Presented by Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool, Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on Wed 3rd Oct.
Why Britain urgently needs the
“Sharp compassion of the healer’s art”
The full text of the lecture is reproduced below, and you can download the full PowerPoint presentation from Lord Alton’s website here.
The Questions and Answers:
Maranatha’s call for unity, renewal and healing has always been close to my heart and although all three of those words are each worth an entire lecture I have chosen tonight to concentrate on the damaged and wounded world in which we live and the need for healing in our own lives; in our families; in our communities and in our nation.
Explaining the title of the Lecture
For the lecture’s title I have used a phrase which appears in T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets – the second of which is called East Coker.
East Coker is a village in Somerset, mentioned in the Doomsday Book and with evidence of Roman habitation. Eliot’s ancestors came from the village and his ashes were brought there after his death in 1965.
Eliot, an American who took British citizenship and went on to win the Nobel Prize for poetry, visited the village in 1940, as war raged throughout Europe; and it was against this fiery and chaotic background, and in this context of a nation facing catastrophe, that Eliot composed East Coker:
“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art”
The Four Quartets (“Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding”) are the clearest and richest exposition of Eliot’s Christianity and move us beyond the spiritual desiccation and sense of defeat represented in his 1922 poem, “The Waste Land” and deftly take the reader from chaos to renewal, from damage to healing, from despair to hope.
The wounded, bleeding, surgeon capable of treating the distempers and afflictions visited upon us is Christ, the true physician: the wounded healer who applies the hard steel of the scalpel to cut away the infected and gangrenous decaying tissue.
Bloody and risky though it can be, exposing ourselves to this sharp compassion is the only way to new life and new hope. East Coker is a call to put ourselves trustingly into God’s hands.
Anyone who has undergone surgery will concur – and I had surgery on my spine last year – the decision to place yourself in the healer’s hands requires careful deliberation and total trust. This is easier said than done in a world which encourages us to be autonomous and to believe that your destiny is in your own hands alone.
A twelfth century Welshman, Walter Map, understood that the hard sharpness of the surgeon’s implements is a prerequisite in the accomplishment of healing: “Dura est manus cirurgi, sed sanans: The hand of the surgeon is hard, but healing.”
That Eliot had the healing of the nation in mind, as well as each of us as individuals, is clear from the war time context in which the poem was written. It contains profound insights into the human condition and the suffering from which none of us is immune.
East Coker is a poem about agonised redemption.
The Problem of Pain
It was written in the same year that his contemporary, C.S.Lewis, composed “The Problem of Pain”. Like Eliot, Lewis, too, was trying to make sense of the troubling and unsettling perennial question of how belief in a loving and omnipotent God may be reconciled with the existence of suffering.
It was a problem which particularly disturbed my father, who fought at El Alemain and Monte Casino, and whose brother, an airman, was killed in 1942. How could God allow such terrible suffering? The temptation is always to blame God.
Why do some people die in car accidents and others do not? Why does a child get abducted or abused, and others do not? Why do some families face starvation, civil war, life as refugees or become homeless, and others do not? Why were some of us among the tube passengers killed on July 7th 2005 by terrorists but others not? Why Hitler, why Stalin, why Syria, or Congo? Last week I stood at the River Tumen, in North East China. It’s the border with North Korea, where escapees are shot dead by border guards if they try to cross the river. Why them and not us? Why are Christians persecuted in Nigeria, Sudan, and 60 other countries, but not us? Why do terrible things happen to good people but not others?
Straightforwardly, none of us know the answer to this “why” question. Our faith is simply incapable of giving us all the answers to these and other vexed questions.
In St.Matthew’s Gospel we are told “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt: 5, 45) and no explanation is given as to why this is so. Our faith simply gives us the strength to live with the unanswered and unmediated questions which besiege us.
Even if we did know the answers, our loved ones would still be sick or dead, others would be hungry or living in fear, and evil would still be stalking the world.
It could be that we have been looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions.
Asking the Right Questions
Discovering the healer and His art enables us to find peace about the questions which cannot be resolved while questions like “what”, “how” and “who” – as in “what can I do to help?; “how should I put my private faith into public action?” and “who is my brother and my sister?” will deliver answers worth having.
It is against a questioning and doubting backdrop that Eliot writes the memorable stanzas of The Four Quartets – his last poem.
