Religion and NGOs

God & Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 1, September 2003

By Shirley Williams*

“Man tends towards good,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus (1991), “but he is also capable of evil.” The letter celebrated the centenary of the remarkable encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, De Rerum Novarum, a milestone in the development of Catholic social teaching in the industrial age.

This tendency towards good can be seen everywhere in people’s personal lives, and in their interaction with their local communities. As an MP, I saw over many years how men and women coped with heavy burdens, such as fragile elderly parents, handicapped children, and serious illness, and, with few exceptions, demonstrated patience, understanding, and endurance in doing so. I saw too the time and energy many people put into helping their local communities through a great range of voluntary activities, some associated with the churches, some not.

I never cease to wonder at the willingness of many to devote themselves to unpopular causes, such as assisting prisoners and refugees, sometimes encountering blame for doing so. All over the world there are men and women literally risking their lives to bring food and medicines to the wretched of the earth. One hears their voices from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, the Congo, El Salvador, telling us in simple and moving terms why they are there and what they are doing. Few of them use theological language, some of them are not believers. But all of them are laborers in the vineyard, and all of them are helping to build the Kingdom.

It is easy to be pessimistic about our world. The evidence of greed and the dominance of material values is all around us. There are serious doubts about the ability of our finite and precious planet to sustain economic growth for many more years without fatal damage to the environment and its ecology. Huge inroads have already been made into the legacy human beings inherited from nature, the forests of the Amazon, the savannahs of Africa, the lakes and rivers of Central Asia.

Environmental destruction has occurred in the First World also; witness the floods that swept through Prague, Salzburg, and other cherished historic towns and villages recently in Central Europe. Some parts of the environmental legacy are already past saving, including hundreds of species of insects, birds, and mammals. None of us yet knows what will be the consequences of global warming, but few of us now doubt that it is real, as we read of desertification, drought, and the melting of glaciers and permafrost.

But there are grounds for optimism too. The human spirit, in its tendency towards the good, has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to form voluntary organizations which today constitute a formidable political force, listened to by governments, business corporations, and international institutions. Indeed, I would go further. For a long time, these established bodies tried to ignore the voluntary organizations, as an elephant ignores a gnat. So the voluntary organizations learned how to compel attention by becoming the sources of reliable and untainted information, and by attracting the interest of the public and the media.

Hesitantly, a few significant institutions began to listen to them, even to invite their views. Some corporations committed themselves to ethical investment and to codes of conduct governing how they managed their businesses. International institutions, like the World Bank and the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), arranged seminars on how they had conducted their own missions. A critical and well-informed public demanded greater accountability from those who wield power in the world. The problem is the age-old one: how to make men and women see, hear, and listen.


Despite their experience of AIDS, the rich countries of the world have distanced themselves from the devastating march of the disease through large swaths of the developing world, as they have distanced themselves from poverty, hunger, and ignorance. I am reminded of those gated communities in which well-off people live, cut off from the miseries and suffering of the society around them. We who are prosperous have created our own gated world. We observe in the Third World from a safe distance what we find fascinating or mysterious: African wildlife, Asian mysticism, for instance, but most of us interact very little with the people who are outside the global elite.

“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” wrote the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, in his poem “Easter 1916.” If we are not stony-hearted, we can at least turn our backs on the unbearable misery of so much of the globe. “I can’t bear to look,” we say. We walk past the homeless man in the cardboard box, telling ourselves he is probably a drug addict who has brought his plight on himself. We avert our eyes from the beggar, and close our ears to the people seeking our help.

Supposing we did look; supposing we saw not the image but the human being, suffering pain, bereavement, misery like us, but on a much greater scale. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Shylock asked Portia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, The Merchant of Venice. E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India, that luminous novel about the encounter between two very different cultures, put it in two words: “Only connect.”

In December 2001, I heard one great lecture, and read another. Both were delivered by men who wielded considerable power. The first was the Dimbleby lecture, given by President Clinton at the invitation of the BBC. It was a wonderful lecture, imaginative, empathetic, visionary. From the material of his own experience and memory, he wove a cloth of gold, a shining vision of a world of peace and prosperity which was attainable by today’s leaders from today’s global resources. Throughout the lecture, I was conscious of the man’s love for humanity, and I am not being sarcastic. Undisciplined and promiscuous he may be, but there is a massive engine of warmth in the man.

