2021 Annual Peace Conversation

Be Kind
David Zwartz (from Wellington, NZ)
11 October 2021, Otago University, Dunedin NZ


E koekoe te tūī

E ketekete te kākā
E kūkū te kererū

The tūī chatters, the kākā gabbles, the kererū coos.

I don’t offer an opinion on matching the three birds with the three Abrahamic faiths, but in an ideal world, all their distinct voices are heard loud and clear.

I would like to begin by thanking the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group for inviting me to present its 18th annual lecture. It is an honour to be included in a group of distinguished politicians, theologians, religious leaders and academics since the first lecture was given in 2004 by the late former Prime Minister David Lange.

I don’t fit into any of those categories so please bear that in mind when it comes to the time for questions.

In my talk, I want to explore what is kindness, how it contributes to peace in our communities, and how it can be increased.

What is peace? This has been addressed and discussed in many different ways in the previous 17 annual lectures. To explain the Jewish tradition, as I’m not a theologian, I’ll repeat the gist of what Emeritus Professor Paul Morris said in his lecture, the third in this series, in 2006.

He based his understanding of it on the meaning of the Hebrew word shalom, referring back to Psalm 34 which says: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

Paul explained that peace is a journey that you have to look for and then follow, rather than a project to be erected. “Good is something that we can do, but shalom is something we have to seek and pursue. Shalom is a word rich in resonance, from the root, shalam, to complete, finish, be whole, and it connotes completeness, safety, friendship, welfare, health, prosperity, righteousness and, of course, peace.”

“Shalom is thus not simply the absence of war but a positive quality, a life that is complete and full. The biblical tradition understands this shalom to be a blessing.”

“In Hebrew the standard greeting is shalom aleichem, peace be upon you, and the rabbinic tradition teaches that there is no higher blessing that that of shalom,” Paul said.

This is a shared Abrahamic concept. The universal Muslim greeting, salaam alaikum, peace be upon you, is based on the Qur’ānic concept of salaam, peace, safety, and security. The concept is also well known to Christians from the Christian Bible.

Of course, these understandings of peace, and the aspirations to achieve it, are not confined to the Abrahamic faiths. They are central to all faiths in this world.

As practice of the Abrahamic faiths is based on scriptures dating back about 2,600 years for Judaism, about 2,000 years for Christianity, and about 1,500 years for Islam, there has been time for changes in interpretation and observances, due to the profound changes in human society over the millennia. But the concepts of peace and its universal desirability have survived unchanged over time.

Jewish commentators teach that while it is easy to love shalom, and earnestly desire it, it will not just arrive but has to be actively pursued. Peace requires action.

Examples of such action were given by Reverend Greg Hughson, who is present this evening, in the second lecture, in 2005. He explained how the responses to the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, the events of 9/11 in 2001, and the founding of the Dunedin Jewish, Christian and Muslim Community Liaison group also in 2001, led to renewed activity to strive for peace.

My presentation this evening on pursuing peace doesn’t relate to peace at an international level, to conflicts between nations, but considers peace at national and domestic levels.

In fact, the term peace at the international level is not always clear, and is sometimes misused or abused. History gives us examples of how political leaders have used intervention and aggression in the name of peace. NGO peace movements are sometimes very aggressive in their calls for intervention in overseas situations. But I won’t go into that this evening.

Peace at national and domestic levels refers to absence of conflict between groups within a society, such as employers associations and trade unions, tenants and landlords, Pākehā New Zealanders and immigrants; or between neighbours; or within families. My thesis is that kindness at an individual level is a powerful force in achieving peace at those levels. Individual kind actions have a cumulative effect that builds up a virtuous cycle which can change our families and our society.

What is kindness? It is studied and given different definitions by a wide range of social scientists, anthropologists, psychologists and religious commentators. The reasons why it exists in human nature are also explained differently.

It is agreed, though, that humans are social animals, and that we would not have survived as a species if we hadn’t relied on each other, shared resources with others, and cared for them. The negative side to that is the parallel development of tribal behaviours which labeled “the others” as outside our range of concerns – in fact, as enemies. The development of aggression is part of human nature, also based on survival.

Kind behavior has been analysed to show two distinct types – “altruistic” and “strategic.” Altruistic is when the kindness is selfless - no reward is expected. Examples are standing up to give your seat on a bus to someone else who is elderly or infirm, or offering to carry their heavy shopping bag; or giving your time to stand with a collection tin on behalf of an animal welfare organisation. 

Strategic kindness occurs when the person gets some sort of reward, either physical, monetary or intangible, for what they have done. Examples are public recognition for philanthropy, or the worldwide Live Aid concerts in 1985. These were fundraisers to alleviate famine in Ethiopia. People attended to support a good cause but knew at the same time that they were going to get an exciting musical experience.