East Coker encourages us to spend less time wrestling with the question “why?” and to place ourselves instead in the hands of a “wounded surgeon” who is bloodied and wounded so that we might experience healing. The powerful metaphor of Christ as the wounded surgeon is accompanied by the metaphor of “the dying nurse” to describe a Church which helps us pass through birth, life and death into Christ’s promise of eternal life.
Eliot understands that “time is no healer: the patient is no longer here” and that some questions are beyond answer.
Against the loss and pain experienced by so many, Eliot tells us that “in my beginning is my end” and that “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again”.
None of this may seem propitious but the poet reflects that “perhaps neither gain nor loss, For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Eliot concludes East Coker with words drawn from the fourteenth century English mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich, who at the age of 31, while suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, had a series of intense visions of Jesus. Eliot writes that despite the unanswered questions:
“And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one”
East Coker was written at a time of utter uncertainty for this nation.It was composed as Winston Churchill was telling the House of Commons, on June 18th 1940, that “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
It was written as the German High Command announced that ‘The British army is encircled and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation’.
It was written as King George VI, on May 26th called the nation to prayer and repentance – following which Hitler ended his general advance; a storm of great fury grounded the Luftwaffe; and, as calm settled on the Channel, some 335,000 men of the British army were evacuated from Dunkirk.
It was written as the German Air Force, that summer, would send 800 aircraft to begin their systematic and lethal bombardment of our cities.
The survival of Christian civilisation.
In preparing the nation for the battle which lay ahead, Churchill cast up what he called “this dread balance sheet” which pulled no punches in carefully assessing the scale and the nature of the threat which faced our country at the hands of the Nazis:
“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”
In every generation new battles have to fought; new enemies to be faced. Eliot wrote that “Houses live and die: there is a time for building And a time for living and for generation.” Healing and renewal will go together.
Facing Today’s Challenges
The challenge today may not be aerial bombardment but what Churchill called the survival of Christian civilisation, our British way of life, the freedoms and liberties which we cherish, must be defended in our own and in every time.
In the debris of wrecked and ruined homes, of prematurely ended lives, of embattled and frightened communities, must come the same desire to move towards the sunlit uplands and to do this we will need more than ever “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” Only then shall in Mother Julian’s phrase shall“all manner of things be well.”
So much, then, for the ispiration behind the title of this lecture. What if, like Churchill, we were to examine the dread balance sheet of Britain today?
Christianity and Social Order
In 1942, while we remained at war, Archbishop William Temple published his “Christianity and Social Order”. He insisted that “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens…the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”
That is the challenge, too, for this generation.
The Dread Balance Sheet in 2012
To utilise Churchill’s phrase, if we carried out an evaluation of Britain today how would our Dread Balance Sheet appear?
A faithless society has become an atomised, lonely, and selfish society; a faithless society has become a culturally diminished society; a faithless society has become a fatherless society and a broken family society. What has been done in the name of freedom has created a world of CCTV cameras; to high streets which have become no go areas after dark; and to binge drinking and shelves full of anti depressants. How has this made us freer or happier? In 2006 a report by University College, London stated that “The UK has the worst problem with anti-social behaviour in Europe.” It has increasingly felt like a world rapidly going to hell in a basket.
The Children Test
A good place to begin in examining the Dread Balance Sheet would be to ask how British children fare in Britain 2012.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children”
The Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships.
A quarter of our children live with one parent, not two, and a third of these live below the poverty line. Many single parents struggle valiantly – and some very successfully – to bring up their children. But I doubt that many believe their situation is better than having two parents to shoulder the responsibility.
Men particularly need to understand that you may be able to walk away from your girlfriend or to divorce your wife but you can’t divorce your children and to them you have an unending responsibility.
In 2002 the think tank, Civitas, in a report entitled “Experiments in living: the fatherless family”, found that children being brought up without a father are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation; to have emotional or mental problems; to have trouble at school; to have trouble getting along with others; to have a higher risk of health problems; that they are more likely to run away from home and are likely to be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that, according to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year.
Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.
The Child In The Womb
Before they are born, each day we abort 600 of our children, some up to birth if they have a disability or defect such as a cleft palate or Down’s Syndrome. Blessed John Paul II once observed that “a nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope” and that “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying,”
The latest abortion statistics reveal that taxpayers spent £118m on abortions in 2010, of which £75m went to private clinics; that of 6.3 million abortions, just 143 were where a woman’s life was in danger; and that 48,000 people have had more than one abortion– some as many as eight. In the north west of England 24,933 people had between 2 and 10 abortions.
And consider three recent reports.
