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Speech

Auckland Council of Christians and Jews

Issue date: 
Sunday, 19 July 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Thank you for your welcome, and for the invitation to take part in this Symposium. It was an invitation I accepted readily, although when it came time to think about what I might actually contribute, I began to realise that perhaps I had been rather incautious.

I accepted the invitation because I believe the Symposium's topic is an extremely important one, crucial in fact to society's wellbeing, and also because of the particular perspective this organisation can bring to bear on the topic. This is indeed a remarkable body, born, as it was, out of the Holocaust, of that most monstrous extreme of religious and racial bigotry and moral malignancy; born of a realisation that the only way forward for humanity is by the path of understanding of, and respect for, differences of race and colour, of religious belief and social practices. More than that even, the Council of Christians and Jews emphasises what we have in common C so much that we have in common C not simply our common humanity, which never seems to be enough, and which, as the Nazis demonstrated, and as others have since been demonstrating, can so flagrantly be denied.

But as the Catholic Bishops of Poland wrote in 1991, in a pastoral letter that is set out in the most recent issue of "Common Ground," the journal of the Council in Britain C "We, Christians and Jews, are also united in our belief in one God, the Creator and Lord of the entire Universe, who created man in His image and likeness. We are united by the commonly accepted ethical principles of the Ten Commandments, crowned by the love of God and neighbour. We are united in our respect for the biblical books of the Old Testament as the Word of God and by common traditions of prayer. Lastly, we are united in the common hope of the final coming of the Reign of God."

Even in this country, which we like to think is a paragon of tolerance, this truth has not really been grasped. The Jewish and Christian communities have often kept themselves at a wary distance. Just as a minor personal example, I have one good Jewish friend, but have never been into a Jewish home: I have been to one Jewish funeral service and had not been into a synagogue until on a very happy and informative day, I came here to Auckland to visit Kadimah College. That day, too, I had the great pleasure of meeting Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sachs, and hearing him tell the children a wonderful story; which I confess I have already cribbed, and am going to crib again.

Quite recently, I betrayed the narrowness of my upbringing when in a recent speech I said that Western civilisation is built on the Christian community and world view. For that incomplete statement, I was gently taken to task by Rabbi Michael Abraham, and you will find that I have not repeated the mistake today. Not only was he obviously right, but I remember being asked by the previous Israeli Ambassador if I knew the difference between a terrorist and a Jewish mother-in-law. Of course I didn't and so he told me: you can argue with a terrorist. I am sure a Rabbi is even more formidable than one's wife's mother.

May I say too that it was an honour to be asked to be the Council's New Zealand patron, reflecting the royal patronage of the Council in Britain. And it was a great pleasure to meet the British director, Paul Mendel, and Mrs Mendel, and as I've already acknowledged, it is truly a pleasure to be here today.

But incautious of me nonetheless. My minister in the days of my Methodist youth, liked to tell the story of the boy at an inn, where the Bishop of the diocese occasionally stayed overnight. The innkeeper schooled him carefully in what he was to do and how he was to address this august personage: "You must take up the hot water for him to wash and shave, knock on the door and say clearly, 'It's the boy with the hot water, my Lord'." The boy rehearsed that conscientiously, but when the actual moment came, his anxiety got the better of him. He knocked on the door properly enough, but then in a loud voice announced: "It's the Lord with the hot water my boy." When I began to think about who might be here today, and how much better qualified than I you would all be to consider the Symposium's topic, I thought I might well be heading for hot water myself.. But I know that you will be kind, kinder than some commentators C a few only though C who have responded to my occasional forays into the area of values with quite a range of rebuke.

I have had one or two people ask how I could justify speaking about values C about right and wrong, essentially C at all. They pointed out, correctly, that I am required to be non-political, and to be representative of all the people of New Zealand. And on that basis they thought that the question of values is beyond my jurisdiction.

My answer is that it is my responsibility to support and encourage the enhancement of our national and community life, and that I am therefore entitled to exercise some leadership, even in the moral sphere, so long as I do not become party political or take a particular sectarian line. I am who I am, and I was not appointed to this office to be no more than a ceremonial mouther of banality. I tried to make that clear at the time I was sworn in to become New Zealand's 17th Governor-General, when I said that I tried to take as my guiding light those splendid words in Micah: "do justice, love mercy walk humbly with your god."

