09 October 2013 You are here:

Fiddling while Rome burns

"How’re things going (in your corps appointment)?"

I noticed a slight hesitation before she responded with the inevitable "Fine, thank you", so I pressed for a less politically (and more realistically) correct response. The officer winced and, seeing the pain she could no longer conceal, I wondered what was disturbing her so deeply, secretly expecting to hear about a challenging corps situation, a difficult person, trying personal circumstances, or the like.

But, I soon discovered that the pain I saw displayed on her face was not her own - its origins were not connected to her personal life in any way, though, quite evidently, it had become her pain on a deeply disturbing level. As she spoke to me, I discovered that she was - possibly quite unconsciously - following Paul’s admonition in Galatians 6:1 and 2, rendered like this in The Message:

Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.

That fine officer (a judgment I made as I observed and listened to her compassionate heart) briefly described the daily encounters she and her husband have as corps officers with people in desperate need - people without work, people whose benefits have been cut, people without food, people without hope. The distress she experienced was mirroring the distress she observes on a daily basis as she is confronted with the brokenness of our world; the helplessness which (quite possibly) had lodged itself in the pit of her stomach (though she never addressed its location so specifically) was a reflected helplessness of people who really do not know what they are going to do to resolve their life’s crises. Her stupefied silence about solutions was the ghostly, ghastly, hollow echo of the silent screams for help that are never heard, simply because the voiceless are never heard.

I felt disturbed by her burden, and guilty that I am not burdened more by the sheer weight of the problem. Earlier that day, I had observed as people’s needs were being met on the front line, “in the trenches, where the heat of the battle is fiercest”. I had listened as other “front-liners” spoke about escalating needs - in some instances, spiralling past 300 per cent - as people attempted valiantly, but, all too frequently, vainly, to keep their heads above water.

These are not exceptions, nor are the experiences of these officers particularly exceptional – increasingly, it would appear as if this is becoming the norm. More and more people are needing help to get by:

people coming for food parcels; people struggling to make their payments for basic services - rent, utilities; children arriving at school without having had breakfast and not carrying any lunch; young people unable to find employment.

The list of names is increasing in length, as is the list of needs.

Listening to officers, perplexed in their sharing of the real problems faced by real people, contrasts sharply with the politicking one has heard from the various political leaders during the recent, perennial party-conference season.  I wanted to hear what action would be taken to address the real problems which real people are experiencing –people like those whose challenges so burdened the officer I spoke to recently.   Statistics, not stories, are bandied about as much as they are interpreted to support specific political views. Seldom does one hear about the real people whose lives will be directly affected by the policies being promulgated.

The phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" has been a recurring thought in the last few weeks as I’ve listened for signs of politicians getting their parties lined up to get to grips with some very serious issues, only to be met largely with a lot of politicking. The ultimate example of this out-of-touch political posturing is currently being played (and I emphasise the word!) out across the pond in Washington where the impasse between the President and Congress threatens to cause a major economic crisis with possible far-reaching effects. It’s all about politicking not problem-solving – it’s almost as if some politicians have forgotten why they "joined up" in the first place!

“Fiddling while Rome is tinder-dry!” There does appear to be some distance between Brighton, Glasgow, London and Manchester and the mother having to seek help at the food bank, the father who’s just had his benefit cut, the next generation of unemployed in the same family.

Such real-life stories are referred to as being anecdotal, and whereas they have value to elicit applause, stir up emotions or raise an indulgent smile during a speech, we are told that it’s the statistics that really count. Of course, I readily concede, that statistics have their place and that anecdotes are inadequate in making a case for a particular viewpoint. I also gratefully concede that many local MPs are diligent in their meeting of constituents, listening and learning, with their feet quite firmly planted in the real world, and not a few of these committed politicians regularly hear similar stories to the ones our officers hear so often these days.

Now, I do not know to what extent the political leaders remain in touch with real people. I know from my own experience that, unless one is intentional, it is easy to lose touch with reality and operate in a bubble of statistics and theory. It is my belief that if more decision-makers saw the desperation in the faces of individuals more often, as they eke out a meagre existence, it would make a stronger impression on them than those statistics which are frequently used to justify policy and posturing. I would encourage them to put aside their reports and spreadsheets and meet more real people in real situations. It may result in their being less inclined to seek to score points in debates and set about finding solutions to the problems that make our officers despair with the despairing.

Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.

Time to put down the fiddles, folk, and pick up responsibilities!