The first concerns a group of ethicists linked to Oxford University who argue that newborn babies are not “actual persons”, don’t have “a moral right to life” and can legitimately be killed after they are born. It’s called infanticide although they prefer the euphemism “after birth abortion.” A child is then represented as a threat rather than as a blessing:
The second, the result of investigative journalism at its best, revealed how nine British abortion clinics were willing to abort babies on the grounds of their gender. The Health Secretary branded it immoral and illegal but The British Medical Journal blog carried an article stating that sex-selection abortions were justified on the grounds of “choice”.
The blog asserts that “health professionals, and everyone who is pro-choice on abortion, should support pro-choice doctors and women seeking abortions, whatever their reasons, even when sex selection may be involved.”
“Our Kingdom” – a group which includes doctors, writes supporting this view: “… sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people.”
Once more there’s a chilling logic. It just a question of “my right to choose” – the slogan against which all our values are now shaped. The mantra puts “me” centre stage, not the needs of another; it promotes “rights” not duties; and it admires “choice” without a thought for the consequences.
Personal choice has eclipsed the sacredness, or otherness, of life itself. It is profoundly disturbing, indeed shocking, to see the way in which opinion formers within the medical profession have ditched the traditional belief of the healer to care for two patients, the child and its mother, and to unfailingly uphold the sanctity of human life. Gender abortions are justified by this choice-driven, impoverished, and inhumane defence of child destruction.
The third story concerns a Court ruling that Catholic midwives may not object, on grounds of conscience, to being required to supervise or assist staff involved in abortions.
For me, forcing unwilling people to be complicit in the taking of innocent life smacks of neo-fascism, not intelligent or tolerant liberalism.
All we need to comprehend about abortion can be found in the words of the Fifth Commandment.
Apply those words to the eugenics used to kill 90% of babies with Down’s Syndrome in the womb – 90% of whom are now hunted down and aborted before their births. Now we’re now seeing attempts to eliminate them and to let them die rather than treat them in our NHS Hospitals.
Is this the same NHS that we were celebrating in the Olympic Stadium? What a contrast, too, with the inspirational achievements of disabled athletes, during the Paralympics celebrated in the same stadium, and who have taught us so much about courage and the overcoming of seemingly impossible odds.
As we rush pell-mell into Nietzschean-style eugenics and ethics, we should recall those inspirational moments, remembering that people with Down’s Syndrome are human beings – not “a drain on public finances”; that disabled people would not be “better off dead” and that by allowing the elimination of the weak it is we who expose ourselves as the truly weak
Remember the sharp compassion of the healer’s art not the surgeon’s knife, or hypodermic syringe, used to hunt you down and kill you. Doctors should always be defenders of life not its destroyers.
Victor Frankl in The Doctor and the Soul said “sometimes the unfinished are among the most beautiful of symphonies.” One in five of our children remain“unfinished”, not making it to birth and many of those who do, never experience the beauty of innocence or hope.
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that if you abuse and kill the child in the womb you are unlikely to have much respect for the child after birth.
Life After Birth
Consider that five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. In Edinburgh, figures published in 2010 showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction.
Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds. Samaritans say that ‘A conservative estimate is that there are 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents (10-19 years) each year in England and Wales, which is one attempt every 20 minutes” As they grow up suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that more than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year; that 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed in one recent year – a 334 % increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service of £338 million; that 7 million are now living alone in Great Britain – entirely unprecedented in our history.
26% of British households comprise just one person and on present trends, by 2016, 36% of all homes will be inhabited by a single person – a trend accelerated by family breakdown and phenomenal divorce rates – the highest in Europe.
This has led to huge pressures for additional accommodation and to toxic loneliness.
How we treat the elderly: better off dead
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet also reveals that our treatment of elderly people is fast becoming a national scandal, with an estimated 1 million elderly people who do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week.
I was in China last week a country which still shows respect for the elderly. Here we talk endlessly about making it easier to kill the elderly by legalising euthanasia.
Instead of the sharp compassion of the healer’s art many legislators now believe that a lethal injection would be preferable.
A new Bill to legalise assisted dying is to come before Parliament and last week the Liberal Democrats said that we should introduce Dutch and Belgian style euthanasia laws.
Consider what this will mean.
In Belgium there are calls for euthanasia for prisoners and it is reported that they have been harvesting organs from people who have been euthanized.
