Friday, 9 October 2009

Madeleine Albright and Sister Pauline O'Regan

A number of first rate books have helped me establish my new world view and reinforced fresh emphasis on reason and communication. Madeleine Albright's splendid book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on Power, God and World Affairs" (2006) was one of these. She was Bill Clinton's Secretary of State and is a first class writer. Not surprisingly she also lectures on Foreign Service.

The book is part autobiography, part history and religious studies lesson. It is bound together with lively and forthright discussion of topics which are of growing global concern. The author's central point is that while religion is best not combined directly with government it is increasingly important to acknowledge it as a profound influence on people's motivation and behaviour. If we take this into account we are much more likely to understand those whose views are different from our own and to be able to work through differences.

She includes a wealth of background information, especially about Islam which has much more in common with Christian teachings than many readers might imagine. Even so, the culture in some Muslim countries is very different to our own and at times I found myself awe-struck as Ms Albright recounted addressing powerful Muslim men on issues such as women's rights along with matters of state. Even though she was a dignitary herself this must have taken considerable courage and conviction, and a firm belief that good could come of it.

Her stories of meetings and discussions with heads of state in far flung areas of the globe take the reader on a fascinating and informative journey. In many ways this is the news behind the news we are more likely to have seen on television.

At a time when international tensions are to some degree fueled by news bulletins focusing on violence and disaster such a book is helpful in shifting ones impressions to a more knowledgeable, peaceable and hopeful place.

Quite apart from the very readable text, the chapter notes and bibliography at the back are worth reading for themselves alone: these are extensive, and the sources of quotations and information many and various, a decisive factor in the book's authority. Not only has the author met and talked with many of the dignitaries she quotes, she also took the further step of submitting her entire draft to both Jewish and Islamic experts for comment and verification, as well as consulting Christians and any number of other people. However, she is careful to emphasize that her decided views and conclusions are her own. I was filled with admiration of her gutsy self-confidence which seems based on a thorough knowledge of her topics, endless dialogue with disparate parties and knowing her own convictions very well indeed!

"There is hope for a tree" by Catholic nun, Sister Pauline O'Regan (1995), was an excellent companion read. Here the writer chronicles aspects of her association with her Church. It is a thoughtful and beautifully written book, and the author's observations are colourful, witty, wise, and at times acerbic. Her description of a social visit to a Catholic home in Northern Ireland in the company of a Presbyterian (Protestant) minister is as astonishing as it is moving. It would seem that reconciliation between such agonisingly opposed groups may be better accomplished directly between ordinary individuals rather than by politicians and soldiers.

Both books strongly underline how important it is that we wish to understand, especially when we don't, and that in tackling conflict that we be willing to communicate constructively for as long as it takes. Both women have committed to this for the long haul in the face of what seem like overwhelming odds. I found I wanted to join them. Inspirational.

Purchasing links for interested NZ readers: 
Fishpond.co.nz - other editions available including audio.  To find them click on the author link of this editions author details.
The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs

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