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Reflection Piece: A thought from The Revd Professor Kenneth Newport

Kenneth Newport Wednesday 24 May 2017

The Revd Professor Kenneth Newport, PVC (Academic) and Canon of Manchester Cathedral, reflects on the recent events in Manchester.

I have lived in Manchester long enough to remember the IRA bomb of 1996. My fellow Mancunians often now remark that since no one died and the centre of the city got huge reinvestment, including the new Arndale Centre, perhaps twenty years on the memory can be allowed to fade. The bombing of the Manchester Arena is quite another matter, though. The death toll currently stands at 22 and we are all praying that it does not go higher. A particularly wicked part of this is what appears to be the deliberate targeting of the very young. Indeed, along with some 6000 others, I was in the Arena only the night before to hear Professor Brian Cox; the average age on that occasion was more like 60 than 16. 

It is at times like this when we see the very worst of what some people are capable of doing to others. But, as the Bishop of Manchester reminded us, in the end love will always defeat hate. And in the same vein, I remember well Archbishop Desmond Tutu giving an address to our staff and students here at Liverpool Hope where he commented upon history’s intolerance of evil.

Already there are accounts of acts of kindness: Liverpool taxi drivers heading down the M62 to offer those left stranded free lifts to hospitals and homes; families appearing on the streets with offers of practical assistance or simply comforting words, and queues forming at blood donor centres. It would be a victory for wickedness if we allow the few perpetrators of this shameful act so to dominate our thoughts that we forget the many who were swift to show what our common humanity is truly capable of.

Allow me, if you will, a biblical reference. It can be applied outside of the Christian context: ‘the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1.5).

 

Professor Simon Piasecki, Head of Dance, Drama and Performance Studies, also reflected on the events in Manchester:

With the bombing of the Manchester Arena, we have just experienced yet another atrocity that is difficult to comprehend, perhaps more than ever since it concerns children. As with many of you, I have spent a troubled day in the aftermath trying to concentrate on work. As with many of you, I have taken each of my younger children to events there in the last two years and emerged joyous, feeling as good as a parent might having watched their child’s amazement at witnessing their musical heroes. As with many of you, I had friends with children there at this terrible moment. My friends emerged safely and I hope that yours did too, but I cannot imagine how some are now suffering. I want to offer something that I am positively sure of and that we now have to focus on in my opinion; that in times such as these people help those suffering; they carry, they support, they offer accommodation and love. People are instinctively good to one and other, even as strangers.

In my Inaugural Lecture here at Hope, I had written that in 1759, prior to his famous magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, arguing for a free market economy, Adam Smith published a far less well known book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which, whilst not contradictory, refers to a human capacity for ‘loveliness’, a right-mindedness, and carries a most memorable opening sentence:

How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it (Smith, 1790, p.1.1.1).

Smith examines the human instinct for helping one and other, beyond family, and for behaving altruistically, constructing this on an argument that has its basis in survival in numbers that is localised; we pick one and other up because we are in something together.

He describes our initial expression of sorrow for the suffering of fellow human beings but a rather swift return to our own concerns, frivolities and diversions; perhaps it is the latter that we need to take care with. Adam Smith’s book begins with a definition of compassion – a response born out of empathy with the sufferer, for when we see suffering, we envision a physical analogy of it in our own body. Smith does not entirely account for the difference between sympathy and empathy that I find myself so often reiterating in the teaching space when considering critical analysis – sympathy is essentially political in nature, cognitive and rational, whilst empathy of course is more instinctive and of the heart. In both these contexts, though, we are using a kind of inner arithmetic of standing ourselves in the place of others, imagining what ‘if’ it were I, imagining pain and applying this projection to a decision concerning the conscience of our actions. This is far from perfect, because whilst we might imagine and empathise deeply, what can we do?

Smith refers to refers to the choice for right action, not born of the need to please, so much as a wish to serve, with, for Smith, prudence, justice and beneficence. I shall translate that then to:

1.             Care for oneself;

2.             Care for fairness to oneself and others;

3.             Generosity to others.

In the midst of the ruination of his country and culture during the Second World War, the Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, in Flight to Arras (which I’ve adapted for theatre), about his search for a light in the darkness, for a future. He arrived at a recognition that hope is actually not found in the fact that someone survives or even in our agreed outrage at the fact of an event or rejection of its perpetrators, but rather in the fact that people hold one and other, share food, give up their space in a vehicle, pull others from the dust and rubble. This is what we saw in Manchester and this is why I feel hopeful. We celebrate the work and bravery of services deployed to do this, as we absolutely should, but I am referring here to those that simply do it out of an immediate humanity.  Saint–Exupery writes:

'I believe that what my civilization calls charity is the sacrifice granted Mankind for the purpose of his own fulfilment. Charity is the gift made to Mankind present in the insignificance of the individual. [Charity] creates Mankind' (1942, p.157).

Today, with all my heart, I wish our Graduates to learn that the virtue of altruism and that of self-betterment are two sides of the same coin; if we help others, we help ourselves.

 

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