Les Misérables

Luke 13: 10-17 tells the story of a crippled woman who for eighteen years had been bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. I wonder whether she ever rolled herself on her back, in the open on a dark night, her legs kicking in the air, so that she could see the stars, because if she didn’t, and she stayed bent double, she surely never would.

No more will many people in today’s world (both First and Third) with so much bright light the stars are rarely visible, yet if you are a mariner, lost on a dark sea, with no compass or radio communication with the outside world, the stars are exactly what you need.

Consider for example, the plight of one group of people in Peru who knew that their land was under threat but that was all. They knew, because every now and then they were visited by officials. They also knew because every now and then they were moved on — or off! Why, when, and what for, were all mysteries. The government was a long way away and they had no contact. The legislation was in legal jargon and they were simple rural people. It was in Spanish, and they didn’t speak Spanish. And it was written, and they didn’t read. What they needed was someone to translate it, simplify it, interpret it, and broadcast it over the local radio which they often listened to. Here and there, thanks to a Christian charity, something happened. A few people began to see the stars, though sadly most of them remained bent double, most of the time.

That is a picture of the world’s poor and disadvantaged. Bent double and no stars.

Guttierez, possibly the best known of the Latin American liberation theologians, says the Hebrew word ani, the word most commonly used word in the Old Testament for the poor, has multiple meanings, but one of them is

‘the bent-over one, the one labouring under a load, the one not in possession of full health and vigour, the humiliated one’,

and there are a lot of them about in the world in every age.

In the Old Testament they were the ones for whom the reapers left the corners of the field unreaped, so that quietly the poor could go and collect their share when everybody else had gone home. Like people in many of our cities who are scarcely visible during the day but who then come out in the evenings to see what is left in the rubbish bins — to take up their place in doorways otherwise dead from 6 till 6, and so experience the sharp contrast between the brightness of the stars there during the day and the darkness of their own lives.

In France, in the early 19th century, when France was lagging behind Britain in enjoying the fruits of the industrial revolution, living conditions were appalling. Wages were pushed down below subsistence level by harsh manufacturers and the only successful industry was the luxury trade — fine lace, ribbon, porcelain and furniture — in a world where the destitute struggled anything up to 18 hours a day in their cottage industry, and all to adorn the persons and homes of the wealth. Il y avait certainement Les Misérables! Et pas d’étoiles!.

In late 20th century Britain, there were always those around ready to assure us that in Britain there were no poor. Today tells a different story. We never had a revolution, and communism (not surprisingly) never crossed the Channel. That was seed that fell on stony ground and never took root. Socialism, based on a sound Christian gospel, was never really tried. That was the seed that fell among thorns. Compassionate Conservatism and Old Labour both soon lost touch with their base and sank without trace: seed quickly picked off by the birds. The result is that today the poor are no longer the poor, they are the ‘low-income group’, the ‘socially disadvantaged’ or the ‘financially challenged’. Until the day before yesterday the only seed with a chance was capitalism and now that too has met its waterloo.

Yet if the criterion of poverty is being bent double so as not to be able see the stars, are we not all bent double? Are not the captains of our industry and newly privatised utilities so bent that they too cannot see the stars, except by gazing in their own pay-packets? Are not our politicians so bent double that they cannot see the stars except in terms of saving their seats if not their skins.

Are not our doctors bent double so that they cannot see the stars except in terms of collaboration with a new health system which for the most part holds little attraction for them — our teachers, with school assessments and inspections, our housewives and motorists with one crazy promotion scheme after another either in the supermarket or at the petrol pump — and everyone man-jack and woman-jill among us who can accept a world where some people can pile up several jobs while others cannot find one, and some families can have two incomes while others have none.

Was there ever a time when we were more spiritually bankrupt? That woman rolling on her back to see the stars is not just in the New Testament. She’s everywhere. As the early Liberationists in Latin America might have said, ‘Her story is our story’. 

So what is her story? Perhaps there was more to it than simply the fact that she couldn’t see the stars because she was bent double. Perhaps she was bent double because she couldn’t face the stars. From childhood, maybe, she had never been able to walk tall and look people in the eye. Perhaps she was shy, and no one to encourage her out of her shyness. Perhaps she stood up once and got such a battering that she never dared do it again. Perhaps she had a parent who was never satisfied, however much she tried to please, so gradually she stooped lower and lower. 

