Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 2

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeJim Gordon’s recent post asks some good questions about the nature of leadership. He insightfully compares two figures – Steve Jobs and Dag Hammarskjöld – and asks which of these represents the brand of leadership most commensurate with the ministry of the viva vox dei of which the church is a creature. While words like ‘perseverance’, ‘attractive’, ‘impressive’, ‘innovative’ and ‘successful’ dominate airport bookshops’ literature on the subject of leadership, and go some way to describing Jobs’ own unique set of giftings, what is less apparent is a lexicon required to describe the manner of leadership modelled by Hammarskjöld, where the grammar of ‘servanthood’ and ‘trust’ and ‘relationships’ proves to be both indispensable and to be ends in themselves, and where the whole is motivated by a particular vision of reconciliatory being at the centre of all reality, the patient Thou apart from whom life makes no sense, and hope in the possibilities of human communities in which the many (and not the few) flourish is kept alive.

I am thus far only about half way through Lipsey’s gentle, spiritual and stimulating biography on Hammarskjöld, but already there has been hardly a page in which Jim’s assessment of the Swedish diplomat and economist is not confirmed, and that perhaps in no chapter more so than that which attends to tensions in late 1957 when the Maoist Chinese announced that they had sentenced to prison eleven American airmen, plus two CIA agents, shot down near the Korean border. The details of the so-called ‘Peking negotiation’ are carefully retold in Chapter 10 of Lispey’s book, ‘Un Chinois aux Yeux Bleus’ (pp. 210–36), and do not need to be rehashed here except to say, with some understatement, that the level of trust and understanding between the USA and mainland China was at sometime of a low ebb in the aftermath of the Korean War, the UN was still in many ways writing its own job description (something which was among Hammarskjöld’s greatest and most lasting contributions as Secretary General), and China was ardent about finding a seat as a UN member nation. What strikes me most about Hammarskjöld’s leadership in this environment fraught with cultural and political sensitivities (as was the case at other times too such as the tumultuous period of 1956-57 in the Middle East, a region ‘churning with anger and mistrust, conspiracy and threat, outside pressures and a partially concealed but grim arms race’ (p. 237)) was the risky and vulnerable shape of his commitment to practical reconciliation, his refusal to sacrifice deeply help principles on the altar of short-term political point scoring, his personal dedication to the possibility of a certain vision of the future in which international relations might be characterised not by a life-defeating defensiveness and abstraction but by patient and deeply personal trust and search for mutual understanding which for Hammarskjöld, at this particularly volatile point in twentieth century history, meant wading gently through a political, legal, historical and organisational morass. It was, to be sure, an act of careful diplomacy – and the favourable outcome was, in many ways, a triumph of such – but if by that we mean something like an act of a clever stuntman, we will have completely missed an astonishing achievement of an extraordinarily hopeful human being among us. To recall words he spoke in May 1955 at a press conference on nuclear disarmament, and which in many ways characterise his own leadership: ‘There have been no precedents or experiences which entitle us not to try again’.

That the church too is burdened with passionately-defended lines of demarcation that sponsor a silence towards and lies about those who hold to different positions on all manner of subjects, and with a widespread absence of porosity – and so a desire to grow with and vis-à-vis the other – means that she too is desperately in need of the kind of leadership that Hammarskjöld embodies.

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