In Holland statistics indicate that the number of euthanasia deaths in 2011 in the Netherlands increased by 18% to 3,695. This follows increases of 13% in 2009 and 19% in 2010. Euthanasia now accounts for 2.8% of all Dutch deaths. A House of Lords Inquiry in 2005 predicted that Dutch-style Liberal Democrat laws would lead to 13,000 euthanasia deaths annually in Britain.
The proposed new British law would use the framework and provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act as a template – paving the way for the same outcomes. Instead of approaching seven million unborn children, it will be legions of disabled, sick and elderly people whose lives will be ended.
The proposals will be disguised with words like compassion and dignity but the reality will be doctors who will be required in future to kill patients; disabled people made to believe they would be better off dead; patient safety compromised; and politicians using the new law as a pretext to withdraw resources from the care of the sick.
Far from providing dignity in dying these proposals will sound the death knell for Britain’s outstanding hospice movement and palliative care. To die with dignity we don’t need doctors to kill us. The so-called right to die will soon become a duty to die quickly!
The Bill is to be based on the findings of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying.
Hopelessly biased and distorted, the Falconer Commission was stacked full of euthanasia sympathisers and was established by Dignity in Dying (formerly The Voluntary Euthanasia Society).
The British Medical Association (BMA) – who oppose any change in the law – passed a 5 point resolution that undermined the Commission credibility by questioning its impartiality and independence.
The euthanasia lobby decided to set up their Commission because when two genuinely independent Parliamentary Select Committees carefully examined the issue they did not recommend a change of law.
When votes were then taken in the House of Lords it resulted in large defeats for their proposals (148-100 and 194-141). The last attempt at legalization in Scotland also resulted in a heavy defeat (85-16) for Margo Macdonald’s Bill in 2010.
For the record, and to give some idea of the scale of the parliamentary Inquiry, the Select Committee covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence; 2,460 questions were asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. Compare the coverage given by the BBC and others to the parliamentary Inquiry with the media circus and feeding frenzy generated by the Falconer Commission.
An unbiased and impartial account of this debate might mention the opposition to a change in the law expressed in Parliament – predominantly on the grounds of public safety – and by the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations – who eloquently set out all the negative outcomes which would result from a change in the law.
There is a systematic propaganda campaign being orchestrated by the media aimed at changing the law and for several years we have been treated to a barrage of propaganda. Even the BBC’s Radio Times joined the pack, claiming on its cover that watching a man die in Switzerland would be “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”.
The sub editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.
The BBC are in danger of being reduced to the role of mere cheerleaders, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.
The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, published in 2000.
The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.
The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour: “Media strongly influence community attitudes… media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”
The WHO points to the way in which television can negatively influence suicidal behaviour. One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide.
They also warn against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible. The WHO is right when it says:
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”
A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.
In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall to wall campaigning coverage?
Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one sided and relentless campaign.
Consider what is at stake. Chillingly, Baroness Warnock, who shaped the laws which have led to the destruction of millions of human embryos, has said that the sick are “wasting people’s lives” because of the care they require: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” Suggesting that we have a “duty to die” she said “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”
This turns the argument into a worth based on someone’s economic value rather than on their true human value and their human dignity.
In case you think “putting people down” just “couldn’t happen here” consider the situation in Holland.
Just before Christmas the Dutch announced that they are considering mobile units to kill people in their own homes. 1,000 of the 4,000 euthanasia deaths in Holland each year are now done without the patient’s consent.
Not content with this, the Dutch say that 80% of people with dementia or mental illnesses are being ‘missed’ by the country’s euthanasia laws. They say that the death-on-wheels mobile units are necessary because some GPs have refused to administer lethal drugs to their patients. And, in March this year euthanasia clinic launched six mobile euthanasia teams in the anticipation that they will achieve 1,000 deaths per year.
These mobile death units are targeted at “unmet need” including people with chronic depression, disabilities, Alzheimer’s, loneliness and those whose request to be killed has been refused by their doctors. It’s as if the Dutch have forgotten the last time mobile death squads were deployed in Europe. This isn’t giving people “dignity in dying”. Sending out mobile units to administer lethal injections, to “put people down”, will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable.
It diminishes the dignity and humanity of the sick and elderly and diminishes those of us who condone it. Imagine what will happen in Britain if the proposed laws are implemented. You have a terminal incurable disease. You have the option of palliative care at £1,000 a week or a glass of barbiturates at £5. What will happen if we accept Lady Warnock’s proposition that “you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”
How many relatives would put an inheritance before a life? One in eight current cases of elder abuse currently involves financial abuse by relatives and it would inevitably increase if we change the law. And health ministers, counting their pennies in a recession, will be tempted to go for the cheaper option – one Conservative Health Minister has already announced her support for assisted dying. A Bill allowing assisted suicide will carry the seeds of its own extension. If we allow it for some why deny it to others?
