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Enjoy highlights from our Faith & Moral Courage event series: read the keynote speech by three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Scilla Elworthy, delivered at St Ethelburga’s Bridging Divides, Loving Earth Conference. To watch the full speech and discover more content from Faith & Moral Courage event series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

Scilla Elworthy: I want to acknowledge that things look very dark at the moment, in terms of what humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet. I want to honour the terror of soldiers on all sides in the current war. The grief of their families, the lost children, the women raped and the wounds of war that do not heal for three or four generations. I want to recognise the devastation that war brings to our planet. Wrecked homes, wrecked water systems, wrecked Earth, wrecked farmland, the criminal waste of war.

We’ve all got histories of war, but now is the time to change this… Change is coming. I want to examine some of the drivers of change.

Never before in the history of humanity have so many millions of women been able to exercise power. Millions upon millions can now vote, be educated, can unite, can write, can fight injustice, and plan for the future. Of course, not all women are feminists, but those who are not are supported by many men who are feminists. Did you know, for example, that eight nations of the world now have a feminist foreign policy? This was started by Kristina Lunza and her work in Berlin. Germany was the first country to have a feminist foreign policy and now another seven countries have followed through. This is one indication of how the balance is shifting from the left brain, the thinking brain, to the right brain, which sees the big picture and feels suffering. The decisions that these people will make, feminine people, whatever gender, will change the way we live our lives and how we care for the planet.

Artificial intelligence is terrifying. You’ve probably read articles discussing the scariest side of the picture. However, it presents an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate, recognise and use the intelligence of the heart. Artificial intelligence will decrease the relevance of the human intellect because artificial intelligence is far smarter than any human brain. But heart intelligence cannot be taught to a machine. A faculty like intuition, integrity or compassion depends on relating to a higher source of power. Therefore, the intelligence and capacity of the heart is what distinguishes the human from the machine. This is a revolution for humanity, with no less impact, and possibly more than the Industrial Revolution. Those who do inner work will thrive, and those who don’t may be dominated or made redundant by the computer… Those who can become quiet and access their inner power will have wisdom beyond the capacity of the brain. 

This raises complex questions of which I can only mention a few. First of all, it raises the fundamental question of where and how humans get their inner nourishment. Does this magnify the value of those who understand and work with nature? Does it magnify the value of those who grow plants, those able to work with the seasons and the weather? Does this ultimately open the heart of business? Does it demand a search for the real values of a business? A lot of businesses that I talk to have their values stated on the wall but they don’t live those values. What we’re looking for is the heart of business. We’re demanding a search for the real values of business because business has, whether we like it or not, more influence on change in our present world than anything else. More influence than governments, more influence than revolutions and so on. The next question to ask is, what is the soul of a business? What do those who work in large corporations really want their future and their children’s future to be like? Does it mean the survival not of the fittest, but of the wisest? And lastly, could this bring the divine into daily life? That’s real change.

Let’s have a look at what it means in practice. Now I want to talk about the skills that are already being taught and the leadership skills necessary for this revolution we’re entering.

First, a skill that can be taught is to ask any individual, “What breaks your heart?” We’ve all had heartbreak. If we can go beyond the pain of the heartbreak, there is a vast energy for change behind the heartbreak. When people harness that energy for change, things start to happen. For example, if you’re walking down a street and a wounded dog is limping with a bleeding paw, you will want to stop and take action because it breaks your heart to see so much pain. What heartbreak is composed of, for many of us, is far bigger than that. So we ask the people we work with, “What breaks your heart?” That’s where your energy for change lies.

Second, how do we learn to listen in a way that prevents and resolves conflict? When I first started working with nuclear weapons policymakers, they were very good at giving speeches and paying traditional attention to somebody getting up on a platform. But when it came to hearing the message, they were never able to feed back to the speaker what they heard, because they didn’t listen. This was particularly evident during negotiations. The ability to listen has to be taught.

