Monday, March 14, 2016

Commonwealth Sunday - thinking about an inclusive society

It was a fine service today with a splendid turnout from university colleges and senior students from our High Schools - so many talented youth alongside the much older recipients of Royal Honours was a moving sight.  The Queen's Message addressed the subject of inclusiveness - and the address below was an attempt to engage the question.

Commonwealth Sunday 13 March 2016

In her message today, Her Majesty the Queen focuses on the theme of ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth’ and urges us to give it practical effect  by “contributing collectively to positive global change” and “by supporting those in need and those who feel excluded in all walks of life.”

Westminster Abbey - during the final hymn
The very name ‘Commonwealth’ carries connotations of inclusiveness and the ‘common good’: the word ‘common’ means everyone, and is inclusive; while ‘wealth’ or its origin in the older word ‘weal’ designates prosperity and well-being.   The thought of a commonwealth or a common weal holds a fundamental realization about our humanity – that in our life together is our strength and our well-being.  

In this realisation the notion of inclusiveness underscores the interests that we all have in common and that we all should build upon.

As our Queen directs our attention to the great benefits of shaping an inclusive society she has also very wisely reminded us of those are in need and of those who feel excluded.  It is worthwhile to remember how often in our world we are not inclusive.

For example the inequitable global distribution of wealth: in recent years it has been pointed out many times that 99% of the world’s wealth is owned and controlled by about 1% of the world’s population.  However that statistic is interpreted, it does not support the notion of inclusion and certainly does not work for the common good.  While this is a global problem the Commonwealth is certainly part of it.

There is the question of how may we talk of inclusion in a globalised economy? 

  • When we saw the Hillside engineering workshops closed down in Dunedin a few years ago, the city and the nation lost a skilled workforce and a resource; instead locomotive stock were purchased from China. However one may explain the decision of the government of the time, the people of Dunedin almost certainly did not feel that to be a decision which included them or their interests. 
  • The negotiations for Free Trade Agreements, most recently the TPPA, have raised significant concerns about equity, justice, transparency and the common good. Many have felt excluded from what were perceived as secret deals between governments and with multinationals. It has been claimed that these agreements will grow markets and create jobs and opportunities; one hopes that will be the case. Another scenario might be exactly the opposite and that, in either case, wealth will be increased for the 1% while the 99% will continue to become even more marginalised in wealth and power. 
  • Housing Markets: we cannot any longer think or speak of housing as an inclusive reality for all New Zealanders. 

The notion of inclusiveness as a value has been singularly absent in some aspects of European political life and has raised questions and concerns that have touched many Commonwealth partners.  

  • The European Union was punitive and not at all inclusive in its approach to the Greek financial crisis; the way it was handled has left many with real questions about how the European Union can work for the common good.

  • Now in Europe there is the refugee crisis that in, the words of some observers, shows Europe staring into a moral abyss.  Borders are closed and states will be paid to keep refugees from Europe.   But this is not just in Europe – one Commonwealth nation is paying neighbouring states to keep its shores clear of refugees/migrants.  There can be no greater contradiction to our belief in inclusiveness than to be so zealous in keeping people out.

I will admit that in a world so globalised and so technologically inter-connected through social media it seems strangely contradictory to exclude people; looking back to the cultural roots of the Christian faith that has formed the template of our moral values, such exclusion seems to deny our common humanity.  

As the famous Dean of that old St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, wrote in one famous meditation (on death):
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Can we have that kind of inclusive vision; that moral (and Christian) imagination which says ‘I am involved in mankind’ and that whatever diminishes the lives of others also diminishes us?

To be an inclusive commonwealth is a noble aspiration and a real challenge.  Her Majesty has rightly challenged us to consider what that aspiration means and may entail in a very complex world. 

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