So how long before the Dutch mobile killing units arrive in a street near you?
To imitate Holland is unnecessary, dangerous and unethical.
As the distinguished lawyer, Lord Carlile QC, puts it we have “a hard law, with a kind face.” We should keep it that way.
Lord Carlile says: “The real concern was, and remains, public safety — the potential for collateral harm to the great majority of terminally ill people from giving a few individuals a “right” to prescription suicide pills. The so-called safeguards… were paper thin.”
Baroness (Ilora) Finlay – herself a professor of palliative says we don’t understand the difference between euthanasia and indefinitely continuing inappropriate treatment: “Doctors regularly discontinue futile treatment. But they don’t do it in order to end a patient’s life: they are simply recognising that death cannot be prevented by treatment… end-of-life decisions, which are made every day by doctors, aren’t the same thing as ending-life decisions.”
When the physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs of the patient are met, requests for euthanasia are actually extremely rare. Less than 1,000 people persistently ask for it. 95% of Palliative Medicine Specialists are opposed to a change in the law. The Association of British Neurologists warn that severe depression will lead to cases of assisted dying and that a law which says two doctors can determine such cases will offer few safeguards.
There will be no requirement that either of the two doctors should have any knowledge of the patient concerned. It isn’t required that they should have seen the patient’s case notes – or even examined the patient. The whole casual process could take place over the phone.
There is no requirement that either of these doctors should have any expertise in, or experience of, the medical condition in question. And yet this is an essential pre-requisite for determining the presence of a terminal illness and for giving a prognosis of its course.
There are no arrangements for seeking an expert opinion in cases of doubt – what will happen, for instance, if a patient is suffering from cognitive impairment or their judgement is clouded by depression?
To suggest that vulnerable people could be protected by two doctors being “of the opinion in good faith” is dangerously naïve at best and deceptive at worst.
Such a casual system of assessment is totally out of proportion with the gravity of the decision that is being taken.
Proponents of change insist that public opinion favours such a change. But public opinion probably would re-introduce capital punishment, too, and are we to suspend prudent judgement in that case too? Rather than imitating the Dutch, we need to get behind groups like the admirable Care Not Killing Alliance, to defend and care for the sick and elderly and to put our energy into extending compassionate palliative care and hospice provision, and practical loving support – let’s demand “dignity in living” with the same fervour as those who want to license the routine killing of the most vulnerable in society
Recall, too, the story that when Mother Teresa was the guest of the White House at the National Prayer Breakfast she described to President Clinton and his guests how she had visited a home for the elderly where they had no shortage of material conveniences, but “why” she asked “does everyone sit looking at the door?”
She received the reply “It is because they are looking for the relatives who never come to visit them and who have no time for them”. Care and kill should never be used as synonyms and have no place in the healer’s art.
The loss of human dignity and corrupted values
If we have scandalous concern for human dignity at the beginning and end of life Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet shows that the deficit is not much better when it comes to other vulnerable groups. 2,000 people are sleeping rough in England the number increased by a fifth last year; 84,900 households (which may contain more than one person) are classified as homeless; the prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993 with 87,673 men and women are in our jails; gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day; the average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 years; that one woman in every four will be the victim of violence in her own home during the course of her lifetime.
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year. At the end of July 2012 total UK personal debt stood at a revised £1.410 trillion – up from £1.406 trillion at the end of July 2011.
331 people every day of the year will be declared insolvent or bankrupt. This is equivalent to 1 person every 60 seconds during a working day. Almost 30 of every 10,000 people living in the north west of England are destined for insolvency.
Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals a society where too many people think they owe nothing to anyone except the pursuit of their own desires. We increasingly fail to participate.
Opting Out of Society
The Caravan Club and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have more members than all of the UK’s political parties combined. Just 1% of the population are members of a political party in the UK. We have come a long way since the Liberal, Conservative or Labour Club sat in the heart of every community. Trimdon Labour Club – the scene of Tony Blair’s Sedgefield triumphs – closed a year ago.
In 1951 the Conservative Party had 2.9 million members, Labour, 876,000; today they have 177,000 and 190,000 respectively and the Liberal Democrats have seen a reduction of their membership by 30,000 to 66,000.
