The politics of tenderness

These two nouns do not sit well together: politics and tenderness.  Politics is a competitive business where the one in leadership constantly has an eye on any threat to their position.

Voters appear to like someone who is tough and resolute and not easily deflected from their goal. We saw a leader crumble yesterday because she dared to use the word ‘compromise’. Yet, courageously, she insisted on it and in her farewell speech she gave honour to the man who first inspired her with it.

We seem to like toughness. As kids – at least of my generation – we liked cowboys who burst through swing doors with both ‘six-guns’ blazing. Churchill saved, not just Britain, but arguably the world, from tyranny but his toughness.  Yes, there is a place for it.  But it is like a stone we find wedded to the ground: when you stop and turn it over you see softness and, even in the desert, life.

I am often astonished by parents of young children. A child, securely loved and with all they need available to them, will go into a tantrum and scatter their food, plate and all, to the four corners of the room. I expect, maybe from long forgotten experience, a harsh response.  But no, the parent says nothing and, after a time, quietly clears up the mess. She or he knows that this is some chaotic bursting forth of energy, some misstructured assertion of identity. The child is simply saying, ‘I exist! Take note!’ But I am touched by the tenderness of the parents’ response.

Jean Vanier, who died earlier this month, discovered tenderness was a royal road to healing. He lived for 56 years with people who had intellectual disabilities, people who could not express themselves in ways that most people could understand. Jean set out to help them live in conditions that resembled a home but he soon discovered that they, like the child referred to, used their new found security, to let out their pent up frustrations. Jean was confused, at first, and even felt anger rise within him. But he reflected and, like the good parent, he realised that this was their way of saying, ‘thank you, we have arrived, we are accepted and now we can be ourselves’.

Jean went on to develop the lessons he learnt in those early days and he wrote and spoke about them often. Eventually a model came to him and he would use it constantly to announce the good news he had learnt. The model was Jesus washing the feet of his friends. And Jean himself, giant of a man that he was, would get down on his knees and wash the feet of the handicapped people he lived with. People called him ‘an apostle of tenderness’ and so he was and he would extend his message to relations with other Christian communities (denominations, if you like) and other religions.  And his message could build peace even among nations.

Booting up the search engine in my head I look for examples in the world of politics and three examples appear. One was Angela Merkel inviting a million migrants, four years ago, to settle in Germany at the very moment such a welcome was urgently needed. A second example was the rock solid peace negotiated between France and Germany around 1949 after three bitter and devastating wars.  And the third was President Kennedy of the United States, the morning after the failed invasion of Cuba around 1961, saying on TV, ‘I made a mistake.’

Tenderness and compromise are the legacy of our religious traditions but they are often unwelcome attitudes in the tough world we now inhabit.

26 May 2019               Easter Sunday 6 C

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29       Revelations 21:10-14, 22-23   John 14:23-29

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