Poverty and hope abandoned: learning again the spiritual value of each other
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.) The words Dante places over the gates of hell are terrifying. And to turn that cause and effect around is to remind ourselves of the devastation wrought in lives where hope has gone.
Most of us will have had very dark times in our lives. I count myself fortunate that even at my lowest, I have never quite ceased to hope for hope, to believe in the possibility that things would not always be this way. Maybe this is partly genetics, but most likely it is informed by a secure childhood, loving relationships and the experience that hard work, prudence and initiative would eventually get me to a better place. In other words, I belong to the lucky sperm club.
But real poverty is another country. The experiences are different there. Deprivation is not just about having insufficient money crushing though that is – it is an accumulation of the malign influences which hover around the cradle of a child born into family dysfunction in decaying locations where angry and brutish behaviours deform the environment and suck the confidence out of all but the most ruthless.
Depressed, struggling parents – often in precarious relationships – do not raise happy and well-adjusted children. Listen to the flat, expressionless speech of a person who has experienced emotional abuse from damaged parents and do not raise a disapproving eyebrow when discovering that they go on to make poor life choices. Ill health, both mental and physical, is of course, found across all socio-economic groups, but both its prevalence and impact are disproportionate where people live in poverty.
Because when you are ill, depressed, unable to work, harried and sanctioned by a benefit regime which assumes you need to be punished into conformity with its ideal, fear, hunger and cold are added to your burdens. There is no respite, no monetary remedy. You can’t afford to go anywhere. You have no friends. You are unable to engage with society. You have become de facto a pariah, experiencing the isolation which is one of the most destructive conditions for the human spirit.
Our policy makers and legislators are higher rate tax payers. They mix with others of the same kind because that is what most of us do for most of the time. They theorise about deprivation and their place on the political spectrum determines the level of indifference and contempt displayed towards those they find unattractive. That attitude has enabled the appallingly negative stereotypes of poverty which are the staple of media portrayals like Benefits Street. It stirs up hate-filled comment in the press and on social media. It drives the already desperate still nearer to the edge.
While politicians compete with each other to sell themselves as the parties of ‘aspiration’, can we remain silent about what is being done to so many abandoned, hopeless people? Must we not challenge a concept of aspiring which is more about consumerism than humane and sustainable betterment?
In 1987, Quakers in Britain issued a declaration ahead of the General Election which returned Margaret Thatcher to her third term in government. It contained these words: “We commit ourselves to learning again the spiritual value of each other. We find ourselves utterly at odds with the priorities in our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country. That denial diminishes us all. There must be no ‘them’ and ‘us’”.
So if you watch Benefits Street tonight, take a step for those values by sharing the reality which doesn’t tickle the fancies of the contemptuous. Urge your MP to reconsider indifference or hostility towards people they cannot be bothered to understand or of whose experience they are content to remain ignorant.
Challenge them to spend some time in talking to people they would rather not meet. Dare them to leave behind their preconceptions and ideological remedies. Insist that they do this without an eye for publicity but with a heart for making real connections. Demand the humility and perseverance that could begin to build the relational structures which make it possible to rediscover the spiritual value of people who have no hope.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See:http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at:http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen