Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Christ

Mountains, Pyramids and the Fate of Self-Directed Support

For me there is always something special about coming to Glasgow. Setting up Inclusion Glasgow in 1996 was certainly the most wonderful, exciting (if stressful) and ultimately rewarding experience of my working life. I still feel lucky – and a little proud – to have had the chance to do it, and I’m so thankful to those, like John Dalrymple, Julie Murray and Frances Brown, who helped make it possible.

This week I am here as a guest of the Social Care Ideas Factory – a great organisation – that seeks to build networks and innovations to promote social change. They are hosting a 3-day international conference on self-directed support, with the thought-provoking title – We Chose to Climb.

This is the first of four blogs that I committed myself to write in honour of their work and the work of all the participants at the conference.

The conference proposes the idea of climbing mountains as a stimulating metaphor for the task ahead – the twofold task: first, to help each one of us, individually, to make the most of our lives together, and second to develop new community-based approaches, to make self-directed support a reality. These are certainly mountains worth climbing.

And this image got me thinking. It reminded me of some my recent reading, it got me musing about my hopes for self-directed support in Scotland, but it also made me think about some of my fears, about what can happen to good ideas, when circumstances change.

Recently I have been reading about the ancient civilisations of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, and of the birth of the Jewish faith. Mountains played a very important role in the experience of all these people. The mountain was a place where man could approach God, as Moses did at Horeb and at Sinai; and we find the same imagery in the Greek myths. Not only did the Greek gods live on top of Mount Olympus, Hesiod tells us that there was even a special god, Ether, who was present in the luminous fog, that hid the mountain tops. Mountains seem to symbolise both the presence, the greatness and the mystery of the divine.

In this light it is interesting that one of the most ancient structures was the Ziggurat – which seemed to serve as a kind of man-made alternative to the mountain. Not only does this bring the mountain down to size, it also tends to make access to God a matter of social and political organisation. Mountains are democratic – they will accept anyone prepared to climb them. Ziggurats, one suspects, were not open to all-comers.

Certainly the story of the Tower of Babel – Babylon – is the story of earthly hubris – man trying to reach God under his own power. It is also perhaps no accident that the downfall of the tower is the result of conflict and human diversity. The Egyptian pyramid took the ziggurat one step further. Instead of a platform by which the priest can meet God, the pyramid is a resting place for the dead Pharaoh-god. And the pyramid remains the classic symbol of political order, representing hierarchy and stability – it even adorns the US dollar bill.

The Jewish people of course rejected this deathly order. For them God could never be ‘brought down to earth’ in this way. For them the mountains of Sinai, Horeb and ultimately of Jerusalem itself, were symbols, not just of God’s transcendence, but also of our ultimate equality. We can all climb the mountain; no king, priest or leader can stand in our place.

Arguably, Jesus took this one step further. We are all lit by the divine light. Each of us can climb the mountain by ensuring that our light is held up high: “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, that those who come in may see the light.” [Luke 11:33]

But what has all this symbolism and theology got to do with self-directed support in Scotland? Something I think.

The proper purpose of self-directed support – why we chose to climb – was to ensure that each person, even if they have an impairment, even if they need assistance – can lead a life of meaning and value. Self-directed support is an assertion of human equality and of our rich human potential.

Yet self-directed support is also an attempt to wrestle power from a deeply hierarchical and meritocratic system. Often the hierarchy seem to win. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  1. Recently I have been doing some research into how idea that I first developed in Glasgow – Individual Service Funds – is being implemented in practice. Essentially an ISF is a simple innovation, it means that a service provider (and that term can be defined very broadly) acts as an intermediary for the person and helps them organise the support they need – flexibly and creatively. Yet, in practice, not only has take-up for this way of working been pitifully low (1% of all funding is spent in this way in England) it has also been bogged down in bureaucracy. For instance, many providers are contracted to work to a support plan that must be signed off by a social worker – the very opposite of the original concept.
  2. In addition, ideas like person-centred planning, which were originally brilliant innovations, that helped people to think creatively, have now been turned into mandated, mechanical processes – now everyone must now have their own person-centred plan. The original idea has been converted from a tool of personal liberation into yet another government controlled system. This does not stimulate creativity or empowerment; it merely enriches those who are in the business of planning, training or facilitating plans. A gift of great minds has been turned, by government, into something grubby.
  3. Standing further back, in England, self-directed support – or as it has now been renamed – personalisation, remains the official policy for ‘reforming’ adult social care. Yet, in the last four years adult social care has been cut by 30% with 500,000 fewer people now receiving care. So what does it mean to reform a system which is being cut like this? It is not encouraging.
  4. Lastly, we have seen personal health budgets (PHBs), proposed as a reform to transform the NHS. This seems such a promising idea. For example, anyone who has seen the poor state of mental health services, to pick just one area, must want to see self-directed support be extend into the NHS. Yet, with privatisation and means-testing growing, will the extension of PHBs not quickly lead to an acceleration in topping-up and other invidious practices? Soon the best piece of the UK’s welfare system – free and universal high quality healthcare – might be eroded into a quasi-insurance system where people are encouraged to take out additional insurance to guarantee faster access, better care or ‘for the good of all.’ This was certainly not the purpose of self-directed support.