Then I read a much more sober, academic lecture, by another powerful man, Gordon Brown, the formidably intelligent Chancellor of the Exchequer–in U.S. terms, Secretary of the Treasury–in the United Kingdom, who has devoted much of his time to pondering how the economic inequalities of the globe can be narrowed, indeed, how extreme poverty can be abolished. His vision, for all that it was painted in the monochrome palette of economics, was a generous one. It required a greater commitment of development aid by the governments of the rich countries, an opening up of trade in products now protected or subsidized by them, a responsible partnership with the private sector, and a much greater recognition by the international financial institutions of the necessity of good education and good health services as prerequisites of economic growth and development. There was even a welcome admission that the headlong rush to liberalize capital flows in the 1980s had been a mistake, overwhelming fragile and unsophisticated banking systems in the emerging market economies of East Asia and Russia.

The lecture was a blueprint for a more just world order. But it overlooked the greatest obstacle to its achievement; there was no mention in it of the probable consequences of the new plague, HIV.


The President of the United States is said to be the most powerful man in the world. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is certainly one of the two most powerful men in Great Britain. No one doubts that they have the political will. But neither, despite several years in office, has been able to make a great deal of difference to the world’s aching inequalities. Why?

Bill Clinton had the best of intentions. But to win the confidence of the financial markets, he appointed men who strongly upheld the so-called Washington consensus, the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism, which has never been over-concerned about the poor. Gordon Brown has pursued his own objectives more subtly, first establishing his bona fides with the financial markets, a sine qua non for a modern politician of the center left, and only then trying to edge them towards a more far-sighted and generous perception of their own interests–truly, to use Max Weber’s telling phrase, the “boring of hard boards.” It remains to be seen whether he will get anywhere, but the current absorption of the United States in its war against terrorism, almost to the exclusion of any analysis of terrorism’s causes, makes the task harder. Those of us who come from countries other than the United States must somehow get across to its administration that military means will not heal the deep fractures of the world, nor reconcile the developing world to injustice.

We pray in our churches for leaders of vision and wisdom. The paradox is that, even when we have them, there seems little they can do. Power, at least in a democracy, is not like the gold ring on a circus merry-go-round, or the wizard’s magic charm, something that makes all things possible. It is held in many hands, and there has to be consensus to make things happen. For them to happen to the benefit of the whole society, rather than any individual or group within it, there has to be a perception of the common good.

When I was a child, I imagined that being an MP would give me the power to bring about all kinds of good things for society. Election constituted a kind of anointing. But it was not like that. Politics indeed turned out to be the boring of hard boards. Success, such as it was, owed as much to persistence and doggedness as to inspiration. When I became a Cabinet Minister, I imagined I would have the power to do good. But what I saw as good was not identical with what others saw as good, and what I achieved was highly controversial. Some of it has been undone since. Power, I learned, was limited, transient, betraying. And it had to be that way, for nothing corrupts like unlimited power. One winter my husband and I stumbled across a ruined castle in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. The words scrawled by some unknown hand on the crumbling wall were the ancient wisdom. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” it read. So passes the glory of the world.


The achievements of some give the lie to those who believe individuals can change nothing. One of the most heartening experiences of my public life was the demonstration by tens of thousands of people in Birmingham to relieve the burden of debt on poor countries. The campaign was started by a small group of men and women, some associated with the churches, looking for an appropriate way to mark the millennium. It called itself Jubilee 2000, and soon became unstoppable. Thousands of people made their way to Birmingham, by bus, train, and car, paying for themselves, bringing their babies and their children, to form a human chain around the city symbolizing the chain of debt.

All day long people listened to speeches, talked about strategies, discussed their objectives with strangers united only by the common cause. There were not many political leaders nor many ecclesiastical dignitaries. But certainly the Holy Spirit moved among those who came. And the campaign had an effect, for it led to an initiative to reduce the debt of the poorest countries, the so-called HIPC program. HIPC was not generous enough and the conditions were difficult to meet, but the world had been made aware of the problem, and at least a start had been made on dealing with it.