Involvement in church life has also declined. While almost 2 out of 3 still identify themselves as Christians around 15%, 4 million people, go to church at least once a month – the fourth lowest attendance rate in Europe. Intriguingly many still claim a personal relationship with God but decline to make the effort to take part in church life. They believe without belonging; believe without participating.
There has also been a decline in membership of trades unions from 13million to 7 million in little over 30 years; and representative organisations, such as Women’s Leagues and the Mother’s Unions, also experiencing significant falls.
For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state.
Living and partly living: the abolition of man
TS Eliot could have had our diminished and dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see what he famously called “The Abolition of Man”.
And how do we intend to address the deficit on Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet?
What can we learn from what has gone before?
During the eighteenth century men like John and Charles Wesley, their hearts warmed, as they said, by the Holy Spirit, stepped into the quagmire that was Britain then. Their new enthusiasm so alarmed the church authorities that church doors were literally barred against them.
In the fields and at make shift venues the re-evangelisation of England began. The Wesleys, George Whitfield, and others, deepened the religious renewal – followed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, and then by the Catholic Spring and Cardinal John Henry Newman and Cardinal Manning. The religious awakening was accompanied by a commensurate awakening of social virtue and work for the common good,and among the achievements of Christian social reformers such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury were the abolition of slavery, the ending of child labour, public health legislation, ragged free schools, and significant social progress.
A century later, in 1904, Joseph Jenkins led an extraordinary Welsh religious revival which brought 100,000 converts in a year. Many became the flag bearers for political and social activism. The chapel spearheaded reform and deterred revolution.
Through these examples of religious and spiritual revival we can trace personal renewal and then national reconstruction. We can also see the path we need to take. Having understood the Dread Balance Sheet and analysed the root causes we then need to commit ourselves to act.
Be clear: a nation or State will not survive for long if its communities and civil structures are decaying or if its rulers do not pursue civic virtues. A society where individual autonomy and individual choice become trump cards in every game lives dangerously close to the edge. A respect for law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among the civic qualities to which we aspire; and our gifts must be used for the common good.
It is self evident that our civil society has become increasingly uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone and with a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue, and with no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.
We have created a dehumanised society where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
And what will be the fate of those who are only for themselves? Eliot puts it like this in East Coker:
“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…
…And we all go with them, into the silent funeral…”
Does it have to be like this?
When Europe was facing the challenge of Nazism the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prophetically wrote: “The most important question for the future is how we can find a basis for human life together, what spiritual laws we accept as the foundation of a meaningful human life.”
And to meet this challenge Bonhoeffer argued that we each have a duty to take a stand: “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”
Bonheoffer also warned that “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself” while Dr.Matin Luther King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”
In every sphere of life today we need plain, honest, straightforward men and women willing to speak up about the condition of our nation.
Like Bonhoeffer, St.Edith Stein died at the hands of the Nazis.
A German-Jewish philosopher, who became a Catholic nun she died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. At a time when the Nazi State was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill; and about the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the State in which they live. Both society and the State consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities. They are made up of men, women and children whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real.
“The state is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer… Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals.’
The State, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens.
If Britain is to be remade it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the commons good.Out of the present malaise and crisis is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life; the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part: a call for an outpouring for the common good.
Crisis or Opportunity?
The Chinese calligraphy for the word crisis can also be used for the word opportunity. Dire situations can be turned around.
Winston Churchill wept when he saw the destruction of the East End of London by Nazi bombardment. He understood the importance of drawing a whole nation around a common cause: “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”
Today, our nation faces a new common enemy and a new peril. It is both external and internal. But it can also become a common cause; and one of the best weapons we have remains Churchill’s belief in those single words which we in Great Britain cherish: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.
Britain urgently needs to feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art – and think what our country would be like if healing became a central mission of the Church in every family, neighbourhood and across the nation.
In the Four Quartets Eliot tells us that “The only hope, or else despair, Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.”
He is referring to the fire of the Holy Spirit and to “The dove descending breaks the air, With flame of incandescent terror, Of which the tongues declare, The one discharge from sin and error … Love is the unfamiliar Name, Behind the hands that wove, The intolerable shirt of flame, Which human power cannot remove, We only live, only suspire, Consumed by either fire or fire.”
Touched by the sharp compassion of the healer’s art our hearts can be repaired and as we are healed we may then heal our families, our communities and our nation.
There is no other way and our task must surely be to persuade our fellow citizens to join us in seeking the balm of the wounded healer.