Faith Matters

Francis Campbell: Living for the kingdom in a time of turmoil

Change is happening all around us, with Brexit the most obvious example of how old certainties seem to be coming apart at the seams. How should the Christian respond to advance the common good? In the first of two articles, Francis Campbell outlines a way ahead

Francis Campbell

The Brexit process is one of the symbols of turmoil of this age

IN addressing the challenge of 'living for the kingdom in a time of turmoil', I am aware that each of us approaches this topic with a backdrop - though not a backstop... - and that for me it is the intersection of faith, diplomacy, politics and education.

We are in a time, perhaps, when diplomacy has never been more criticised or questioned in the modern era, and yet I believe we need it more than ever.

For me, when faced with such international and domestic turmoil, diplomacy offers us hope, inspired by the Kingdom, that we can have a positive influence on what goes on around us.

The turmoil we see in our midst is possibly our view of a world which appears to be losing some of its foundations.

Whether it is here or abroad, old certainties - or maybe new certainties - seem to be coming apart at the seams.

Yet a word of caution is necessary. Our title speaks of 'a time of turmoil', as it implicitly recognises that this is not the first, nor likely to be the last period of turmoil.

While domestically we can look back to a generation or so of relative calm, regionally in the West we can point to 70 or so years without conflict between states in Western Europe.

However, what of today's turmoil? Historians are likely to view 2016-19 as years of shifting political paradigms.

For the moment, all we can say for certain is that these shifts in power and relations are creating high degrees of uncertainty politically, economically, socially and indeed diplomatically.

That is certainly the case on these islands and also within the broader EU. And I believe we have not yet seen the most severe turbulence.

But what is causing this turmoil and where do we situate ourselves within those changes?

At this point in our history, we are in the midst of immense changes.

President Donald Trump

But what will future generations say of our age and why we took the choices we did? Will they see us as being on the cusp of a shift from civic politics in the West back to identity politics? I'm conscious in our part of the world, I'm not sure we even managed to make that shift.

Will these 70 years or so of peace in the West be seen by future generations as the outlier in the history of contemporary European civilisation?

And so how can we describe that changing world that we see all around us? Is it that we are becoming more parochial, more insular and isolationist?

Is it just a natural next stage; the inevitable fragmentation of the multilateralism that dominated the post-World War II period?

Is our world becoming more or less religious? What is happening, for example, here with Brexit - is it perhaps a sort of delayed post-imperial crisis of identity, one that produces introspection and isolationism? Or is Brexit, as some of its supporters advocate, an opening to the world?

What is clear is that old power certainties are in flux and even in turmoil. It is into that flux that many of us step asking what is happening and what is likely to happen.

What will future generations say of our age and why we took the choices we did? Will they see us as being on the cusp of a shift from civic politics in the West back to identity politics? I'm conscious in our part of the world, I'm not sure we even managed to make that shift

Some do so as people of faith. Some people will want to stand back from the moment and thus not be swept along by populist sentiments, often offering simplistic solutions, often about others, rather they will want an intellectual anchor where facts can be established and theories explored in a space that is not rushed.

I'm sure that each of us has had many interesting exchanges in recent years about world events - the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the election of President Trump, Brexit, climate change or the financial crisis.

Those historians among you might find a parallel in 1848; others may see the re-emergence of hard-powers intent on dismantling the post-world War II multi-lateral order and return to the century of balancing Great Powers with their spheres of influence.

For social scientists or economists among you, this might be a period of de-globalisation fuelled by the reaction to the financial crisis of 2007-08. Perhaps you might see a parallel to the 1929 Crash and the ensuing economic and political instability in the years following.

Theologians and philosophers might see a deeper meaning to what is going on around us and likely with a longer historical lens.

Whether we analyse our present as historians, diplomats, scientists, social scientists, philosophers or theologians, we will still have to come back to a reality of what is happening around us and why, and how we can give meaning to that in our world.

A woman walks past the remnants of destroyed buildings in the city of Aleppo, Syria, earlier this year

In the midst of all this change and despite the growing number of inventions, which will affect our lives and professions, there will remain fundamental questions for each human being.

The context in which those questions will be asked might change - it usually does - but not the question of the purpose of the human existence and its hopes and wants.

Our lived reality, and especially so in a time of rapid change, invites us to construct frameworks for what is happening in our world.

Perhaps we connect events in our increasingly anarchic world into some meta-narrative focused on collapsing sovereignties, mutations of identity, inflated ambitions of religious or political groups whom we perceive as having a homogeneity that they really don't.

However, there may be no narrative which can give us a simple framework, and we should be suspicious of any attempt to explain complexity with a single solution.

Is our world becoming more or less religious? What is happening, for example, here with Brexit - is it perhaps a sort of delayed post-imperial crisis of identity, one that produces introspection and isolationism? Or is Brexit, as some of its supporters advocate, an opening to the world?

The turmoil might simply be chaos, and so we have to be cautious about explanations, which attempt to fill in the blanks and demand remedies to answers, which themselves might be flawed.

This is where, dare I say, faith and diplomacy have unique roles to play by reminding us of the historical context and expanding the horizon and ensuring relations are nurtured and maintained.

