A few days ago politicians were gathered to listen to what Angela Merkel had to say concerning Britain’s relationship with the European Union, along with a number of other things most of which were said in German. Although well translated, I imagine that whatever she said would have had greater impact had everyone in the room been German speakers. It is not just literal meaning which gets lost in translation but nuance, the kind of nuanced meaning which, accompanied by a smile or gesture of trust, enlivens and enhances verbal exchange between two or more people. As Angela Merkel was speaking, the camera focused for a second or two on the audience. It picked up, perhaps unintentionally, the prime minister and leader of the opposition in a brief and relaxed verbal exchange of their own, so affording us with a rare glimpse of their unaffected humanity. For a moment the masque which normally ‘presents’ the political persona, and gives license to the endless bickering and political posturing which we see in the day to day life of governance, was absent.
Many of us are weary of the bickering and political point scoring. We would like to see the masque removed, which would allow us to see the face of the person. It is the person who reveals what we all hope for in our politicians, which is integrity. We need persons, and not personas, in positions of leadership, because it is persons who bring good sense and compassion to governance. When leaders work together as persons, rather than as charismatic individuals striving to maintain a power base, they will be in a position to focus on what is essential for the flourishing of a nation, and of the human persons who make up that nation.
All of this sets me wondering what might come out of the current European crisis, described by the Foreign Secretary as the most serious of the 21st century, if leaders were to see themselves as persons who are responsible to nations comprised of persons, and so arrive at political solutions which will, in the longer term, be conducive to good governance. We can assume, for the time being at least, that nobody caught up in the current European crisis wants a war. There are numerous economic and political reasons for this, not the least of which is that of global security.
Not wanting a war is a good place from which to establish the conditions needed for good governance. These conditions depend on trust. Trust requires that leaders see nations as comprised of persons and, in their own diplomatic exchanges and planning, allow themselves to be seen as persons and not as autocratic wielders of power. Putin claims that he is defending the rights and security of the Russian people. The rhetoric suggests that by this he means the persons who think of themselves as Russian, but history has shown that autocratic power disconnects rulers from the persons for whom they are accountable. In the historical context of Crimea and Russia, the disconnection which exists between populations as persons, and the way these populations have been forced into exile and manipulated by autocratic leaders in the past, will inevitably be embedded in the current situation. (In 1944 Stalin broke up the Crimea, forcing 300,000 people into neighbouring countries in retaliation for its supposed sympathy with Hitler. Ten years later Crimea was handed to the Ukraine by Kruschev, who was himself half Ukrainian, as a gift.) Added to this are all the existing layers of economic and political factors which feed into the current intractable situation.
Christians are now entering the season of Lent, a time of renewal and of preparation for the great new beginning which is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many, perhaps most, of the people caught up in this conflict are Christians. Lent is a time for letting go of whatever it is which prevents us from being fully the persons we are meant to be, or of seeing and behaving towards others as persons in the eyes of God. Lent is a time of return to that conceptual space in which are humanity is rooted.
The idea of return is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian understanding of repentance. God, speaking through the prophets of the Old Testament, is constantly inviting his people to ‘return’ to him. The returning is worked out practically through righteous dealing with one’s neighbour and, in the context of politics and international relations, through wise and righteous governance. In biblical terms, as it applies to governance, wisdom and righteousness pertain to what makes someone a person as opposed to an atomised self-orientated individual on the one hand, or, on the other, as a mere statistic. Persons reduced to the state of individuals, or of faceless numbers to be manipulated to suit a given agenda, are being denied their personhood.
During Lent we are asked to become the persons we were created to be and to enable others to become so as well. This requires that all persons, whether or not they are directly caught up in the current European conflict become inwardly receptive to the possibility of God’s grace being at work in all of us and in the world we inhabit. It is grace, worked into the world by the dynamic, or continual movement, of the Holy Spirit, which transforms persons and brings about peace between nations.