There is now an international initiative to try to define what are the obligations of human beings to one another, to form a declaration of human obligations to match the declaration of rights. These duties are economic as well as political and moral. They spell out in secular terms what the church has been extolling for centuries, that discipleship is about service. John Fuellenbach in his book The Kingdom of God, puts it this way: “The second characteristic of Jesus’ commandment of love is expressed through ‘service of neighbor.’ The model is Jesus Himself, who puts concern for the neighbor’s well-being above everything else.”


I spent a fascinating four days in Valencia, Spain, several years ago at a meeting of people from all over the world chaired by Mr. Justice Goldstone, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Africa. The Declaration of Human Obligations we drew up together has had some influence on deliberations at the United Nations and in the European Union, but has not so far achieved equal status with the Declaration of Human Rights. The reason is obvious; a Declaration of Human Obligations lays unequal burdens on its signatories, for the burden of obligation depends upon the capacity to bear it. But the recognition that rights must be matched by obligations moves the argument on from its source in the French Revolution to a more holistic and more religious concept of the good society.

Pope John Paul II’s gathering in Assisi in 2002 with leaders of other faiths is exactly what is needed. In the past, discussions have been held between politicians and economists, but they need to be conducted in the religious and spiritual dimensions also, where secular power is not the dominant factor. Nor should secular power be the criterion for who participates in such discussions. We know already a little about the insights of tribal peoples, such as the native Americans and South America’s indigenous Indians, into the relationship of man to nature. We need to approach the accumulated wisdom of peoples far removed from our own experience with due humility and openness.

The Vatican, given its long history of moral teaching and its global reach, should have a part to play in all this. Its scholars and thinkers should now be cooperating in defining these global norms, based on the world’s religious and ethical traditions, and on the common heritage of humanity.


From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
Immanuel Kant

I am a politician, so I think in terms of institutions, laws, and policies. I have set out elsewhere the outline of a response to the world’s challenges which reflect part of what we have learned from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. I am well aware that even if such a system were to be constructed, everything would depend on the attitudes and objectives of the men and women who operate it. Human beings can rebel against the “structures of sin,” as the liberation theologians tried to do in Latin America, but they have to employ human beings to erect the structure that replaces them. Karl Marx believed that his utopian post-Communist society would be run by perfected human beings, but he, like Jean Jacques Rousseau and all the other political absolutists, did not know how to perfect them. That is why “no political society can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God” (John Paul II in Centesimus Annus).

The only lasting achievement therefore lies in changing people, and that cannot be done by coercion. They can be cowed, intimidated, or killed, but not changed. What changes them, as Jesus repeatedly told us, is love. Let me offer a banal example. For a year or so, I was Minister for Prisons. My nostrils still twitch when I hear the word “prison,” because it reminds me of that peculiar mixture of smells of urine, sweat, and polish I grew familiar with. Senior prison officers, unsentimental repositories of years of gritty experience, used to tell me: “The lads are trouble until they meet a girl they really care for. Once that happens, they don’t give trouble any more.”

All of us have seen members of our families and our friends transformed by love, love of a child, of a spouse, of God Himself, a force so strong that it can light up the human presence. Yet we rarely speak of its power. Our Western societies appear cynical, hard-boiled, money-driven. In truth they are famished for lack of love, and all the shopping in the world cannot make up for that.


Thy Kingdom come. Do we really want it to? Christians hold conflicting images of their Redeemer. There is Christ in Majesty, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, what human beings expect of the Godhead. And there is the humble Jesus, the child born in a stable, the unknown companion of the apostles at Emmaus, the man who washed his apostles’ feet. The Church has its own conflicts, on the one side the attractions of influence and power, walking with princes, on the other the example of clergy and laypeople who have identified with the yearnings and the sufferings of the people of God, whatever their race or gender, as Jesus Himself did. It is those who follow and live out Christ’s teachings who strengthen our faith in a time of doubt.


* One of Britain’s leading postwar politicians, Shirley Williams was in the Labor Cabinet from 1974-79. In 1981 she co-founded the Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats. She is Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and Professor Emeritus at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Copyright 2003 by Shirley Williams.

This article is excerpted from the book God and Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion, by Shirley Williams. Copyright 2003 by Shirley Williams. Published in the USA by University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 46556. Used by permission of the publisher.