breakdown’ in which so many countries worldwide seem to have been drawn.

Gandhi Ji’s legacy is indispensible in the context of conflict resolution. Rowan said that he believed that religious communities could play their part in a solution to the problems, rather than causing them by reinforcing global tribal positions.  We are pressed to decide what kind of humanity we want in the 21st century. Gandhi Ji devoted his whole life to the question of the endless struggle for power.  We are invited to look beyond the narrow confines of individual security which can lead to suicidal conflict, to a world in which ‘we choose again to be human together’. As Rowan Williams so eloquently said, ‘The world we inhabit is a world full of strange and different perspectives. Our human enrichment comes from that diversity’.

Jane Sill

An audio recording of the Lecture is available to listen to at   Listen to the lecture in Rowan Williams own words and voice if you can.

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