When our children were small, Jo took several years out from paid employment. During this time, I also spent two years at theological college. Being a low-income family, we received Healthy Start vouchers, that could be exchanged at supermarkets for fruit and vegetables, milk (including follow-on formula milk), and certain other items. Of course, that might ‘free up’ money to spend on treats, for our children, or for ourselves, such as a bottle of wine at the end of the week.
The tragedy exposed yet again this half-term is not a civil discussion on the relative roles of the state, parents, and, in between these two, the wider community, in the raising of children—all three have a role to play; and there are various ways we might imagine how they interconnect, or what each might best deliver—but the way in which we normalise one ‘class’ of people and demonise another. Our words, spoken and unspoken, reveal who we believe define what it means to be human, and who we believe to be sub-human.
Because we are a middle-class family, when our children were young, Jo might have been described as a homemaker, and I as (re)training: two laudable choices. Were we working class, the same choices might be described by some as deliberately choosing to make ourselves a low income family despite having the temerity to have had three children before I had the decency to be sterilised.
Of course, those living in poverty are not the only ones who are demonised. Politicians are also regularly demonised in how we speak of them, and this is both party-specific and as a generalised mass. Over recent years, populism has deliberately stirred this up; and those who would reject populism must reject its play book. And then there is the dangerous assumption of normativity by a Left-leaning middle class, that not only demonises the political Right (of aristocracy and disenfranchised left-behind communities) but also places themselves above question, both morally (no-one else cares as much as we do) and strategically (no-one else is as wise as we are).
Often, when we meet demonised people in the Gospels (including children), others have tried to contain/constrain or fix or ignore them, inevitably without success. No-one responds well to such moves. Jesus listens, enters into conversations, seeks to find a way forward, in which persons experience dignity, compassion, challenge to formulate next steps (which might not be their first choice); and communities experience the disruptions of both measurable, painful economic cost and social restoration. And this is to say nothing of those we meet in the Gospels who were not described as demonised, but might be today: the way the scribes and pharisees normalised their own group, and demonised the prostitutes and tax collectors.
Again and again, 2020 has pushed us to broaden our definition of human beyond our own tribe; and again and again, we have tried to respond within our existing, deeply defensive, frameworks. Those frameworks are not fit for purpose. At the end of the day, we de-humanise, we demonise, ourselves, in demonising others. The deliverance we need, and sometimes even long for, will not come from ourselves.
None of this is to say that we should not pour out our anger at injustice, our bewilderment at hard-heartedness, our cognitive dissonance, before a God who may appear indifferent. The biblical term for this very thing is lament. It is just that when we do so with integrity, we might hear back more than we bargained for.