‘KINDNESS AS AN ESSENTIAL ASPECT OF POLITICAL DISCOURSE' - A TALK BY HIS EXCELLENCY DR GEORGE ABELA, PRESIDENT OF MALTA DURING THE BOOK LAUNCH ‘LIFT UP YOUR HEARTS' BY FORMER AMERICAN AMBASSADOR DOUGLAS W KMIEC. AULA MAGNA, VALLETTA CAMPUS, UNIVERSITY OF MALTA. THURSDAY 19 APRIL 2012.
That day in late August 2010 was a sad one indeed for me, not only because I was deeply concerned at the seriousness of the injuries suffered in the car accident by my friend Ambassador Douglas Kmiec- he was the driver of the car - but also because, knowing the man, I could well imagine his terrible anguish at the harm sustained by his close friend Monsignor John Sheridan (who later succumbed to his injuries) and the death on the spot of Sister Mary Campbell. When it was decent to do so, I called Kmiec and confirmed my worst fears.
The accident was one of those events that leave an indelible imprint on the victim. I think that Kmiec divides his life into two parts - before and after the accident. In fact, the subtitle of his book "Lift Up Your Hearts" is "A true story of loving your enemies, tragically killing your friends, and the life that remains". Though the tragedy has been officially declared an accident and hence the injuries and deaths too are accidental, and their causes may have been multiple, Kmiec still feels that "yet, in this kind of thing, you hold yourself fully accountable in heart and mind".
It seems clear to me that Kmiec wrote the book as a fitting tribute to Monsignor Sheridan. In it, he aligns his arguments with the thought and teaching of the Monsignor and quite modestly states "in the present task, I am more scrivener and messenger than author". His efforts were not made for his own profit as the net proceeds from the book will go to "support, in memory of John Sheridan, his former parish and school, Our Lady of Malibu, and in memory of Sister Mary Campbell, the socially indispensable outreach of the Sisters of St. Louis"
Following the tragic accident, Kmiec states that he was "left with a daily anxiety and burden" heavier than he could carry [p.136]. To my mind, the writing and publication of the book represent, in some way, a catharsis for Kmiec.
I have been asked to speak on the subject "Kindness as an essential aspect of political discourse". I shall take as my point of departure an inspiration on kindness as expounded by Kmiec but I shall share with you my own reflections on kindness and charity in the wider political field.
The way I understand it, Kmiec's notion of kindness, which in a religious context he calls "the theology of kindness", and which he bases on Monsignor Sheridan's teaching, is really the same as Christian charity or Christian love. In other words, it is that sort of love we call "agape" in Greek, that unconditional love which transcends all barriers and knows no limits because it is applicable in all circumstances, be they private or public life.
As His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI observes in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est: "of the three Greek words for love, eros, philia (the love of friendship) and agape, New Testament writers prefer the last". He goes on to teach about Christian love as expressed in the New Testament: "The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love".
Writing about the "First Letter of John" in the New Testament, His Holiness states: "The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbour is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God."
Christian love is wonderfully described by St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails......
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
This love is all-embracing and all-inclusive - none are left out of its warmth, neither friend nor foe. Always basing his thoughts on Monsignor Sheridan's, Kmiec writes: [quote] "The theology of kindness is a theology of inclusion; lifting our hearts to the Lord means standing with the wounded, misled, and gravely mistaken hearts" [p.94] [unquote].
Christianity's innovation is that the believer is not enjoined simply to love his friend or even simply to forgive his enemy. The true Christian believer must also love his enemy. Can we apply this in the public forum, the political market-place? Can we love, can we apply kindness to our political adversaries? My reply is that we can... but not only can...we must. It is easy to love our relatives and our friends, be it in private or in public, but our test is to love our adversaries and be seen to do so publicly. There is nothing more public than loving or being kind to our political antagonists for politics is a most public thing. Indeed, the very word "politics" means the affairs of the polis, the State, that which belongs to all and in which all participate.
