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Book review: Trust in Public Life by Anna Rowlands, Claire Gilbert, Josie Rourke, Anthony Ball and James Hawkey; Nonviolence: An idea whose time has come by Ramin Jahanbegloo

22 September 2023

Alan Billings considers two slim volumes in a thoughtful new series

HAUS CURIOSITIES are short booklets offering opinion and analysis of current issues by contemporary commentators in the manner of the topical inter-war pamphlets.

Trust in Public Life is a collection of five talks given in Westminster Abbey in 2022 and addressing a critical matter for our times: the loss of public trust in institutions, from the banks to the BBC. “Trust in Institutions” is addressed directly by Anthony Ball, while others consider “Trust in Oneself” (Claire Gilbert and Josie Rourke), “Trust in People” (James Hawkey), and “The Roots of Trust” (Anna Rowlands).

Gilbert and Rourke reflect on Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, showing how it enables self-knowledge, particularly of our flaws and failings. They regard this as essential if those who exercise leadership in institutions are to do so with a realistic self-confidence and in ways that take people with them.

As society becomes more diverse, Hawkey believes that we must build “habits” of solidarity and truthfulness — a “theology of communion” — if we are to trust one another — because trust is primarily about relationships, not codes of conduct or law, important though they are.

Rowlands looks to the Gospels and St Paul for insights into what nourishes trust.

Each of the essays is thought-provoking, and collectively they offer guidance on how to strengthen a grounded self-confidence and develop trust between people and in the institutions that serve us.

The author of Nonviolence, Ramin Jahanbegloo, advocates Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence, as did Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel. This is the idea whose “time has come”.

Gandhi, he writes, “revolutionised the concept of nonviolence by framing it as both a moral and a political practice”. He practised “satyagraha” — allowing the inner voice of conscience to resist anything repugnant to the soul. This requires self-sacrifice, but, in the end, moral example becomes a force that turns society’s self-centredness into other-centredness.

He acknowledges that those who refuse to be cowed by totalitarian states may not succeed — at first. And he notes that, when the Berlin Wall fell and the spirit of 1989 began to spread through communist Eastern Europe, pro-democracy demonstrators were crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square.

And this is where the weakness of Jahanbegloo’s argument and analysis lies. Those who advocate non-violence also have a political end in view: a free, democratic society. But, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out, the ends that people and nations seek are many and not always compatible. As a result, the possibility of conflict and, I would add, violence can never be eliminated.

Victor Hugo may have been right in saying that there is no greater force than an idea whose time has come, but, in today’s world, not everyone wills a non-violent future. Ask Vladimir Putin.


The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire and a former Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council.


Trust in Public Life
Anna Rowlands, Claire Gilbert, Josie Rourke, Anthony Ball and James Hawkey
Haus Curiosities £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

Nonviolence: An idea whose time has come
Ramin Jahanbegloo
Haus Curiosities £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

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