Engaging with those on the margins

Now more than ever, there is a need to move beyond the blame game; to engage with those who feel at the margins and who feel they have no stake.

I returned on Friday from a week more or less out of reach of TV, radio and electronic communications to what feels like another country: A country convulsed by anger, outrage and anguish. A country in which the ‘old certainties’ of even ten days ago, now seem past their sell by date.

The rioting has ended, the initial clean up is complete, but a palpable air of vindictiveness hangs in the air: Name and shame, lock up and throw away the key, evict them, deprive them of benefits. Punish anyone and everyone who played even the smallest part in last weeks events.

To be sure (let’s hope) the immediate wrath and anger will fade – but the genuine pain, anguish and numbness will remain. And the long term consequences for individuals, families, communities and own our deeper sense of identity and well-being as a society are as yet harder to fathom.

Thousands of words have certainly expended: Instant punditry from left and right, from on high (though noticeably – hardly at all from below). Old prescriptions that made sense two weeks ago, still trotted out, now no longer sufficient. Now is a time for quiet introspection, and thoughtful questioning (amongst the best of them Luke Bretherton, Nick Baines, Jon Kuhrt, and Camila Batmanghelidjh).

Every crisis leaves its mark. Credit crunch; recession; bankers; politicians; media. Now this.

So what is to be done?

Now more than ever, there is a need to move beyond the blame game; to engage with those who feel at the margins and who feel they have no stake. There is a need to find ways to hear their anger (for to suppress anger is to invite further bouts of rage), to view the world through their eyes, and to challenge others to do likewise.

Now is not a time to presume that we have the answer to their problems (and far less that they are the problem); but that through conversation and dialogue, through supporting and engaging with the ‘disenchanted and the disengaged’ in the local communities affected we can at least start to understand what hope does – or could - look like and what is be needed to build some sense of a possible future.

But now is also a time to examine ourselves as a society: To understand our own culpability and the culpability of wider institutions in hoarding wealth and opportunity. Have we, for too long, been willing to acquiesce to the amassing of wealth by the few and the systematic exclusion of others, provided our own futures are secure?

Now is a time to rise to the challenge of modelling the kind of society which we ourselves would want to live in: Inclusive, supportive, enabling all to fully develop as human beings, to share in life in all its fullness. We must play our part in ensuring the institutions we are part of – our churches and schools, workplaces and businesses – live up to these values. And to challenge others to do likewise. To challenge our politicians, church and business leaders to engage with those at the margins – not for a condescending photo opportunity, or as a backdrop to the latest speech, nor less to lecture, to judge or to prescribe – but to really listen, with humility and respect – and with a willingness to be changed as a result.

As the Old Testament prophets were beloved of saying: We reap what we sow. Although some will pay a much heavier price, the riots are a judgement on us all. And in our response to them, let us not be found wanting.


Niall Cooper is National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty

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