Healing the World’s Ills

Monday 28th August 2017

Lord Rowan Williams



Lord Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, discusses with Dr Marcus Papadopoulos the problems in the world today and explains how these can be remedied

A day does not go past without the world being reminded of the plague of problems, in many cases deadly, confronting humanity, the environment and the animal kingdom. From terrorism to war to climate change to organised crime, the world is becoming increasingly ill, with no end in sight and no cure in sight to this grave situation.

Whilst it would be unfair and also misleading to say that the governments and religions of the world are not taking the threats to the security and wellbeing of the planet seriously, self-interest appears to be prevailing over collective interest, and the terribly dangerous mindset of “them and us”, which has, throughout human existence, been the catalyst for grievous suffering, is not just enduring but also intensifying.

Despite the terribly problematic nature of the challenges in the world, it is not as if humans have not faced perils before. Indeed, it was only 72 years ago that the most horrific and potent force to have confronted humanity, Nazism, was defeated. And there is always hope that the current predicaments can be resolved. Moreover, in the context of this exclusive interview, there is always faith – faith to confront and remedy perilous problems.

Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a revered man in Britain and across the world. Revered not just for his high intelligence but, arguably more importantly, for his bold and progressive views and his steadfast commitment to uncovering the roots to problems and not being deterred or intimidated from putting forward alternative solutions. Furthermore, Lord Williams’ compassion for people and for the planet we live on is exemplary and should be emulated by people from all walks of life.

It is a great privilege for Politics First to have the views of the esteemed Lord Williams expressed here in this edition.

In this exclusive interview, Lord Williams identifies and elaborates on the global challenges, and discusses how Christianity can help to alleviate these.

Q Is the world in a healthy state today?
A Not particularly, in my view.  Given that there are no golden ages, it is not necessarily spectacularly worse than some past periods, but we need to be honest about the specific threats of our time.

Q Can you cite the main challenges.
A The challenges are numerous and major.

Firstly, cynicism about political leadership and ‘establishment’ politics, leading to a fascination with extreme, populist or, otherwise, out-of-the-mould figures (Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, for example), or an investment in non-parliamentary activism with vaguely defined goals (for instance, Occupy).  We need to recover some confidence in ‘routine’ politics, a better valuation of prosaic civil service virtues, lower expectations of individual leaders and a robust local and communal capacity for effective political organisation. And also, a capacity for a politically critical and argumentative culture that is not cynical about the very idea of public service.

Secondly, environmental change.  Even those who are obstinately sceptical about the human contribution to that (I am not one of them) have to recognise that the climate is changing and that this impacts threateningly on food production and the habitability of land – desertification in parts of Africa and rising water in Bangladesh and the Pacific, for example.

Thirdly, the utterly unresolved problems of the Middle East – not only Israel and Palestine, but the general unchallengeability of Saudi Arabia as a Western ‘ally’ because of oil supplies and the steady homogenisation of the Arab world in a Salafist direction, overturning a history of diversity within Islam and between Islam and other faiths.

Fourthly, increasing functionalising of education in developed societies; the loss of a commitment to (in the widest sense) education as a civilising process (producing both literacy in the story and resources of a culture), and capacity to address intelligent questions to governing systems.

And fifthly, short-termism and nationalist narrowness – the failure to see human interests as radically interlinked so that the neighbour’s security is inseparable from mine.  At worst, the reduction of international politics to a new version of the Cold War

Q What role can Christianity play in alleviating the problems?
A The Christian vision of the world is one which has, at its centre, the model of mutuality, mutual responsibility and the call to nurture and empower the neighbour, fully expressed in the Christian community as ‘one Body’ (an interdependent organism).  It also insists on the non-negotiable dignity of every person, including those who do not make ‘useful’ contributions to the economy.  Human dignity does not have to be earned; it is given by infinite love, and this is what we must seek to reflect.

Christianity also says that failure is both real and remediable; we do genuinely sin, that is, we injure ourselves by selfish and cruel acts, and we can genuinely be forgiven and restored to relationship.  In a culture that is, in various ways, both permissive and unforgiving, those commitments are of the greatest importance.  There is no magic formula for how people can be persuaded of such things, but the Christian churches must go on seeking ways of telling the stories of how actual lives are changed by such beliefs, pointing to healing communities and individuals (the L’Arche communities for the disabled, the witness of a Desmond Tutu or Mother Teresa and all their anonymous local equivalents in food banks and co-operatives and care-sharing schemes, as well as the lives of contemplation and dedication shown in traditional monastic life).

Q Finally, are churches in the world, of all denominations, doing enough to promote global peace and stability?
A Often as much as they can do in a hostile or sceptical environment.  But we must all work harder at looking for the vehicles that can carry the stories. And that also means looking at how we most effectively press the case for a different approach to education.  This is not about demanding confessional education, but about rethinking the role of imagination and personal formation in schools and colleges.

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