I wasn’t planning to blog again so soon, but it’s been a difficult week nationally, and for me, the concurrence of three things has made me both very angry, and very thoughtful.
On Wednesday we woke to the dreadful news of the fire in Grenfell Tower block. At the time of writing, the total death toll has not yet been determined. But as events have unfolded this week, it has become increasingly apparent that safety precautions were circumvented, that warnings and complaints by the local residents were disregarded, and that even after the fire, those so dreadfully affected were bypassed and overlooked. I hardly need to remind my readers that the residents were among the poorest in our society.
On Wednesday evening I went to an event organised by my local branch of Amnesty International, called the ‘Asylum Monologues’. Here I heard first-person accounts of asylum seekers’ experience of the application system. I heard of a victim of prolonged gang-rape, with documented physical injuries, being turned down for asylum because she was deemed not to be in danger on repatriation. I heard of someone who had fled for his life for protesting against the government in the DRC, for whom every stage in the UK asylum application and appeal process was obstructed, complicated and thwarted by official incompetence and negligence. The Home Office policy of destitution and wilful obstruction of asylum seekers is well documented.
On Thursday I finally caught up with the BBC drama documentary ‘Three Girls’, which described the events of the Rochdale grooming and paedophile ring. If the documentary is to be believed – and the press consensus appears to be that it is chillingly accurate – the appalling slowness of the authorities to take action, years after the first, well-supported allegation was made, is down to their attitude towards the chaotic lifestyle and reputed promiscuity of the (under-age) girls involved. As a whistleblower said in the drama, “Me and you are looking at the same thing. But where I’m seeing kids being turned inside out by abusers, all you lot are seeing are slags who bring it on themselves.”
I hope you can see the common thread. All of these people have been treated badly by the authorities, in a way which they would not have been if they had been more articulate, more ‘well-behaved’, or simply more British. This is a theme which has been picked up in the last year or so in the USA by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Because whatever is enshrined in statute – both here and overseas – in practice some lives matter more than others.
Political theorist Judith Butler has written on this subject at length, asking that we notice which lives in our society are grievable, and which deaths pass unremarked. True, the general outcry, at least in two of the above cases, suggests that in the popular imagination these lives are indeed grievable. Nonetheless, the way that these people were or are treated in life suggests a callous disregard for the value of the quality and quantity of their lives. Their deaths may be grieved, but their lives are somewhat more disposable than others’.
Over the last few months I have been sitting with the story of the rape of the Levite’s concubine from Judges 19, one of the most graphic descriptions of violence, and the worst incidence of sexual violence in the Bible. I may write more about it in a later blog; I’ll almost certainly be speaking about it in the lecture. But for now, one observation. The woman – unnamed in the text – is treated appallingly. But read on to the next chapter, and see how seriously her death is taken by the people of Israel. And, more than that, how seriously her death is taken by the narrator. She was not a forgotten victim. Hers was a grievable life. In spite of all the powerful currents against women in that society, her torture and murder is considered important enough to write about; important enough to be recorded in our sacred text; important enough for me to be blogging about, thousands of years later.
The God who is revealed to us throughout the Bible is one who pays attention to the marginalised. The God who notes the falling of a sparrow pays attention to every lost life. To him, every life is grievable. The events of this week, and the dreadful incident in Judges 19, should cause us to remember that every life is precious, and deserves protection and dignity.
This blog is part of series, please click here to read more.
For more about the Whitley lecture.
The 2017 Whitley Lecture is entitled the The Pioneering Evangelicalism of Dan Taylor (1738-1816)
by Richard Pollard, Minister and Team Leader, Fishponds Baptist Church, Bristol. It is available from Regent's Park College.
The 2016 Whitley Lecture was Church Without Walls: Post-Soviet Baptists in the Ukranian Revolution 2013-14 by
Joshua Searle, Tutor in Theology and Public Thought and Assistant Director of Postgraduate Research at Spurgeon's College.