by John Borst PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

Have you ever read Dante’s Divine Comedy? If you’re like me, the answer is probably no. That is why I was a little taken aback when my friend Ted Schmidt began a piece he wrote regarding John Wooden, arguably the greatest coach in the history of American basketball, with this quote from Canto 3 of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are

those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way

is taken by the sorry souls of those

who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,

the company of those who were not rebels

nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.”

Over the centuries these sentiments got telescoped into something Dante inferred but never said: He put those who are neutral in the everlasting fight between right and wrong in the lowest place in Hell.

Perhaps Dr Martin-Luther King was thinking of Dante when he did say that “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

Dr King is remembered for other statements chastising those who would remain neutral:

  • “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
  • “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

I raise this issue at this time because Angus M Robinson, a Rotarian from Australia asked in a post at LinkedIn

 A Rotary Paradox – Yemen

Can some one explain to me please why on one hand RI concerns itself with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring the supply of clean water to developing countries around the world, when at the same time we sit back and, without any form of protest, allow the governments of two Western nations (the USA and the UK) in which Rotarians are prominently represented, undertake a total blockade of Yemen to deny its population fresh food, fuel, and water, all in support of Saudi Arabia, a country in which Rotary Clubs are not allowed to be established! Meanwhile, my country Australia is also giving tactic support to this regime! The tragedy is that this supportive action by our Western nations could well lead to the worst famine and human disease scenario seen globally for many decades.

Angus rightly asks, “Cannot our Rotary leaders at least say something and speak out about this impending disaster and persuade our political leaders to take immediate action to address this humanitarian disaster!” (my emphasis)

I have placed all of the comments from The Rotary Paradox in one document with all of the comments opened for view, which you can download in PDF format HERE. I would encourage you to read it as a case study of the confusion and conflicted moral position we are in as an organization.

Of course, it should come as no surprise to those who have followed my posts that there have been many times when I have been critical of Rotary’s penchant of remaining silent in the face of human-caused tragedy.

You will note too how many times Rotarians will argue for neutrality. Surely, there are times when an organization with the values of Rotary has a moral imperative to speak out otherwise it betrays its own values.

This is what happened when polio-immunization workers were murdered while doing their life-saving work and our President of the day did not speak out. This is what happens when no one bemoans Americans slaughtered needlessly in spasms of gun violence. This is what happens when ethnic cleansing rears its ugly head as in Myanmar and the Rohingya are slaughtered and dispossessed and we say nothing.

In 1913 the religious writer Reverend John A. Hutton presented his analysis of Dante’s poem and wrote:

In Dante’s great poem, the neutrals, those who in this world had never taken aside, occupy the mouth and vestibule of Hell. …. Dante denies them the moral dignity of a place even in hell itself. “Heaven will not have them, and the deep Hell receives them not lest the wicked there should have some glory over them”—lest the wicked, that is, looking at these neutrals, should be able to feel that there were souls worse than themselves.

Whether you are are a believer or not Dante’s symbolism drives a spear through the heart of everything for which Rotary stands.

Even the foundations of America, the crucible in which Rotary was conceived,  born and matured into adulthood, is today being undermined from within.

It’s just one more reason why I maintain, neutrality is a dangerous stance in dangerous times.