In every place, from city to village hamlet, in all countries, many people suffer from this a lot. They are rarely fundamentally poor or disabled — some of the countries are in fact very rich (or at least they were before some of us get cracking on them!) and many of the people there extraordinarily resourceful.

Yet you often hear it said that what these poor people need is education. Education in what, indeed? Oh, it’s true there are a lot of things they don’t know and couldn’t do. No way would some of those African tribes organise a project like the Channel tunnel and make it pay. No way would the Indians handle a crisis like BSE. No way could all the people of Peru organise a railway timetable and service one broken up into more parts than you can count on your fingers, or contemplate the destruction of the rain forests to make room for the motor car unless they were first . . .  educated to see that in the long term it was in their own best interests.

But then of course these poor benighted souls, the butt of so many of our missionary hymns and on the receiving end of so many of our aid projects, would never have had most of those problems in the first place. Their disability may not be poverty or education. Indeed, it may not even be a fundamental disability. It may just be that from the cradle they have been educated — educated to believe that the stars are not for them. We could all cite cases of exploitation over the last few hundred years. It hasn’t all been by the politicians and the businessmen. The hands of the churches and the aid agencies are not clean. The call is a call to repentance. Not to more money, because that will not change things. Repentance is a change of heart, a different way of seeing and responding to people.

And never under-estimate those with a vested interest in perpetuating the blindness. The Ruler of the Synagogue tries to create a distraction by pointing out that it is the Sabbath. Most politicians would rather we addressed other issues. Many clergy and church leaders would prefer that we addressed matters spiritual and theological (as if this was neither, when it is both!), and the charities (even Christian Aid) would like us to focus attention on raising money ‘to help’ despite the fact that money rarely does and often is not what is needed at all.

Where then are we to find the hope and the miracle of healing? Perhaps in the end within the poor themselves. If we go back to France in the early 19th century, Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables,

'People reduced to the extremity of need are also driven to the utmost limits of their resources, and woe to any defenceless person who comes in their way . . . but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and infamous are grouped together, merged in single fateful world. They are Les Misérables — the outcasts, the underdogs'.

From there Hugo proceeds to demonstrate how it is from these depressed people that new life breaks out. Like the grain of wheat which looks so dead it is trodden under foot, but from which new life springs. Like the egg that differs little in appearance from a stone until its appointed time. So from the hearts of races long down-trodden, from the throbbing breasts of the revolutionaries — one day from the left and another day from the right — the new life breaks out. This is the miracle that Jesus performs. He always enables the crushed and the bowed down to straighten up, walk tall and see the stars.

You can see it in Latin America, where only a few years ago monks, priests, bishops and archbishops saw themselves as spokesmen for the church, the Vatican or the Reagan government, on pain of excommunication by the one and possibly even assassination by the others, but who are now looking up and beginning to see the stars and face the problems. 

Watching two television programmes on the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, I spotted something similar. During the highland clearances that followed that notorious fray people were dragged from their homes and driven from their lands and the churches were involved in their oppression. Today, a theologian, a Quaker and a Native American leader are ganging up to oppose the destruction of a mountain in Harris to make stones for the road, on the grounds that the lands belongs to God and the people.

I see it further south when a few Brazilian priests inspire the London churches to issue a call to come together in solidarity with the homeless — no longer to be seen as objects of charity but as subjects of their own enfranchisement.

I see it in the miners’ strikes, in the change of attitude in institutions such as the Royal College of Nursing, and in the machiavellian machinations indigenous in all political parties, and would to God I saw it more in the pew.

Every day events like this are signs that people are beginning to look up. Where people cannot see it may be because we have led them to believe that they cannot and never will. And if we cannot see it ourselves it may be because we ourselves are afraid to look up too.

But it would be a sad commentary on all our churches and Christian charities if at the end of the day all we can do is heave a sigh of relief that we are still around when neither we nor the society we inhabit has been been changed one jot.

This woman doesn’t want an annual roll on her back to see the stars. She wants to feel and to share in that life in Christ which enables her and all who are like her to stand up, walk tall and live in the light of the stars all the time.

Of course the ruler of the synagogue will say, ‘Stop it off — you can’t do it!’ Some Christians will say, ‘Resurrection! Christ is alive again!’ ‘No’, I will say. ‘Jesus doesn’t live again in that — that’s where he always was. The gospel is about learning to recognise him and to work with him here and now.’


© Alec Gilmore 2014