Among the stories the church reads during Lent is one from Luke’s gospel about a tree in a vineyard. If you’re interested, see further on for how I’m using it on Sunday. For the minute, one sentence sprang out at me while I was looking for some songs for the service. The vineyard’s owner wants to cut a tree down because it has borne no fruit for three years, saying, “Why should it use up soil?”
Somehow or other, in the strange way my mind works, I connected that comment about using up soil, being a waste of space might be another expression of the same thing, with some other things flying around in my head and in the media.
The most immediate bit of media flotsam was the news that Cornwall Councillor Colin Brewer, who represented Wadebridge East as an Independent, had created something of a Facebook and Twitter storm with his views on disabled children.
Councillor Brewer approached, apparently, the Disability Cornwall Information stand at an event at Lys Kernow to allow councillors to meet equalities organisations and understand some of the issues they face. On being told of the group’s efforts with parents of children with special educational needs he is alleged to have said, “Disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down.”
Yes, I know, I had to do a double take on that as well. Mr Brewer has issued an apology after an investigation by the Standards Committee instigated on a complaint from Disability Cornwall advice services manager Theresa Court. The remark was made back in October, 2011 but I guess these things move slowly.
His letter of apology read: “I am writing to offer my whole hearted apology for the offence these remarks have clearly caused. While I meant no offence by my remarks to you I can see, in retrospect, that they were ill judged and insensitive and should not have been made at all.”
Mr Brewer has since resigned and will not be a candidate again at the May elections. I did offer him the opportunity to make some comment as to his views on this blog but at the time of writing I have not heard from him. I suspect he may have missed my email in a cloud of abusive ones.
Mr Brewer has certainly attracted a lot of criticism but there is a wider issue than this individual’s possibly misjudged but certainly cruel remarks. Mr Brewer’s views were extreme, and possibly he didn’t mean them – being gracious – but we hear this sort of thing every day, if less clearly expressed, and we see it reflected in government policy and associated rhetoric from government and its media apologists.
Under the cover of restoring balance to our economy and cutting debt the government has embarked on an ideologically driven attack on the benefits system and supported it with the rhetoric of workers and shirkers, that has demonised all those not workers (yes, I know there are some who milk the benefit system; there are also those who cheat on their taxes) and therefore shirkers including the disabled, leading to a more divided and divisive society and a rise in abuse both physical and verbal directed towards disabled people.
Now, about this shirker business: It appears that 1,700 people applied for 8 jobs at a new Costa in Mapperley, only a minority of them full time. That doesn’t sound like shirkers to me. A youth work job in my own locality recently attracted 400 applicants. Such figures would suggest that work has shirked people rather than the other way round.
The unemployed are seen as wasting soil, wasting space, using up resources to which they do not (it is wrongly suggested) contribute. This is brought into sharp perspective when it comes to disabled people. Britain’s success in the Paralympics ought to remind us, if we needed it, that disabled people, like able people (I don’t like these terms) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and have a wide range of skills and gifts. Disabled only by aging and creaking joints, not to mention an inability to ride a horse at anything faster than a very slow walk, I could not match any of the achievements of our Paralympians. And that, along with the fact that Stephen Hawking may just be a tad cleverer than me, just reminds us that, disabled or not, we all have different gifts and skills.
At the heart of all this is our value individually and to each other as unique human beings. In contrast to Benedict’s resignation as Pope, his predecessor John Paul II laboured on with Parkinson’s disease until he was unable to walk or speak normally. As Paul Vallely has said (Church Times 15-2-2013), this “public bearing of his evident suffering was central to his theology. The man who had been a fine athlete before becoming pope had preached much to the world about the intrinsic dignity of the human person. Each individual, being made in the image of God, is to be respected simply for their being … To be, not to do, is enough to define a person.” I make no judgment here as to the various ways Popes may deal with aging or illness, but as an aside I will note that Methodist Ministers such as I have to ask for permission, when we want to retire, to “sit down!”
The division of society into workers and shirkers, those who are seen to be contributing economically and those who are not – whether or not they can – denies that divine image in each of us, or for the non-religious, perhaps, our basic humanity. Once that is accepted thinking in society a rot has set in that will cause the whole of our shared life to be diseased (dis-eased). To deny the humanity, the divine, within any is, in the end, to offer the possibility that others may deny ours, not least because at the last worth will come down not to what you are or what you do but to the wealth and power you control. The final arbiters of human worth will be those who wield power. We stand together or we fall apart as human beings all.
For any interested in how I’m treating the story on Sunday, read on; it is, perhaps, connected. Some people asked Jesus about some Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship. Jesus asked them if they thought those particular Galileans were worse people than all the other Galileans because they suffered that way. No, he said, but told them that if they did not repent, they too would all perish. Then he asked them about eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them, and whether they thought they were guiltier than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, they weren’t either, said Jesus, but unless his questioners repented, again, they too would all perish.’ He told them a story: ‘A man had a fig-tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” ‘“Sir,” the man replied, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’
The people who were questioning Jesus were likely trying to trap him into condemning others (probably people they looked down on as being worse than themselves) and Jesus basically told them, “Never mind condemning others; look to your own faults.”
I am preaching on this, this week, around the central theme that while we often seek to judge and condemn others (particularly those not like us) the divine heart is motivated by grace that allows time for change, and that what some consider God’s deserved judgement is but the reflection of their own prejudices. Was Jesus condemning his questioners? No, he was suggesting that we can’t truly live if we cannot live a life of grace; we condemn ourselves to something less than life when judgment outweighs grace and our hearts are not as Jesus saw the divine heart.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading! Peace.
UPDATE July 2013. Colin Brewer did stand again in May and perhaps many having taken his apology at face value he was re-elected. Further offensive comments came from his direction including a suggestion that there was a case for disabled children to be treated like sick animals.
He was reported once more to the Standards Board and was found to have breached the Code of Conduct.
It may well be that Colin Brewer has resigned (again) but the sadness is that his views will not have gone away and our society remains particularly unsympathetic towards the disabled at present.
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