It is interesting how much passion this topic of values arouses in some breasts. It seems to be seen as a challenge, an attack upon, some assumptions basic to these people's own lives. And so of course it is. "Whose values are they that we're all expected to subscribe to?" goes the standard retort. And themselves answering the question, they say, in a hostile sort of way, "Religious values", as if there were something archaic and reprehensible about that. But of course, there are many who believe that "What's really right is what's right for me." Which does seem to be the ultimate position you reach should you want to reject all limits on the autonomy of the individual, should you try to advance the view that others have no legitimate, or at any rate substantial, claims upon you. Uncomfortable as the thought might be for such questioners, of course, that is simply not true. But the very idea that society may be able to identify a morality that is external to the individual, that is valid whether he likes it or not, is alien to much present day thinking.

Yet how important it is to undertake such an identification. For without some moral certainties, some absolutes, how do we rear our young in good citizenship? How do we ensure that the weak are not trampled on by the strong? How do we ensure equality of opportunity, and just treatment for all and respect for the rights of all? How do we even set these, or any other criteria, as the foundation of society? By what standards do we choose those who are to have authority over us, and by what standards do we judge their success?

I am not a philosopher and I do not know how the relativists would answer such questions. But so far as I am concerned, I fail to see how a social fabric can be held together at all without general agreement on a fairly wide range of individual and societal values.

And is it not true that there are some immoveables, some absolutes, in the sense that they are objective values, objective because they are intimately linked to the objective natural rights of others - respect for human life and personality, liberty, the inherent value of every person, and the consequent responsibility to do justice to all, to care for each person, and to carry out our basic obligations to society as, willy-nilly, members of it. These are values that are fundamental to any human community. They are the basic building blocks of a civil society, able to be added to by individual groups within society of course, but they cannot be subtracted from, if our essential humanity and our social order are to be maintained. These are not peculiarly Judeo-Christian values (and here I acknowledge the intervention of Rabbi Abraham). They are much the same as those of every significant religion, indeed of every civil society. They have been, and they still need to be, taught in any education system worthy of the name, because we disregard them at our peril. History has many examples of the decay and ultimate destruction of society that follow if they are disregarded wholesale.

You don't have to look far to see some evidence of that in our own community. I won't recite any litany of woeful statistics. I am sure you are all too aware of them, at least in outline: of crime rates, youth suicides, of the number of abortions, of ex-nuptial births, of failed marriages and so on. When you talk about some of these, you are sometimes accused of a puritanical obsession with sex, or of somehow wanting to 'blame victims,' or of simply being out of touch with the modern world. But the malaise goes much deeper than any question of sexual morality, say, which, it could be argued, is in itself not of foremost significance. Rather, the statistics are measures of more general attitudes, attitudes of self centredness, of irresponsibility for one's own actions, of a lack of self discipline and self respect, and of respect for others. And of course, once you start looking, there are many other symptoms. Consider the increase of drug taking by children, the recklessness of some young men on the roads, the violence that we're surrounded by; even, sometimes, the clamour for the State to provide more and more, even for those who have no pressing need of it, and even at the expense of those who are in want of it. And consider the increasing number of these, the New Zealanders who are indeed in need, the never-ending struggle that so many have to make ends meet, the struggle that welfare organisations have to fund their essential work. And that, despite the fact that, while the state reduces its support, more and more money is available to some, and who are therefore, incontrovertibly, in a position to help.

Against the gloomy statistical trends, is it possible to identify a set of core values to which all New Zealanders might subscribe? Putting the word "all" in the question, however, makes it almost impossible to answer positively. But if we were to modify the question we might be more successful.

Values cannot be legislated for, they must be inculcated by precept or by example. There is no, can be no, statutory injunction to be a good parent or a good neighbour or to practise the Golden Rule. The law, whether it be in an international document, or a local statute, or the common law as in the case of negligence, for example, can do no more than provide sanctions against breaches of right. It can ensure minimum standards of non-aggression, non-trespass, but never more than a basic framework upon which individuals and societies must construct their own standards, their own value systems. And construction of such systems, as with anything else, is best begun from the foundations up. So the values included in, and modelled, and explicitly or implicitly taught, during our children's education, are crucial.

And so I suggest that what we should be asking ourselves is whether there is a set of core values to which a sufficient number of New Zealanders subscribe, enough for these core values to become part of the educational process, and in that way spread more widely through the community.

It was that approach that lay behind the Values in Education Summit that was held earlier this year. The very fact that that conference was held, and was so well supported, suggests not only an appreciation of the need, but also a recognition that it is entirely appropriate and practicable for the education system to undertake responsibility for it.

Interesting too is the very great deal of support I have had for the things I have been saying over the past months on this general topic. I haven't a great deal more faith in supportive letters than I have in talkback radio as an accurate sample of general public sentiment, but at least the volume of approving correspondence I have received far exceeds all that has come in on any other topic.