This is how mountains are turned into pyramids. Ideas that were developed in the name of equality and of justice, can be uprooted and put to other uses. It seems so hard to fight City Hall.

Yet we should not despair.

While neoliberalism and austerity do appear to be winning, they are in truth, feeble foes. There is nothing inevitable about their success.

However, it will take new kinds of strategies to protect the mountain; and I think that events like tomorrow’s conference show us what is necessary if we are to climb mountains, rather than be crushed by pyramids.

  1. First of all, this event is about all of us – as equals – figuring out alternatives together. Our current problems exist because we’ve allowed power to become concentrated in the hands of too few. Together we have the wit and intelligence to challenge ourselves to take back that power. This means overcoming old barriers and distinctions – the divisions by which we are ruled – but we can do this.
  2. Second, self-directed support, even done imperfectly, still works. Its power and impact makes it very difficult for bureaucratic inertia to win the day. If we can continue to make practical progress, then, in a few years, it will seem outrageous that we allowed disabled people to sold and re-tendered like slaves; it will seem extraordinary that we did not support families and disabled people to be in control of their own support; and it will seem absurd that so much of the voluntary sector was tied down in red-tape, contracts and regulations.
  3. Finally, this event is in Scotland and Scotland has woken up to the fact that it is a democracy. It does not need to leave power where it is. Power can be reclaimed – in fact when the current elite so obviously lacks legitimacy in Scotland – taking back power is just a matter of time. I am sure a modern Scotland will begin to ask some very sharp questions about the kind of welfare state that is currently on offer and will start to move to something more in accordance with the principles of social justice.

Positive change is never inevitable; but the mountain will always overshadow the pyramid.

The Self-Sacrificing Gene

I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.

It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.

For many hundreds of years human beings have realised that evolution is real – but in more recent years we have started to believe that we have now come to a deeper understanding of how this process works.
The survival of the ‘fittest’

Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]

However to call this a competition is peculiar; for the goal of this supposed competition is not to win anything, not even to survive, but merely to generate others beings who are as similar to yourself as possible. An ape that has become extinct on the way to creating humanity is deemed to have failed; while humanity, who so far has only evolved into more of humanity, is deemed to be a success.

So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms

Genetics
More recently scientists have identified a certain molecule that exists in all living organisms – DNA. This molecule is very important because it seems to hold the information which defines what kind of organism it will go on to create.

As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.

So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.

Metaphor

As I write this I can almost hear all true scientist groaning at my seeming incomprehension:

Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.

But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality –  life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.

As Hegel, Lewis and many others have noticed – all language is in fact rooted in metaphor – strange as that seems. There is no pure non-metaphorical language, and how we choose to describe reality is important and reflect our underlying values and assumptions. The wonderful writer, Marilynne Robinson writes of this issue:

The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. 

She goes on to cite Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Robinson demonstrates that, contrary to many modern accounts, eugenics – the barbaric notion that human beings should be bred towards some madman’s notion of perfection – was always part of Darwin’s thinking. It was not just the result of the twisted thinking of Francis Galton – Galton was just putting Darwinism into practice.

I have written elsewhere of the dangers of eugenics – and of how likely we are to see its resurgence. I will not repeat these warnings here. Instead I’d just like to offer the thought that we don’t need to reject evolution in order to reject the metaphorical (and metaphysical) wrappings provided by Darwin, Galton and Dawkins. Again Marilynne Robinson’s observation is acute:

The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.

Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.

Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.

The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke: 10: 25-37

One way of bring this story up to date is to replace Samaritan with Palestinian.

Does the Jew have the right to be assisted by the Samaritan? Does the Samaritan have a Duty to assist the Jew? Although we might want to say assistance is a ‘good thing’ it might seem initially implausible to treat it as a matter of Rights or Duties. [Or we might want to say its a different kind of Right or Duty – I think some people call this a ‘duty from beneficence’ – but I’m not sure if this is what they really mean.]

