Empathy

Posted: Wed, 12 Jan 2022 14:42

Empathy

There are two big news stories, from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, that have caught my attention recently—me and millions of others I suspect. Over one year on, the citizens of the USA are still coming to terms with a violent attack on their Capitol Building. A good democracy is rooted in the notion of free and fair elections, where everyone who is eligible has a vote that is counted. For countless generations, only the white minority of South Africa could vote under the unjust apartheid system. The 1994 election saw voting rights opened to all citizens, regardless of colour, and gave us the dignified and historic presidency of Mr Nelson Mandela. In our own country women were only given the vote in 1918–it took a suffragette movement and world war to grant a franchise to women over 30 who were either married, had a private income or were university graduates. The famous Orwellian dictum comes to mind:

All are equal—except some are more equal than others.

Hopefully we have moved on! The January 6th 2021 saw an armed uprising that Washington DC had not seen since the nation was founded. The smooth transition of power was a feature of the US democracy since the beginning. Deep deep divisions may well have been exposed on the campaign trail, but, once the votes were counted and the complicated Electoral College finalised the result, the nation rallied behind a new president—at least until the new election campaign started again in earnest. The 2016 election broke the mould with Mr Donald J. Trump losing the popular vote to Mrs Hilary Clinton—he was elected president, however, through the all-important the Electoral College. There was disappointment and tears, but Mrs Clinton joined the dignitaries on the steps of the Capitol to welcome the new President Trump. Voters got their chance to join a national referendum on the efforts of their president in 2020. While Mr Trump gained a record number of votes for a sitting president, his opponent, former Vice-President Biden got many more. Importantly he also convincingly won the College vote too. His status moved to President-elect with his election win being symbolically affirmed by the outgoing Vice-President, Mr Pence in his role as Chair of both Houses of government on that fateful January day. Unless you have been living under a rock, you are well aware, after more than 365 days, things did not run so smoothly.

The former president, the one who lost the election, could not accept the reality. Aided by his faithful allies, he refused to accept the voice of the people. He called for his many supporters to reject the result as a 'big lie'. His assorted lawyers went to courts across the land to claim that the election had been stolen from him. Multiple talented witnesses came forward to prove the stupidity of the claims—judges threw out the court cases, and Mr Trump was dependent on an increasingly deranged group of supporters who did not seem to live in the real world of politics. We can justifiably question why this problem in a land should concern us? Like it or not, USA has been the leader of the free world, though many global citizens might feel that the 'Make America Great—again, again' policy espoused by Mr Trump and his acolytes disqualified such a claim to leadership. The United States has a long and proud history of fighting for justice and the freedom of all. Its population reflects the beauty of the global community we share. A Civil War was fought for the emancipation of slaves—they joined two world wars to fight tyranny, injustice and fascism. It is in this context that we must judge the 2021 riot on Capitol Hill.

However, what frightens me is the lengths that many Republicans and right-wing media pundits will go to tone down this horrendous attack on democracy. The vast majority of people gathered on the Ellipse on that fateful day, to hear Mr Trump and his supporters contest the election results, were not terrorists. They were Americans exercising the right to protest. The hundreds who went on to viciously attack the seat of government represent an extreme that we have to stand up to. A policeman died on the day as a direct result of the wicked display of violence. House Members on the floor of Congress cowered in fear of their lives, while others barricaded themselves into their offices. The out-going Vice-President had to be whisked off to safely by his secret service detail, with cries of 'Hang Mike Pence' ringing in his ears. Millions of dollars' worth of damage was caused as we watched this event in real time. However, more importantly, lives were lost, and people were injured. One year later there are influential commentators who claim that the insurrectionists were just tourists, exercising their right to walk the halls of government. Fox News tells us that this was just a legitimate protest against the election. As far as I can see it, legitimacy went out the window when the first window was broken, and a defending officer was fatally struck down. There is now a deliberate political media campaign to tone down this evil and to somehow make it more acceptable. Even recently we had the madness of Senator Ted Cruz going on TV to apologise for his criticism of these insurrectionists. There is no need to blame Covid-19 for the crazy development of our world when elected politicians can offer such statements.

That a large minority of the US refuse to accept the legitimacy of President Biden's election should worry the global family. If this can happen in 'the land of brave and the home of the free', then it could happen anywhere. We must be confident, on entering the privacy of the election booth, that our votes do matter. We must be assured that some megalomaniac sore loser will not encourage the violence and evil that this past year has wrought. Democracy has been fought for by those who have gone before us, we owe it to them, and those who will come after us, to uphold the rule of law. January 6th 2021, must stand as a constant reminder to the world that we have a duty to uphold democracy. We can never give in to naked power and ambition from whatever political cloth it might be spun from.

