Thursday, 18 July 2013

Benefit Cuts and the Gadarene Demoniac

One of our Commissioners, Alastair McIntosh, shares his experience of poverty in his local area...

Oh dear – when Siobhan and Martin at the Poverty Truth Commission asked me, as a former commissioner, to write something for the blog I said “no” because I was just so pressed with other matters. Then I recanted! I asked myself – Why is this? – and the answer was that my time this week had been eaten up – by dealing with local issues linked to poverty. 

So I thought – OK – I’ll blast something off, but it won’t be a polished or carefully worded piece of writing. It will just be hot and on the hoof, so here it is on that basis.

Already, even before I could set pen to paper this morning (or fingers to keyboard) I have had to deal with another unexpected issue in a local organisation with which I have a slight involvement (not the GalGael) – something involving mental ill health. That’s something that’s been really impacting on me recently. So many of the consequences of ingrained poverty result in people either becoming mentally ill, or mental illness breaking through and disrupting the organisations to which they belong.

I grew up in a middle class background (as a doctor’s son) and so I know enough about the middle class world to know that mental illness is not confined to economically poor people. However, when you’re poor it’s less easy to hide it. When you’re poor, so much of who you are is out there in the open, and sometimes as an open wound. As such, when you live in an area like Govan, and are involved with a range of local organisations, you have to accept that things will happen – like I was sitting in a meeting with somebody a while back beside somebody who was standing to be a director, and he turned to me and said, quite casually, that he was having problems with “the voices” coming back since reducing his medication.

At one level this can make it seem like working with mayhem. You just don’t know what’s going to blow up next, or from whom, and sometimes you even wonder about yourself! At another level, there is a profound truth and spiritual beauty in such directness; in working with people who don’t feel the need to hide their issues. It allows you to face the other person with a rare depth of honesty. And I’m very sceptical about the idea that mental ill health is caused by organic problems in the brain. Yes, organic problems may become the symptom, but it strikes me that most people with mental issues have lived lives, or are living lives, that put them under pressure until this cracked.

That is why a lot of us who live and work in places like Govan just now are worried about the effects of benefit cuts and the bedroom tax. There just aren’t the jobs available for most of our people and it is mental cruelty to suggest otherwise. Even the supermarket checkouts are going automated. We need to rethink the basis of society; rethink how wealth is created, and shared, and what a human life requires in order to let “Glasgow flourish” – and the nation as a whole.

There is a story in the Bible about a man called the Gadarene (or Gerasene) demoniac – that is to say, he was from the Gadarenes and he had mental health problems. Chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel tells us:

This man … lived among the graves. Nobody cold keep him tied with chains any more; many times his feet and hands had been tied, but every time he broke the chains, and smashed the irons on his feet. He was too strong for anyone to stop him! Day and night he wandered among the graves and through the hills, screaming and cutting himself with stones.

Now – sometimes I’ll use that story in Govan. I’ll say: “Does anybody recognise that man in our community?” and of course, they’ll all be laughing, because not a few of them have also been self-harming. I hear things said like, “I felt so dead inside, that cutting myself, and watching the blood flow, was the only way I could feel alive.” They understand the Gadarene demoniac, but my question is: do they understand the full story? And do the churches?

The Gospel of Mark was written around AD 60 and around that time, the Romans went through the Gadarenes and killed most of they young men and burnt the town in reprisals for a revolt against their imperial power. When Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was he said, “My name is Legion, because we are many.”

Think about it. Who had legions? And what exactly was a legion?

What happened then?

Jesus cast out the legion of “demons” into a herd of pigs, that ran down into to the sea and drowned.

Think about it. Who ate pigs in that society? Was it the Jews? No, they didn’t eat pork. But herds of pigs were reared to feed the Roman soldiers. And although the Sea of Galilee is an inland sea it can still symbolise ships and the ocean – from whence the colonising Roman legions came.

The story of the Gadarene demoniac, then, becomes much more than just the story of one man wrestling with his mental illness among the tombs – in a state where inwardly he already felt dead and was self-harming. The deeper part of the story is that it’s about what happens when one group of people – the powerful – dominate another, and push them into victim self-blaming behaviour.

When I see our government saying that we can afford to renew Trident, but we can’t afford more than one bedroom for the vulnerable people in our society and so they must be made more vulnerable by being forced to move out, losing their existing anchor points in community, then what I see is the Romans back again. What I see on the streets of a place like Govan are a legion of policy-made demoniacs.

But there are two other aspects to that story of which we must take heed, lest we be left wallowing in the pigshit of helplessness.

First, the demoniac was strong. For all his craziness, he cold still break the chains with which they’d tried to bind him. So we too need to find our strength.

And secondly, he himself was afraid of the healing power that the power of love (as embodied in Jesus) brought, and the people living all around were even more afraid. They were afraid, as my late friend the American theologian Walter Wink used to put it, to –

1.      Name the Powers that Be, by saying what they do that oppresses us.

2.      Unmask the Powers that Be, revealing the economics and psychology of why the domination system oppresses us.

3.      Enagage the Powers that Be, seeking not to destroy social structures in a knee-jerk reaction of vengeance, but to understand, and to call power back to its higher, God-given vocation, where all power should be held in the name of service.

The spiritual word is the inner world that lies behind outward people, things and institutions. We need to learn to see that world, to see the spirituality of what is all around us. We need to name, unmask and engage, not just with others, but also with the oppressor within ourselves. In these times we need to look especially at our political and social structures, and ask, how can we make a world of dignity in which the former need for physical labour has become so diminished? How can we construct a society in which the chief end is to see that every human being can live not just any old life, but life abundant?

Spirituality is ultimately about life as love made manifest. It means not asking if a policy or a way of life will make us richer, but will it give life. And we don’t just find life as individuals. We find life in community with one another. This is the work of love, often of tough love, and when I reflect back on the busyness that almost cause me not to write this article, and which causes me to blast it out without so much as reading it over before sending, I’m reminded of Kathy Galloway when she was the warden of Iona Abbey and she said one day, “The interruptions are the job.”

I hope I’ve made some sense. We need to break not just the inner chains that bind our demoniacs today, including the demoniac latently within each one of us. We also need to break, or rather, heal, the sicknesses in our wider society, that drives folks crazy, that keeps the poor colonised by the rich, that allows us to build a few warships on the Clyde and considers that “a good thing”, but stays blind to the roots of peace.