Faith and diplomacy invite us constantly to transcend the immediate and indeed to question that which is in front of us.

They caution us, or at least they should, to avoid the risk that we follow our lead from the loudest voices offering slogans without substance.

We have to be alive to the risk of falling into lazy assumptions and flawed reasoning, which may initially appear appealing, especially if based on a limited sample or a narrow context.

So what is the response to these crises and turmoil?

Many look to the international community for a solution. And often they endow it with resources and powers, which it often does not possess.

They can look to diplomats and politicians for the answers to many of these problems.

But in this ever faster world, where communication flows are part of the quick and the instant, but meaning cannot move that fast, we will have to retain our own filter through which developments are sifted to ensure accuracy and resilience and so that we are not misled.

How we do that is not as easy as it sounds especially when so many old certainties of the age seem to be called into dispute.

Theologians and philosophers might see a deeper meaning to what is going on around us and likely with a longer historical lens

There are risks for all of us in this more quick and instant world. Perhaps some might try to match the speed of the media and with only a superficial grasp of a region or a theme, offer quick advice.

Perhaps they might ignore essential detail in the desire to distil complexity. They might not get the context right and may ignore the particular history of the region.

Worse, they may come with a fixed view of what might work for them and try to impose that in an entirely inappropriate context.

We can all think of policies, which were inappropriately applied or implemented, even with noble intentions, and in an untimely fashion.

But the reality is often quite different and always has been. Armagh is an example; there are two fine cathedrals from different traditions, but yet the same Christian faith community. Relations today are excellent, though they have sometimes fraught in centuries past.

So as people of faith, like good diplomats, we engage in outreach. We ask to get to know the other. We do not allow ourselves to be prisoners of a past and heralds of a narrative we did not live or experience.

That outreach is not divorced from the world of turmoil engulfing part of our society; it can be a response to it.

For it does not accept the inevitable of discord or turmoil, whether from a faith or a diplomatic perspective.

The stereotype of the diplomat is someone cautious.

And yes that is true. But it can also require a risk taker, someone bold. Someone prophetic. The same is true of faith.

French riot police clashing with 'yellow vest' protestors in Marseille

Faith demands of us that we do the most difficult human things; forgive, love those who persecute us, pray for those who do us wrong, turn the other cheek. That is true radicalism.

It can be the same for the diplomat. For the diplomat has to build friendships and contacts often in a strange land, and even sometimes in the wake of wars between the country you represent and the one that receives you.

You have to source information, to get under the skin of a society and its people and to send home informed and detailed thinking.

So diplomacy is really only possible when forums give the space for meaningful exchange of a wide variety of views and allow us to discover the other, to turn strangers into friends, to cross boundaries and in so doing to discover ourselves.

For it is not a one-way street in diplomacy or in faith; as the local community comes into contact with the diplomatic, then the former is also changed by being opened up to new perspectives, cultures and civilisations. That is the same for us as people of faith.

As people of faith, we do not believe that the plan of salvation is somehow on hold, that Christ's message is any less relevant in this era than in others. Rather, it is in times of turmoil that the light of his Word must shine even brighter in a darker world

The challenges for us all in what must at times seem like a world which is slowly slipping into anarchy, is how to offer hope or, as a social scientist might say, how to avoid it becoming 'path-dependent' i.e. inevitable.

As people of faith, we do not believe that the plan of salvation is somehow on hold, that Christ's message is any less relevant in this era than in others.

Rather, it is in times of turmoil that the light of his Word must shine even brighter in a darker world.

That is not an invitation to retreat or be naïve about what is going on around us - rather it is about engaging, offering hope rather than fear, and reminding society of what is possible not inevitable.

Each of us must decide what that means for us in our daily life. If we are involved in diplomacy or politics it should mean that we are getting the right sequential balance between accuracy and advocacy, for policy to be effective it should advocate a course of action, but if the advocacy is based on wrong or incomplete analysis, then it is not authoritative or accurate.

That means the avoidance of partiality. For if the diplomat or politician is too partial or attuned to a particular global philosophical or cultural framework, then they will fail to do the work of a diplomat and simply interpret thoughts and actions through a faulty prism. They will also not serve the common good, but a partial good.

The concluding part of Francis Campbell's article will be in Faith matters next Thursday, January 3 2019.

From 'Living for the Kingdom in a Time of Turmoil', an Advent lecture for the Armagh Cathedrals' Partnership.

Francis Campbell is from Rathfriland, Co Down and is Vice-Chancellor of St Mary's University, Twickenham, London. His wide experience in the British Diplomatic Service includes being British Ambassador to the Holy See - the first Catholic to hold the role - from 2005 to 2011. He was also an adviser to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, worked for Amnesty International and headed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's policy unit. He joined St Mary's University, Twickenham in 2014.

Francis Campbell with, pictured left, Cardinal Sean Brady and, pictured right, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke at a Cathedrals' Partnership event in Armagh

Francis Campbell, pictured at the centre of the front row, with school pupils, clergy and other guests at an Armagh Cathedrals' Partnership event

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