First of all here is what we can say to support this feeling of implausibility:

  1. Rights and Duties imply Law, and Law means politics, policing, and prisons – in other words the only point to reference to these heavy-weight concepts is to bring in the weight of the law – enforcement. But our moral life must not be too closely connected to the Law (a) different things are important to different people and so cannot be legislated for (b) and many important things, like love, involve morality but would still be damaged by heavy-handed interference by the Law.
  2. We want to value the act of assistance but we don’t want to start demanding too much of people. How would we get anything done if people’s right to assistance trumped all the other valuable things we wanted to do? Duties are burdens and we don’t want to let them grow too big and we certainly don’t want then to adhere to us just because we happened to be passing by.
  3. Why should the Samaritan have to help the Jew who despise him. We might accept that the Jew has the right to assistance from other Jews – but there can be no right to assistance from Samaritans.

Despite this feeling of implausibility the truth is that the Jew has a right to assistance and the Samaritan has the duty.

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p. 97

So let us see if we can deal with the counter-arguments:

1. Disconnecting Law and Morals

On the view of Weil, which I support, Duty and Right precede the Law. The Law is informed by our Rights and Duties, but it is not going to exactly mirror our Rights and Duties. Of course this means distinguishing a Legal Duty or Right and a Moral Duty or Right. But this is as it should be. The Law can be unjust and I can therefore, sometimes, reject the Law. If we make the Law primary we would not be able to evaluate the Law – this would mean that Law could never be Just because it could never be evaluated – morally – by Justice itself.

This view can also reconcile the worries we have about the limitations of the Law. Moral Duties and Rights don’t mirror the Legal but they do extend into other areas of the Moral Life:

a) Many of my Duties are highly personal to me, they may be linked to my choices, vocation, self-development or much else. The Law may or may not offer a helpful discipline to the fulfilment of my Duties. Freedom is not a moral-free zone.

b) Many Duties flow from features of relationships that are outside the reach of Law. Some of the Duties of a husband cannot be legislated for. In other areas relationships do give rise to contractual Rights and Duties.

This raises an interesting question. If the Law is not Justice then what role is there for the Law? If Justice is primary and precedes the Law then there is no reason to expect that Law will merely try to enforce Just behaviour. It may be wiser to ask the Law to do less work. It is not plausible that the Law is always the best means to promote the development of the virtuous person, to encourage self-development or good relationships. The Law may undermine virtue by either intruding where it has no place or in over-specifying human behaviour. The Law is necessary, but clumsy.

2. The Ending of Charity

Weil’s concern is that by trying to separate out moral Duties from some other weaker category of good deeds we are simply letting ourselves off the hook and misrepresenting our relationship with the Right-holder.

There is also the risk – as Weil also notices – of giving too much and this is also an important part of her argument. In human relationships doing good is a fine balance where we can do too much as well as do too little. The challenge is to do what is right – not just to do good.

3. The Universality of Love

It is certainly easier to assist those to whom we are joined in community and our communal relationships may also create very specific Duties – like paying taxes. But it is of the very nature of Justice that it is universal; we must face our Duties despite their costs and difficulties. Duties are, on this reading, simply an aspect of Love.

And here is Dorothy L Sayers on duty and love:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

So, in summary, we should not expect to see all our Rights and Duties mirrored in legal Duties and Rights. Nor should we seek some kind of softer and less demanding form of moral obligation – kindness or charity. It is morality itself that must underpin and interrogate the Law. Morality is experienced though love and, when we are not feeling so loving, through Duty.

Love is Born

Love is born
With a dark and troubled face,
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place;
Love is born,
Love is always born.

Love is born by Michael Leunig

Thanks as always to John O’Brien for sharing this Christmas poem.

Christian Love (Agape)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

Where is the newness to which Jesus refers? It lies in the fact that he is not content with repeating what had already been requested in the Old Testament and which we also read in the other Gospels: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

In the ancient precept the standard criterion was based on man (“as yourself”), whereas in the precept to which John refers, Jesus presents his own Person as the reason for and norm of our love: “as I have loved you.”

It is in this way that love becomes truly Christian: both in the sense that it must be directed to all without distinction, and above all since it must be carried through to its extreme consequences, having no other bounds than being boundless.

Those words of Jesus, “As I have loved you” simultaneously invite and disturb us; they are a Christological goal that can appear unattainable, but at the same time they are an incentive that does not allow us to ensconce ourselves in what we have been able to achieve. It does not allow us to be content with what we are but spurs us to keep advancing towards this goal.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The absurdity, the impossibility and the boundlessness of this Christian conception of love (agape) is disturbing.

We want something more sensible.

But what we want and what we need are two different things.