Where, then, do we begin? What core values would be acceptable to, say, a majority of New Zealanders? I have already suggested some absolutes, and I don't expect the majority of New Zealanders would disagree with them. Going beyond them, Christians and Jews will find common ground in the Ten Commandments, and in their synthesis in the two great commandments, drawn from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. The other great religions of the world, I believe, would find this wholly acceptable. But of course the first part, as with the first four of the Commandments, is meaningless to the majority of New Zealanders, and the second part, which I imagine all here would agree can only be properly understood in the light of the first, has become such a wishy-washy proposition, because of the debasement of the word "love", that it too has had much of its meaning leached out of it. We have to look instead for core values that are generally acceptable, even in this predominantly secular society.

There have already been attempts to do this. The 1993 New Zealand Social Studies Curriculum Framework lists these: "honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance (rangimarie), fairness, caring or compassion (aroha), non-sexism and non-racism." These have been criticised as being politicised, generalised and abstract. But they are nevertheless a good start. A primary school in the Wellington area has been much more ambitious. Parents and staff co-operated to prepare and produce a year long values education syllabus. Every week, this Wellington school will be concentrating on one value or virtue (they use the words interchangeably), explaining it, usually by an illustrative story, discussing it, practising it. They had 38 of them; and they include many of the traditional virtues that have real, eternal worth:

Courtesy; co-operation; excellence; compassion or [fellow-]feeling; friendliness; caring or kindness; work; consideration; honesty or truthfulness; orderliness, reliability, perseverance, justice, self-discipline, responsibility, loyalty, repentance, trustworthiness, respect; courage; honour; joyfulness; faithfulness; contentment; moderation; wisdom; service; tact; patience; cleanliness; forgiveness; generosity; humility; helpfulness; love; modesty; obedience; thankfulness; tolerance.

It is a wonderful initiative, one that I hope will be taken up by very many other schools. But it's too detailed a list I suspect, for the purposes of this Symposium. Perhaps, instead, there might be a single word, a single concept, that encompasses all that we might hope for, at least at the outset, but which will give a basis for growth and increased understanding.

The word "responsibility" is the one that came to my mind, and quite coincidentally at almost the same time there arrived on my desk a document entitled "A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities." It is the product of a group called the InterAction Council, which consists of former national leaders, with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as Honorary Chairman and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as Chairman, and includes such people as Jimmy Carter, James Callaghan, Lee Kuan Yew, Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres and Pierre Trudeau. Its purpose is to have the United Nations adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities to go hand in hand with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mankind, the Council says, has struggled for freedom and rights; it is now time to foster responsibility and human obligations.

The draft Declaration begins with some fundamental principles for humanity and these conclude with words that have a rather familiar ring: "What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others". The document goes on to spell out responsibilities under a number of headings: non-violence and respect for life, justice and solidarity, truthfulness and tolerance, mutual respect and partnership.

Then it touches on why it is so important to think about responsibilities at the same time as we are thinking about rights. It makes the point very tellingly by quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he listed the seven social sins:

Politics without principles.
Commerce without morality.
Wealth without work.
Education without character.
Science without humanity.
Pleasure without conscience.
Worship without sacrifice. 

Unless rights and responsibilities are paired, the document declares, there will only be constant assertions of entitlement, which will inevitably degenerate into endless contention about who is owed what by whom. Unless thinking about social values includes both rights and responsibilities in other words, any debate soon turns into accusations and counter-accusations about rights and wrongs. This gets us nowhere.

In this country, we have not had to struggle for freedom and rights. We have taken our freedom for granted, but we have made a huge issue of individual rights, even trivialising them to the extent of asserting a "right", for instance, of an under age boy to be tattooed without parental consent. In our fixation with rights, we have rather overlooked the truth that rights and responsibilities, or, to use legal terminology, obligations or duties, go hand in hand.

Responsibility as a core value in New Zealand today, would affect behaviour at several levels: personal, business, community, national and international. It would affect our day to day conduct, it would affect spousal and parental conduct, business relationships, landlord/tenant relationships, employer-employee relations, attitudes to the environment, to the payment of tax and to the distribution of wealth, to our whole approach to the provision of welfare and health and education, and all our social services.

This balancing of rights and responsibilities is highlighted when we recognise the truth of our interdependence. It remains as true as when it was written that "no man is an island entire of itself. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." At one level, what this means is that what I do inevitably affects others. It is therefore my responsibility to ensure that the effects of my actions C or inactions C are positive not negative.