On this side of the pond, we have the increasingly embarrassing revelations of multiple parties at Number Ten. At a time, when we were in national lockdown and very strict protocols in place about gatherings, we have revelations that government civil servants partied in the gardens of the British Prime Minister's London residence. Again, the airwaves are full of supporters of Mr Johnson urging us 'to get a grip', as this, they maintain was just a gathering of hard-working officials. Strong supporters of the government have made their statements of support, urging people to concentrate on the realities facing us at this time. In the Westminster Parliament, government benches were embarrassingly empty as the opposition parties forced a debate. It remains to be seen if our Prime Minister will still be in office in the weeks to come. However, one must justifiably question the wisdom of authorising such gatherings, even if you had to bring your own drinks! We, rightly, questioned the wisdom of the 'Barnard Castle' car drive when there were so many branches of Specsavers across London. We wondered why one rule applied to the nation, while those in power seemed to be able to break it. We were told that such gatherings were super-spreaders and legal injunctions were in progress.

This covering up of blatant wrong doing on both sides of the Atlantic points, I feel, to a serious lack of empathy. For years we have railed against the political elite who went to Eton and studying PPE at Oxbridge. The alleged multi-billionaire, Donald Trump came to power because he was different—he was not the regular politician who lived in the Washington bubble. One must question those egalitarian principles coming from a man who has gold-plated toilets in his New York apartment. Mr Johnson might appear very matey and real with his beer in hand and 'Peppa Pig' references, but does he have a real appreciation of the poverty that exists in the U.K. today? It is not the poverty of the developing world, but for children going to bed hungry tonight, it is still a poverty and should not happen in our rich nation. You might subscribe to the philosophy of failed politician, Nigel Farage and social influencer, Molly-Mae Hague who tell us that we can do anything we want and be anyone we want to be. For them, silver spoons firmly placed in their mouths, there is no need for any form of deprivation in the world today because we all have the same 24 hours in the day. Perhaps they missed economists, Martin Lewis's encounter with Sarah on his popular ITV programme. She told the nation about the reality of poverty caused by increasing fuel bills, as she had to bury her husband—yet another victim of the virus has taken millions of lives. The footballer Marcus Rashford used his power and influence to force the government into a U-turn over their decision to cancel free school meals during this time of Covid. We may well live the same 24 hours, but it will be different for so many people.

This official blindness, that can be perceived as a form of elitism, is something we need to challenge as a Church. The great Brazilian prelate, Archbishop Helder Camara worked hard to preach a gospel of inclusion in his homeland, but he soon found that:

When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist.

We have to question this lack of empathy from our leaders. The strict Covid protocols on travel and social gatherings meant that weddings were cancelled, families were separated and loved ones died alone, lacking the tender compassion of family and friends. In the Commons a DUP MP fought back tears of hurt and frustration as he recounted the fact that he was unable to be with his dying mother-in-law while a party took place in the PM's lovely garden. They may well have been separated out; they may well have been tired. They may well claim that the garden was a private place, but the optics do not look good for our besieged government. What about the millions of other tired workers who had to sacrifice their fun because of their desire to be part of the solution? The tough British stance was backed up by police, so that it was impossible to simply sit in the park or gather with loved ones. A wonderful Catholic great-grandmother that I knew could not have the church requiem that was her right—instead only five family members stood around a windy and wet grave to say 'farewell'. It is not good enough to give the ones who have constructed this policy a free pass. It will be interesting to see the results of both Metropolitan Police enquiry and the Government's own investigations. Will democracy be upheld? Heads will roll, but will they be the right ones? It is difficult to get people to support the needed changes that the scientists advise if our leaders feel that they can go in the opposite direction. We need leaders who can recognise the needs of those they serve. It is so refreshing to have Pope Francis leading our Church through this time of crisis. He not only has empathy, but he practices it from his insistence on staying in a Vatican guest house to driving a small car—no designer shoes and fancy French-cuffs for this Argentinian Jesuit. From his teaching and actions, it is clear that he understands the need for a real culture of empathy

This capacity for empathy enables a true human dialogue in which words, ideas and questions arise from an experience of fraternity and shared humanity.

It is this needed dialogue that will change the world community for the good. Our leaders must be open with listening ears. Abuse of power leads to hurt and the assault on democracy that we see being played out across the world. Don Bosco told his followers that their politics must be that of the Lord's Prayer. Have you noticed just how radical that prayer to a loving Father is? There is a demand to share the world's resources; we pray for deep conversion and true forgiveness, especially as we are prepared to forgive ourselves. As Christians we do not promise some pie in the sky spirituality, rather we pray that the reign of God is reality 'on earth as it is in heaven!' If global Leadership could follow this simple way, so many of our issues could be sorted. There would be a trust between those who govern and the governed. Let us pray that we can heed the wise words of Pope Francis in his book, 'Our Father.' I pray that good politicians can take to heart this plea not to be in total control, but supportive, creative and willing to take risks for the common good:

A father needs to be close to the children as they grow up; when they are playing and when they are working on a task; when they are carefree and when they are troubled. He needs to be there when they are outgoing and when they are withdrawn; when they are daring and when they are fearful; when they make a misstep and when they get back on track; the father must be present, always. Being present does not mean being in control! Because fathers who control too much are crushing their children, they are not letting them grow up.

Author: Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB

Image: Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

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