Both types of kindness achieve goodness and betterment for others. There is also what is called “thinking well of someone” – forming a kind attitude or opinion which isn’t necessarily linked to a particular physical act of kindness.

Incidentally, some recent neurological research has shown different brain reactions for the two sorts of kindness, altruistic and strategic, which may indicate some sort of evolutionary development distinction.

There is a growing popular movement encouraging “random acts of kindness” that began in the United States in the 1980s. It is also now formalized in New Zealand since 2005 as an annual day, on the first of September. For the recipient, the randomness lies in the unexpectedness – something kind appearing “out of the blue.” For the giver of the kindness, it is randomness in selecting recipients, though there is intentionality in planning the nature and the number of acts of kindness. This implies an aim of gaining some satisfaction for themselves, a strategic kindness, though linked to this is the hope that acts of kindness will spread.

Since the first Covid-19 lockdown last year, our Prime Minister has exhorted the “team of five million” NZ citizens to “be kind.” People responded to the PM’s call with a big increase in altruistic kindness. We saw this, for example, in greatly increased voluntary food donation and distribution. As someone living alone, I experienced such kindness myself, with many regular offers of assistance from neighbours to help with shopping and so on.

The repeated requests to be kind were also aimed at minimising domestic violence (which is very prevalent in this country, the worst in the OECD) under the very trying lockdown restrictions imposed on all of us. Any responses, however few, would have helped prevent an increase in violence in the home.

Behaving more kindly was accepted by a large proportion of the population as being for the national good. This was altruistic kindness, as individuals were not being directly rewarded. Acting in the public good can also be seen as having elements of strategic kindness, since there is benefit from being a citizen in a community or country which has been improved by the way that you have acted for the good.

Sometimes there is a chain of actions which contributes to more peace in a community. For instance, contributing towards alleviating hunger, homelessness or other symptoms of poverty will contribute towards reducing unhappiness and tensions in a household, which help reduce domestic violence. If that reduces, less money

needs to be spent on policing and other social services paid for from general taxation. But I don’t think that that is people’s prime motivation for making a donation to a charitable organisation.

What motivates individuals to choose to be kind?  People thought of as being basically altruistically kind do not need an organized “random day” to be kind. There are differing opinions about whether kindness is an inherited trait or learnt from one’s upbringing. The same discussion surrounds the opposite characteristics of human nature, such as selfishness and aggression.

The noted Canadian-born psychologist, Steven Pinker, discusses human nature in his 2011 book “The better angels of our nature” (which is a quotation from Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inaugural address).

Pinker argues that violence, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars, has decreased over time. Pinker considers it unlikely that human nature has changed. In his view, it is more likely that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and other negative traits, and other inclinations that counteract them, the "better angels of our nature".

Being kind is choosing to listen to the better angels and learning not to listen to the others that will always be present.

His book responded to criticisms that, if it’s true that our DNA predisposes us to violent and nasty behaviour, then humankind must be fated to continue being nasty to each other forever. He wanted to show that that is not true – for which he presented ample evidence, and showed that there is ample reason for hope.

How do Pinker’s arguments and facts relate to us as people of faith? Our religions teach us to choose kindness and avoid unkindness or animosity. Equally important is the fact that non-religious people also have moral and behavioural codes that value kindness. For both groups, that is the equivalent of Pinker’s “better angels of our nature.” This is very relevant in New Zealand today, since successive censuses have shown a decline in the numbers of people affiliated to organized religions, now down to less than half of those who answered that census question.

Despite the trend over the centuries that Pinker described, sadly we still have violent religious conflict today, such as in Africa and against the Rohingya and Uighur peoples.

However, it may surprise some here this evening to hear that in the time of my youth, in New Zealand, at the local level, there was considerable division between religious communities, and I knew of families split apart because of a Protestant-Catholic intermarriage.

In New Zealand, those situations have almost disappeared. There is now warm co-operation between communities of different faiths, as well as an active and productive interfaith movement, based on the attitudes of kindness of faith leaders and of individuals within the faith communities.

Even as the numbers of adherents in New Zealand have declined, the achievements of the interfaith movement have grown.

There was huge sympathy for and kindness towards the Muslim community following the tragic massacres of worshippers at the Christchurch mosques in March 2019.

A major change which I think falls within the definition of increased kindness in an overall sense is growing acceptance of Treaty of Waitangi settlements and justice for the tangata whenua . That is a rather generalized comment on a complex historical situation, and there are several factors to set against my sense of overall national change in this area being influenced by increased kindness. One is the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 and the extension of its jurisdiction by the David Lange-led government in 1985. Another is the influence of three outstanding individual politicians who held the relevant portfolios – Sir Douglas Graham, Hon Christopher Finlayson, and Andrew Little. Again, there is more intermarriage, and younger generations of Pākehā with greater understanding of tikanga Māori which they got through their education, something that didn’t exist for my generation. And another is the major growth of empowerment and skill of the iwi in their negotiations. But these factors would not have succeeded unless the mood of the country as a whole had changed. Social reforms can accomplish positive things only when a country’s climate of opinion has changed to accept them.