One aspect of this absurdity is the way in which love drives confronts the injustices that many civilisations simply take for granted. Slavery, apartheid, racism, discrimination and all forms of exploitation are quite natural. Power seeks to extend itself – how else could it be power. The self seeks to look after itself – how could it do otherwise.

Yet love does challenge injustice – love denies that these natural inequalities must simply be accepted – love is always seeking for a new Jerusalem, even amidst the ruins, confusions and complexities of the present.

Can We Be Enchanted by God?

Why did not the Risen One reveal himself to his enemies in his full glory in order to show that it is God who is victorious? Why did he only manifest himself to his disciples? Jesus’ answer is mysterious and profound. The lords says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

This means that the Risen One must be seen, must also be perceived by the heart, in a way that God may take up his abode within us. The Lord does not appear as a thing. He desires to enter our lives, and therefore his manifestation is a manifestation that implies and presupposes an open heart. Only in this way do we see the Risen One.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The natural question for any sceptic is ‘Why does God not reveal himself?’ It is a clear and logical question – put another way ‘Why all the mystery?’

Part of the answer can be found simply by imagining what such a revelation would mean. At some level it would simply be the end of everything we know, nothing would be the same. Our freedom, our will, our personality, everything we think has value would fade to nothing. Whatever the absence of God means it certainly allows for a certain kind of being which his presence would end.

Part of that being, as Pope Benedict suggests, is being open to having God be present within us. The very opposite of his being present before us. This is a different kind of submission, not cowed or awed, but enchanted by God.

Telling Truth and Fighting Slander

…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other. 

Herodotus

One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. 

But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.

Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.

Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.

The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.

How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?

It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:

But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.

But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?

I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me

Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.

As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.

When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop –  then find another way.

Christ instructed us:

Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents

Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.

Justice and Charity

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil from Forms of the Implicit Love of God in Waiting on God

Many of us are suspicious of charity, because it is a kind of patronage where the giver is powerful and the recipient is powerless; the giver is to be thanked and the recipient is pitiable. Weil sees the same problem, but also from the direction of charity itself. If charity is an act of love then it must be welcomed – for love is the lifeblood of the universe. It is central to our proper nature – however when we split charity away from justice trouble begins: the recipient is no longer entitled – as a matter of justice – to what we give. Our giving comes from being extra-nice – the bounty of the rich and powerful.

However some worry about giving too much priority to justice, to rights and obligations. They worry that this is to cut love out of the picture. How can love be about rights and duties?

Another interesting quote from Dorothy Leigh Sayers approaches this same problem:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers from What Do We Believe, Unpopular Opinions (1940)

I think Sayers observation helps us see that love only becomes a matter of mere duty when it no longer drives us. We are merely ‘doing our duty.’ But whether from love or duty the right remains the same. The person for whom we act is fully entitled to our assistance – but we won’t notice that entitlement because we act from love.

Justice remains central. It stops us from patronising those who need our help – their needs create entitlements and we have no right to feel pleased with ourselves for doing our duty. But it does not exclude love – we can do our duty and yet have no awareness that we are merely doing our duty. It remains our duty, even when we act from love.

Sufficient unto the Day

Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Matthew 6:34

nolite ergo esse solliciti in crastinum
crastinus enim dies sollicitus edit sibi ipse
sufficit diei malitia sua

Vulgate

I love the phrase from the King James Bible: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ When things look really black and worries pile high it helps to remember that you only have to focus on what is in front of you now.

Two things are also worth noticing about this saying from Jesus.

First, although the King James translation talks about having ‘no thought for the morrow’ the Vulgate says ‘don’t be worried about tomorrow’ and this seems more realistic. We have to plan – in so far as is reasonable – to avoid any additional evils that the tomorrow may bring. But we don’t have to bear the burden of them as worries.

Second, there is no doubt that tomorrow may bring evil – and this is something to worry about – there and then. Jesus is not a stoic; he is not saying that bad things don’t matter or that they are only a function of our desires and aspirations. For Christians the world should be good and our best aspirations and their fulfilment are also good. Christianity is not nihilistic and it is not interested in annulling our desires.

But this also means that when evil comes then evil must be resisted and overcome – not wished away.

On the Mystery of the Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

A Poem by Denise Levertov shared by John O’Brien

After two weeks writing about the Holocaust I was grateful to get John O’Brien’s reminder about this poem. The horror of what we have done to each other, and the sure knowledge that nothing has changed and we are still quite capable of every act of evil and more, is hard to accept.

We are not worthy, that is sure, and yet we live in hope that the incarnation was a sign that, despite this, we can still be redeemed.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

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