The Joy Of Being Partial
"Between the calamity of total division and the utopia (one might say the dystopia) of complete unanimity, there are virtually infinite and ever deeper levels of agreement, collaboration, mutual support, solidarity, and compassion we can work for".
I am sure you all remember the opening scene of the 2006 film by Stephen Frears The Queen: set in 1997, the year Tony Blair had won the general election, it shows the Queen as she is having her portrait taken, and amiably conversing with the painter about the experience of voting, which is precluded to her. It is in the course of this conversation that the script of the film attributes to her a memorable line in which she expresses her regret for being deprived of “the sheer joy of being partial”. Queen Elisabeth of course is well-known for having a mind of her own and demonstrated this from a very young age. And yet for the past seventy years she has never let her judgment, opinions, or preferences interfere when setting out the political program decided by the government at the opening of Parliament or giving royal assent to parliamentary bills.
Both my country, Italy, and the UK have this is common: the head of state – the President of the republic in Italy and the constitutional monarch in this country - have virtually no executive power, and fulfil a largely ceremonial role. Pragmatists might understandably frown at this extravagance and extol instead the French or the American constitutional models where the head of State is invested with vast executive powers. What is the point -one might argue- of having a president or a monarch who cannot speak their mind in public nor take any decision on political matters?
There might be more than one explanation to this apparent oddity, but the one I find most convincing is the role of both the Italian President and the British monarch as foci of national unity. Political leaders are the expression of only part of the population of a nation, and it takes great democratic maturity for the minority to respect their authority despite sometimes intense and often justifiable opposition to their ideas - and sometimes behaviour. In the UK, the Queen remains above the fray so that everyone can feel represented by her. At heart, this reflects the conviction that moral authority is more effective that sheer executive power in eliciting allegiance from people and providing a sense of stability and continuity to a nation. In other words, this is a form of government honed over centuries to create, maintain, and constantly restore unity. And the most fascinating aspect of this constitutional settlement is that it relies on one person accepting to be deprived of “the sheer joy of being partial”, and to suspend her judgment in what somehow echoes Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor 9.19).
If we are tempted to discount the importance of this stance, let us think for a moment how hard it must be sticking to it not just on some occasions or for some time, but over a life time, not only on some minor issues, but on absolutely everything, and on matters that determine the life of the nation.
One thing human beings do relish is this “sheer joy of being partial”. In fact, it is an unavoidable consequence of our duty to actively contribute to the life of the communities we are part of. The whole of our education system is designed to make us responsible and discerning citizens, able to reflect critically, verbalize our views, and express our disagreement. I have spent most of my life living in religious and academic institutions, and I have found that one of the unfailing symptoms of institutional crisis is the lack of robust and frank internal debate and the fear of conflict. No environment is more toxic than anxious households, workplaces, religious communities, parishes, and churches where dissatisfaction can only be vented through passive aggression.
If our model of unity and of community is absence of difference, divisions, disagreement, and conflict, well, we’d better leave the planet.
How, then, shall we square this acknowledgement with Jesus’ refrain in today’s gospel, “that they may all be one”?
Some might think that what I have just described applies to human society but not to Christian communities. Is not Jesus’ greatest commandment that we should love each other, forgive each other seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile?
Well, the history of Christianity and the reality of our church life unfortunately point in the opposite direction: the constant feature of Christian communities right from the beginning has been divisions, quarrels, often feuds. Not only we are separated in several Christian denominations, but often are even more removed from Christians who are part of our own church. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several people who are about to take part in the coming Lambeth conference, and it is already clear that some bishops will not even bother coming because of what they perceive as irreconcilable disagreement with some of their fellow bishops.
Has Christianity, throughout its history, and from the beginning, got something so fundamentally wrong about the Gospel that such a crucial trait of Jesus’ message should have been so relentlessly and so tragically ignored?
Two considerations might help us to address this discrepancy.
The first consists in noticing that in this page of the Gospel Jesus is not asking us to be one, but is praying the Father to make us one. It is as if he knew that there is no point in making unity a purely ethical injunction because even if we wanted to, we would not be capable of it. And if he prays for it not in the secret of his heart but so openly and so insistently it is because he wants this to become our prayer too. And this is important. It means that even if we will never achieve unity, we should long for it, work for it, and try to come as close as we can to it – prayer shapes our desire, and desire makes us more imaginative, daring, and committed. Between the calamity of total division and the utopia (one might say the dystopia) of complete unanimity, there are virtually infinite and ever deeper levels of agreement, collaboration, mutual support, solidarity, and compassion we can work for.
This is how I make sense of the metaphors of turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile: they mean that however deep the disagreement might seem, we should never give up trying, we should always deploy a bit more patience, give others another chance, pay greater attention, listen more sympathetically – because coming even just an inch closer to each other is better than nothing. We become better as individuals and as communities just by never giving up, by never resigning ourselves to division.
The second consideration, if you allow me, wants to take inspiration from what is going to be in most of our minds and hearts for the next week – namely her majesty’s platinum jubilee. We will want to express our gratitude for her dutiful, faithful, unfailing devotion to her role. And she will surely appreciate it – actually, as many have noticed, lately she seems to have decided to bask in this outpouring of affection for her. You might have been as endeared as I was by her mischievous reaction to the comedian Omid Djalili who, few days ago, at the Royal Windsor Horse Show jokingly thanked her “very humbly, -he said- for picking us over the State Opening of Parliament”.
An even deeper way of demonstrating our gratitude for her service to this country though might be to take inspiration from the aspect of her role captured in the fictional line from Stephen Frears’ movie I mentioned earlier – that is her willingness to renounce “the sheer joy of being partial”.
Of course, we are not asked to do the same all the time and in all circumstances. This is not our role – none of us is tasked with being a focus for national unity.
But there are many circumstances in our family life, our workplaces, in politics, and in church where we can be agents of union, peace, and reconciliation by just biting our tongue a little longer, suspending our judgement, giving others the benefit of the doubt, being less anxious about our disagreements and more willing to sustain our differences with patience.
There might be joy in being partial, but surely there also is delight in any small step that takes us closer to what Jesus wishes for our community and expresses in his heartfelt prayer: “that they may be one, as we are one … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”.