We must apply the essential element of kindness in politics by being charitable in speech, in writing and in deed. It is not always easy to concern ourselves with "love of neighbour" in the middle of a debate. We may feel slighted, we may be certain that the arguments against us are unfair or untrue or even defamatory but we must reply with our most convincing counter-arguments in a spirit of kindness towards our opponents. There is no room for harsh words or insults and impoliteness. Our arguments should not be ad hominem but ad rem, that is, we attack the argument not the arguer. We need to respond to disrespect shown in our regard not "in kind" but "in kindness". As Kmiec writes, we must "distinguish the sin from the sinner" [p.335].
Today, with the ever-growing proliferation of the media, the opportunity for debate abounds. We no longer depend on face-to-face debate. The media are open not only to politicians and celebrities but to all and sundry. Anyone who knows how to connect to the internet may find himself or herself (whatever applies to the male also applies to the female) suddenly in the public square either showing his identity or even anonymously. The temptation and opportunity to be unkind is greater than it ever was in human history and hence the responsibility and the obligation to use kindness and Christian charity are greater too.
The common good should be at the heart of political discourse. Politics is not an end in itself. Its purpose is that of achieving the good of the community as a whole, that of addressing the different needs of different members of that community and the final goal is justice.
In the realm of politics, kindness must not only be employed during discussion time. It needs to be used even more assiduously when it comes to the exercise of power. Those who enjoy political authority, usually bestowed on them by their electors directly or indirectly, have a serious responsibility to use that power with charity and Christian love. Short of this, political power becomes autocracy. Kindness in the exercise of political authority implies absolute fairness, honesty, truthfulness, concern, respect, justice. It implies impartiality but not indifference.
Dialogue and the understanding of the opponent's points of view are an essential component of kindness. By this, I do not mean only political opinions. Religious affiliation too is a point of view and this must be respected. There is much good in every religion. There is common ground between religions too. It is that which is common not that which differs that should be stressed. Kmiec feels it is his mission to work for inter-faith dialogue, the bringing together of people of different faiths.
In a world where mono-religious communities have become a thing of the past because of the growing phenomenon of immigration, dialogue and understanding between faiths has assumed greater relevance. Indeed, if harmony is to reign in European and other regions, people of different religions must not only co-exist but also learn to appreciate each other's religious beliefs. There is no other way.
Pope John Paul II was a fervent exponent of interreligious encounters. To the interfaith task he brought a practical, hands-on approach and a tireless capacity for travel.
Pope John Paul II sought to heal the rifts which had become deeper during the history of religious intolerance. He was willing to admit the historical mistakes of Catholics, particularly when those mistakes involved the mistreatment of adherents of other faiths.
Malta is at the centre of a sea which is the meeting place of the three great monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. If in prehistoric times, as some believe, our islands were a point of pilgrimage of peoples from the Mediterranean - hence the large concentration of Neolithic and bronze-age shrines - so today it could be a centre of dialogue for different religions if we approach this notion with an open mind and a spirit of kindness. For it is kindness to appreciate the good in other people's beliefs and to honour their human dignity in exercising free will in their choice of faith.
This reminds me of a proposal made to me some time ago by Prof. Richard England the internationally acclaimed architect for the construction of a sacred triangular building housing at each point respectively a chapel, a mosque and a synagogue. He calls this building "The Triangle of Peace", designed as a "triptych of religious unity... conceived as a bridge of reconciliation between these faiths, in the hope of an eventual unification".
Kmiec quotes Monsignor Sheridan's words in this regard:
[quote] "Christians do not expect non-Christians to accept or celebrate the mystery of the incarnation. It is supremely comforting belief that God himself entered into human history, that God is so interested in us as to take on our human nature, that God, who man rejected, became man to reunite man to himself" [unquote].
It is often the case that different faiths are associated with different peoples or ethnic groups. Ethnic origin is often a pretext for political and social discrimination too. It is another case where kindness and Christian charity are of the essence. There is but one human race and we are all participants in it. The last century shall remain notorious in history for the horrors perpetrated in the name of so-called "racial superiority" which culminated in that most horrific of all crimes - genocide. Discrimination of all kinds is the antithesis of kindness and Christian charity. In the modern multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities, society may not prosper and social harmony cannot exist if justice and equality of treatment are not universally observed. This is the only way how we can truly lift our hearts.
I thank you for your attention.