A healthy society defends the vulnerable

18 August 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 14.08.09

The name and memory of Peter Connelly, known for so long as Baby P, joins a sad and far too long list of children who have died at the hands of those whom they could have expected to give them the love, protection and security which is surely the right of every child.  This week the release of Peter’s name, along with the names of those who were responsible for his wicked injuries and death has brought Peter’s short and tragic life back to public attention.

There can be no excuses for Tracy Connelly, Stephen Barker or Jason Owen whose actions and inactions caused and allowed Peter to suffer so much.   Once again we are reminded that the vulnerable – whether they be young or old – are at the mercy of those who have them in their care.  Yet vulnerability is at the heart of being human for it is the stuff of our early years, of our old age and, for some, it is their experience throughout life.

A symptom of a healthy family is the care and attention it gives to its most vulnerable members and the same is surely true for a community.  It is how we invest in and support the most vulnerable in society which reveals the quality of our communities.  As we reprioritise our public spending in the wake of the current recession, we must be wary of those politicians who would look for savings in our support for the vulnerable, the sick and the casualties of modern life.  As I see it, their care, through the work of the social services and other agencies, is a good gauge of the health of our nation.

Jesus said “By their fruits you shall know them” and that remains a good measure for many things, not least in our attitude to the vulnerable.   Baby Peter is a sad reminder that when the strong take advantage of the vulnerable – then pain, suffering, misery, death and wickedness are ever present.  The only remedy is for the strong and capable to be vigilant and to demand that the vulnerable are supported and protected.  Another phrase of Jesus comes to mind: “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.

You can’t be civilised and risk-averse

16 July 2008

I thought that the war on terror was being waged against those who are intent on destroying our civilisation.

I thought that a war on terror was being promoted to protect the values which deliver the freedom which we have won and celebrated from Magna Carta, through to reformation, revolution and two world wars.

I thought that it was a war being waged to defend the way in which we champion the weak, how we protect the freedom of the individual to speak and think, how we ensure that the rights of the individual are safeguarded against the abuse of the powerful and to reinforce our determination that all should live equally under the rule of law.  Yet the sickening sight of 16-year-old Omar Khadr being interrogated at Guantanamo Bay asks searching questions about the the nature of our civilisation and our willingness to live with the risks which come with allowing people to live in freedom.

Once we allow ends to justify means, then we are on a slippery slope to behaving exactly in the same way as those who we claim to be a threat to our way of life.  Guantanamo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition‘ and ‘waterboarding‘ are examples of how quickly the values of a society can be set aside to achieve the end of safety.  In our own country we witness rights before the law, which have taken centuries to become a feature of our version of civilisation, being set aside on the premise that we will be safer and that we should trust those in power. The film Taking Liberties suggests how our basic liberties have been eroded since the war on terror began.

There continues to be popular support for many of the incursions into our basic values from a public which wants to be safe – and in many ways I am in tune with that desire, especially when I am travelling on the London tube etc.  But lurking in the back of my mind is the question – can you be civilised and free of risk?  Isn’t a free society one where we make ourselves vulnerable because we give other people the same rights as we expect?

Western civilisation has the Christian story deep within its foundations.  The story of a God who comes to us full of risk and vulnerability as we encounter him in the man Jesus.  If we take risk and vulnerability out of our attitude to freedom and out of our way of life – then we become a very different society, for into the vacuum created by the absence of risk and vulnerability comes power and control (“because we know what’s best for you etc.”).

Those who feed on the risk-averse nature of our culture to justify their actions are in danger of usurping the very civilisation they claim to be defending.