I want to pick up on the point that our different experiences affect our approach to justice questions and go into a little more detail.
Duncan Forbes has written about the Charlie Gard case here and I think it brings the point home forcibly in a number of ways.
First of all, note Duncan’s challenging point about attitudes towards people from a different class, the suspicion that they are ignorant, simply bound by their own prejudices. Duncan argues that suspicion of the Charlie Gard campaign is to some extent rooted in implicit bias against those from a working-class background. He says:
“When I saw a middle class Christian post on Facebook the link to a Melanie Phillips article that called the Charlie Gard campaign an ‘ignorant’ campaign, it immediately reminded me the spin put on the Brexit referendum. This spin goes like this, ‘working class people have fought for an opinion they have, they must be ignorant.’ This comes from a false narrative about working class people that has been believed in the UK for years, and leads to implicit bias. In a similar way there is an implicit bias towards Americans in this case who surely cannot possibly understand how our system works (which is contrary to my experience of Americans being far more knowledgeable of our system that we are of theirs)!”
Actually, I don’t agree with Duncan about this specific example not because I reject his argument that this type of implicit bias happens (I think the Brexit example is probably a better one) but because in the example he gives, I think other factors are at play.
- My perception is that the campaign for Charlie Gard crossed class boundaries, so that many of the people supporting it would see themselves as middle class. I suspect (though could be wrong) that equally many of those who instinctively supported GOSH would be working class.
- I did not read Melanie Phillips article as being an attack on the parents as “ignorant” but on those who were quick to jump in from a distance, especially on twitter to give what she regards, in the light of GOSH’s statement, to have been false hope. In her line of sight are people including Donald Trump, US politicians and the pope.
- Duncan refers to the Madeline McCann case as another example but in that case a couple who presented as “professional”/middle class received their fair share of hostility.
So, I think that in the specific example given, Duncan is wrong. However, he also raises some vital points. I think the nub of it is here. Phillips’ article starts from the assumption that the Medical system and the courts have always been working in the baby’s best interests. It starts with an implicit trust of doctors and judges but Forbes responds:
“Some of us do have a distrust of doctors. Sometimes this is based on bad diagnoses, and incorrect operations (both in my case). Other times it is because us working class people are used to having medical professionals talk down to us, telling us our opinions about our body or our children’s bodies are wrong (also my experience). Medical staff need to be trained in implicit bias, so that they can become more trusting of us, and rebuild trust.”
See here how a person’s experience will shape their expectations of justice. My own experience of the NHS has generally been positive. I look back at timely intervention that has given me reasonably good sight for most of my adult life. I know some fantastic medical professionals. So, I don’t start from a position of distrust.
However, I also know some people who have had terrible experiences. Then I think of people who have been struggling with conditions like Chronic Fatigue. They have been told for years that there’s no evidence of an actual physical condition. Imagine someone who has been told for years anything from “We don’t know what causes it” through “It’s all in your mind” to “You are just a malingerer” and then this morning they are reading this article in the Daily Telegraph reporting on new evidence of physical causes.
Passive and Powerless
Then I think a bit wider. It’s not just about hospitals and doctors. Think about the following scenarios:
The asylum seeker navigating a complex, bureaucratic immigration process, in a foreign country, separated from loved ones, often in a second language.
The single mum who struggles with anxiety and has just received a letter telling them that their benefits are being stopped.
The young girl who fled an abusive home-life, made bad decisions and now finds herself living on the streets. She’s desperate to get her life back on track but doesn’t know where to start. She’s in a vicious cycle because she can’t get a permanent address without work or benefits and she can’t get work or benefits without a permanent address.
Note that in all of these examples, justice is not just about whether or not due process will happen. It’s not just about a decision happening that ticks all of the “fairness” boxes. It’s about their whole experience of what happens. Their experience tells them that:
They are passive and powerless
That minds are already made up
That no-one really cares, understands or empathises.
Then I need to think honestly about my own experience. I find bureaucracy frustrating but:
I’m working in my own language in my own country
I have a network of family and friends I can turn to for support and advice
I have a roof over my head meaning a safe place of peace to return to and find thinking space
I’m degree educated. I also have a personal double advantage of having both read law and worked in industry with systems and processes. I makes all the difference because I know how to navigate the system and also because Duncan is right -when people know those things it does affect how they relate to me
Now I start to get the point that Keller was making when he said that our backgrounds and experience will shape our approach to justice.
A holy obsession
One further reflection, when our experience and observations, shaped and illuminated by hearing what Scripture has to say to us begin to challenge us then it will cause us to become passionate about a specific cause.
What I love about Duncan is that God’s calling on his life means that he is driven with a passion to see working class, council estate people hear the wonderful liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. This passion drives him.
It’s a justice issue for Duncan because he, like Piper has a great concern for God’s glory and honour. He wants to see Council Estate believers enjoying and glorifying God.
It’s a justice issue because he sees his neighbours made in the image of God and he sees people disobeying God when they fail to recognise this and treat people with appropriate worth and regard.
It’s a justice issue because Duncan is desperate to see the church demonstrating its love for God by love for one another so that Council Estate believers are welcomed, precious and equal members of God’s Kingdom (all one in Christ Jesus). You can hear the frustration from him and others when they see the national church’s blind spots to some of our neediest mission fields.
Now, the risk with an obsessive passion is that we can end up seeing things everywhere -even when they aren’t there – that’s why I respectfully disagree with Duncan on the specific instance cited. However, there’s also the risk that my blind spots mean that I fail to see issues when they are there.
Worse still, there’s the risk that I end up being passionate about nothing. And when victims and vulnerable people come up against passionless people, it just does not feel like justice.