In recent weeks I have been reading Roger Lipsey’s big and challenging biography of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Hammarskjöld’s personal journal, Markings, has become something of a spiritual classic, since its publication soon after his death in 1961. Lipsey’s biography is so detailed and intense (true to its subject!) that it will take me some months to work through it, but that is no bad thing. This is a work and a life which merits contemplation and savouring. It is a life of challenge and therefore it’s not something to rush through.
Early in his life Hammarskjöld had the opportunity to meet Albert Schweitzer and was deeply influenced by Schweitzer’s moral teaching summed up in the phrase ‘reverence for life’. For his part Hammarskjöld took this approach into his life as a senior public servant, government minister and then into the UN.
I want to explore some of what this meant for Hammarskjöld, for several reasons:
First, today it seems so rare to think of a political leader or public servant offering such a profound, well-formulated and theologically grounded moral framework, as the basis for their life and work.
Second, I think these ideas have a much broader application—they can provide us all with a worthy perspective for living well.
And then I think specifically that there is something of value here to encourage pastors and leaders in the church, to think about our responsibilities and motivations. What guides us, and what moral and theological perspective undergirds our priorities and plans?
First, then, to describe Hammarskjöld’s ideas and his appropriation of Schweitzer. Lipsey suggests that Hammarskjöld drew from Schweitzer a complex set of convictions that meant he was both a conservative and a progressive. These convictions provided a unique basis for the role of negotiating across differences and ‘making’ peace.
The first element in this approach was an appreciation of history and a respect for historical practices, for the traditions and values which individuals and groups bring with them into any situation. Without that respect and recognition, relationship will not develop and administration will be experienced as oppressive.
But that alone is not enough, for historical practices can themselves be oppressive. Hammarskjöld, then, asserts a profound commitment to individual liberty, itself grounded on respect for persons, for individuals. This meant that governments and administration must seek to provide and uphold equal rights and equal opportunity for all people.
This in turn led Hammarskjöld to a commitment to social justice. Individual liberties must also relate to others, so that all people’s rights and opportunities are preserved and enhanced.
Balancing these elements is so difficult that those who seek to govern and to lead must themselves be willing to struggle with issues: to think, work, analyse, explore and do whatever is necessary to achieve these goals, and that means the subordination of one’s individual or private interests for the sake of the community, one’s nation or group, and ultimately the international community, the world. (These ideas are described on pages 68 – 71.)
This was the values basis and the personal philosophy which guided Hammarskjöld’s life as a public servant. Truly a servant of the public life.
Lipsey comments that all this reflects ‘a large decency’, an inherent kindness in the man. That seems to me a rather powerful understatement!
He then goes on to consider what we might call the ‘cash value’ or the practical meaning of these ideals. It might all sound very high minded and very idealistic, were it not for the real life of a person who tried to live this way.
I think there is an important insight here. Ideals can easily be disparaged, as ‘idealistic’, by which we mean a bit impractical or unrealistic.
But for Hammarskjöld the journey of life was precisely about the climb toward the summit (a common image drawn from his love of mountain walking), reaching for the high ideals and potential of his own life and the best possibilities for those around him.
So what did these ideals actually mean, in real life?
Lipsey identifies three elements. The first is Hammarskjöld’s personal appreciation of human beings: of their potential and their woundedness. This can only be based on his own experiences, disappointments and other struggles, many not known during his life but clearly evident in his private journal. Hammarskjöld clearly loved people and practiced this reverence for life. In the terms used by other writers, he was committed to paying attention—to respecting those with whom he worked and those he served.
This man was also immensely intelligent and well read, and all his life remained a student: a student of life and all that was around him. So Lipsey speaks of his ability to be surprised: his openness to new things and places and new possibilities. The title of his journal, Markings, itself implies notes or points along the way: and this was his approach. In one place he wrote of the need to look both to the past and the future, simultaneously, with a ‘Yes’ to both.
Thus, in the third aspect, we see an approach to life as a quest or journey, both of discovery and becoming. Those who think they already know or have already arrived will offer little basis for agreement or negotiation with the other, with those of a different approach or expectation.
Hammarskjöld’s value framework of respect for life allowed him, then, to work always to find what Lipsey calls ‘common ground’ in what seemed so often to be intractable and impossible situations.
There seem to me many valuable things in this approach, which we can affirm.
What Lipsey calls Hammarskjöld’s kindness or ‘large decency’ is grounded in his love for people, and an important element in that included an appreciation of their woundedness. This is crucial. It cannot be the only element, or else it would become morbid or excessively focussed on problems alone. It must go along with a real vision of the potential of human life and community, and thus the possibilities of each situation. Compassion and hope: and these arise from knowing one’s own woundedness and potential, in some kind of realistic balance. It is what the Apostle Paul calls ‘making a sober estimate of oneself’, in Romans 12. 3—thinking not too highly, nor (I would add, consistent I think with Paul’s meaning) too lowly of oneself.
There’s something really important too in this idea of a life of quest and discovery. Boredom is an astonishingly destructive element in our information-laden society. To remain ‘interested’ in a sense requires a decision, a commitment to paying attention. It may also require learning to filter out some of the ‘noise’ of irrelevant or indeed nonsensical information, in order to hear and see and feel, as a living and vibrant human being. I think there are many ways in which ‘reverence for life’ calls us to pay attention today, and thus to be both committed and selective in what we give time to.
Finally, I think there is a wonderful vision of service here, that is not about becoming the slave of others, but rather requires every effort of imagination, intellectual analysis, personal focus and discipline, yet also requiring one to be a genuine, living person. This is not for the faint hearted, as the saying goes. It suggests that community leadership (and surely this applies to church leadership too) is hard work and cannot be produced by a formula or technique. It requires a person, uniquely being themselves, in response to their situation, its history, potential and needs, and these elements too in the individuals and groups within that situation (often diverse and sometimes in conflict)—and all of this arising from a love, a genuine love for those people.
This journey of struggle, surprise and discovery drove Hammarskjöld more and more to be a man of prayer, in a deep dependence upon the energy and grace of God.
We may not be called upon to do the kinds of things he did, but we can be guided and inspired by his example and his ‘markings’, his ‘reverence for life’.