In my opinion, the same increase in national kindness has underpinned major reforms such as homosexual relations law in 1986, anti-smacking legislation in 2007, and the same sex marriage act in 2013.

Global migration has affected New Zealand society in many ways, which have also elicited increased kindness. People move from one country to another for different reasons. Sometimes they seek to improve their economic situation, sometimes they are specifically recruited for their skills by the government or by businesses. Some are refugees, escaping oppression and death, such as Jews escaping Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, Assyrian Christians fleeing oppression in Iraq, Vietnamese and Syrians escaping from civil wars, and now people from Afghanistan. Global migration is likely to grow as the planet is increasingly affected by Climate Change.

New Zealanders have responded with kindness, setting up such organisations as the Refugee and Migrant Service, Refugees as Survivors,and ChangeMakers. Though there have been problems of integration for migrants and refugees, many Kiwis, themselves with a migrant heritage, have responded with assistance and kindness.

More sympathy for refugees led to the successful advocacy for doubling the quota of UNHCR refugees accepted by this country. The Resettlement Programme managed by NZ Red Cross relies on the kindness and support of volunteers to help refugee families for at least a year after their arrival.

All the changes I have mentioned have brought greater social inclusion and social harmony to Aotearoa New Zealand, which are major components of domestic peace.

The Justice and Corrections systems are part of New Zealand society where Pinker’s “better angels” are struggling to overcome the opposing forces of entrenched legal traditions and racism. More enlightenment and kindness are badly needed, especially as the opposing forces have been strengthened by the huge growth and influence of social media.

There is justifiable hope here in the activities of reform-motivated NGOs. I mention particularly the NGO JustSpeak, led by young, intelligent, practical and vigorous reformers whose sympathy for and kindness towards those in the justice and corrections system has already achieved significant reforms.

David Lange said in closing his 2004 lecture, “One teaching is found in every religious faith. A great deal follows from it, in the secular as well as the religious world. It is the rule of behaviour which tells us that we must treat other people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.”

“I commend all of you in the Dunedin community liaison group for the practical effort you are making to live according to that rule. I said at the beginning that the questions you asked about peace had been asked forever. That rule has always been the answer, and it is the only answer I can give.”

This so-called Golden Rule exists in both a positive form – “Treat others in the same way you would like others to treat you”  – and a negative form – “Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated.” It exists in either or both forms in every world religion or culture, and has been with humankind since Ancient Egypt and Confucian China.

New Zealand society has changed in the twenty years since Lange referred to the Golden Rule as his only answer. Now we are more secular, less equal, more individualist, and more subject to being negatively inflenced by social media.

I have a couple of reasons for saying that the Golden Rule is no longer enough to be the only answer on the path to peace. Firstly, as it is mostly directly communicated through faiths, it will have less impact as adherence to faiths declines. Then, it is also labeled as ‘the ethic of reciprocity,’ interpreted as a sort of ‘steady state’ guidance, a response rather than an initiative. It doesn’t carry the sense of striving for improvement that making a choice to be kind has embedded in it.

How will we ensure that progress contines to generate a community and national  climate of greater kindness? Here are a few thoughts.

A response to the call for more school-level teaching of what used to be called Civics would encourage a sense of citizenship which leads to encouragement in taking action for the public good, not only for personal benefit.

Wider explanation and understanding of whanaungatanga will also help.

Please put up your hand if you are already vaccinated against Covid-19?

Did you get vaccinated only because you want to protect your own health and safety, or did you also have feelings that you are helping protect your family, neighbours, friends, and the whole country? I see that as an act of kindness, both strategic and altruistic.

Speaking publicly about acts of kindness, and encouraging people to be kind, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has done consistently, has a positive effect. Young people have given us examples, such as through the Student Volunteer Army, founded by Sam Johnson, which engaged in large-scale communal kindness after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Mainstream media news items often publish accounts of misfortune, whether from acts of violence or through accidents and natural disasters. I have noticed more of them ending with mention of a Givealittle page set up to help those who have suffered. As the results show, these references are a conduit for more acts of kindness.

Our government has appealed to the country to act, as a team, for the good of everybody in our present pandemic situation. It can do the same to encourage kindness, on other occasions, for similar aims.

What I think and have explained about kindness sustains my aspiration for more of us, members of the Abrahamic faiths, and all other citizens of our country, to engage in acts of kindness in our country, to make Aotearoa New Zealand a more peaceful place.

Thank you.