Third, we should use nonviolent communication… In a series of brilliant learning exercises, NVC develops compassion and we learn to use it in the crucial moment when compassion is necessary, which is when we’re most often likely to flip into action. NVC teaches us how to use compassion instantly.

Fourth, we need to tame the inner critic. All of us have this nasty voice that wakes us up in the early morning to tell us that we have failed, missed our chance, or are on a useless path. I’ve had a severe inner critic ever since I was 20, or probably earlier. Over the years, I’ve needed to do something about it because it wrecks my self-confidence. What I learned to do, and it took me ages, was to sit down with it. If my inner critic wakes me up, I make a cup of herbal tea, sit down and ask it, “Why did you wake me up?” What you have to do is be the voice of the inner critic. It’s pretty interesting when you use its terminology and its accent. My inner critic will say something like, “What you did was useless today and nobody was listening.” I come back to my own seat and say: “That’s not very helpful. What do you actually want me to know?” If I carry on like that, insisting on what the inner critic wants me to know, it will tell me some wonderful truths… I recommend it as a way of transforming this critic into a guide. 

Fifth, how do we clean our anger and make it into fuel for transformation? If we spew out our anger at people, it wounds and can do terrible damage which is often never forgotten. But if we contain the energy of our anger in ourselves, like putting fuel in a carburettor, it becomes a fantastic motivator for change… It’s what makes us get up again tomorrow morning and keep going. It’s what makes us face hopelessness and get through it… It’s really necessary for change-makers. 

Sixth, develop the presence to act in a crisis. We need to be able to call on who we are and call on our heart’s wisdom when a crisis strikes. Once, in the late 1990s, I was organising a dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers at very high levels of the military and government in five nuclear nations. I brought them together to actually listen to each other. On one occasion, we had a public meeting in St. Anthony’s College in Oxford. There we were, in this beautiful college with a huge audience, and I had Chinese military personnel and politicians on one side, and their UK equivalents on the other. It was getting heated because they weren’t listening to each other. I realised I had to do something about it. So I cleared my throat and said: “Gentlemen, what we’ve heard is really profound and the whole audience is interested. Now, we’re going to take three minutes of complete silence to digest what we’ve heard.” To my amasement, that actually happened. At the end of the three minutes, we started the conversation again and it was of a completely different level. People stopped to think, “What have I heard?” That’s an example of using right brain intelligence, what some people call yin intelligence, to break the cycle of violence.

Seventh, how do you grow the power of your heart as a resource for action? People who are trying to change the world get very tired and we need to be able to recharge our hearts. I’ve found that, if you give your heart your attention, it actually expands while you sit there. The bigger your heart is, the more change you will be able to bring about in the world. For example, if you work in a big company and disagree with a decision made by your superiors, it takes a lot of nerve to stand up and say something. Equally, if you’re facing teachers at your child’s school and don’t agree with something, it takes a lot of courage to stand up and say that in a way that doesn’t cause annoyance. We have to do it in a way where we open the dialogue and not simply provoke reaction.

…Lastly, we are all in service to the planet. You’re training and you’re in service to bring about change. The question of last century was, what can I get? How can I get richer? The question of this century is, what can I give? You can give from your heart.

Why faith and moral courage? 

This content is a segment of an extensive event series exploring what faith and moral courage look like in an age of polycrisis. Where does extraordinary courage come from? What can we learn from people who’ve risked everything to live up to their values? What forms of courage are especially needed in our age of unravelling, uncertainty and risk? How can we inspire ourselves and each other to grow our capacity to brave our limits? Are there insights from the world’s spiritual and faith traditions that can help us grow our courage?

Chen has a background in art history and the creative industries. She supports the Faith and Moral Courage project, Contemplative Practice event series, and various creative endeavours at St Ethelburga's. Along with her regular meditation practice, Chen enjoys exploring different contemplative practices and experiences. When she is not on her yoga mat, she can usually be found in the kitchen, experimenting with culinary art and completely immersed in the mesmerising sound of Sanskrit.