At another level, however, our interdependency goes to the heart of the requirements of social justice. I speak of interdependency, not dependency. So often, talk about social justice and how it might be defined, turns into discussion of the pluses and minuses of too-great a degree of dependence, as opposed to self-reliance, to independence. Yet this bad-versus-good, black-rather-than-white sort of depiction is very often misleading, even sterile. Of course, there will always be those who are entirely dependent on others, but unless that is unavoidable, no-one can think it is desirable. Unnecessary dependency is destructive of self esteem and personal dignity, it is destructive of initiative, and it runs counter to the truth that our interdependency means that we must balance our needs, our demands, against the needs of others. Where there are not unlimited resources, satisfying me may well be at the cost of someone else.

That is why I am uneasy at the demand for universality, the insistence that we should all have our National Superannuation, free medical care, and so on, irrespective of whether we really need these benefits. Are we being given them at the cost of adequate medical care for our children, for example, or to the detriment of the many charitable and welfare organisations that were once reliant on state funding and are now struggling to survive? Our community attitudes to our social responsibilities, our realisation of our interdependence, are not yet so well developed that we have seen those who have found more money in their pockets conspicuously passing it on to benefit others.

I am not going to talk about lower taxes, because I know that there are arguments both ways; but I know too that, so far at least, the so-called trickle-down effect has not been very apparent.

But I must interpolate this comment: that simply devoting more money, whether public or private, to social welfare purposes seems, clearly, in the long term, to be ineffective. As the Governor of the Reserve Bank said recently, in a speech he gave in London, just last month: "social welfare will [be] 36 percent of total government expenditure in 1997/98 (nearly 13 percent of GDP), above the 30 percent of total government expenditure in 1984/85 (about 11 percent of GDP) New Zealand spends rather more of its GDP on government transfer payments than does Australia, notwithstanding the higher unemployment in Australia. And yet, despite that C because of that? C New Zealand sees very high levels of family breakdown, very high levels of ex-nuptial births," and Dr Brash's litany of social ills continued along the same paths as mine, earlier. In other words, it is not productive to concentrate just on financial provision.

The reality is that people, all people, everywhere and at all times, are interdependent. No-one can ever be utterly autonomous, self-reliant. Even the richest and most powerful must rely on the contribution, the goodwill, of others, if only to the extent that they need the protection of the law, and the services of those who work for them.

The programme promised you that I would speak about my work, bearing in mind a number of questions easily asked, but not easily answered. I haven't told you much about my work, because I suspect that's an open book - and a rather full book too - but I have at least hinted at the answers to the questions. I have rather studiously avoided an outright discussion of whether we have a just society, and if not, how we can achieve it. There are some stiff political issues there, and I risk getting into real hot water if I stray into politics. But the issue is a religious one too, for the concept of a just society involves not only moral judgements, but also a view of the nature of man and the purpose of human existence and the social order. That also is a topic I should leave to others.

In the end, though, surely the origins of any satisfactory answer to ethical conundrums lies within each of us; that while recognising the very great problems in society, our responses must at first be personal C that while we should be thinking globally, we must be acting locally, as environmentalists put it.

So I shall conclude with the story the Chief Rabbi told to the school here in Auckland. I will not tell it as well as he did, but it's worth telling anyway. It comes from Russia, and it's about a very poor peasant who lived with his wife and many children, in a little hovel with an earth floor, in a small village we shall call Pinsk. Life was hard. He worked from early to late and barely earned enough to feed and clothe his family. One night he had a dream. He dreamt that far away, beneath the bridge on the further side of the river that runs past the splendid city of St Petersburg, a great treasure was buried. He believed in dreams, as we all should, and so the next day he told his wife he was going on a journey, and he put a few things and a little food in a bag and set off.

It was a long, tiring walk, but finally he came to the river. There was the splendid city on the other side, and the bridge. But there was a guard on the bridge, and the soldier told him he could not cross it. The poor man was brokenhearted. He was within reach of the treasure that would let his family live in comfort and now it was being denied to him. The soldier saw his distress, and asked him why he wept. The poor man told him how he had walked all the way from Pinsk, following his dream, to find the treasure he so wanted for his wife and his children. The soldier listened to him, and smiled and said that he too had had a dream, and that in his dream he had seen a little hovel in a small village called Pinsk, where a poor man lived with his wife and their many children, and that buried under the earth floor was a great treasure. So the poor man hurried back to his home, and when he got there he dug up the floor, and there he found buried a very great treasure indeed. And, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

And so, I hope, one day, may we.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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