The Lord Jesus Christ we are told in several places in the four gospels (the AV 1610 version) was such; was ‘no respecter of persons’. The expression is now antiquated; but I am reliably informed that in our times it might be rendered as ‘not a person who pays attention to rank, position, titles, influence, power etc’ – in short The Lord Jesus cut through all that lumber provided to our societies because of our enamoured deference to the world the flesh and the devil.
Now this fact of Jesus being ‘no respecter of persons’ has always been with me ever since I grew to puberty and beyond some fifty or more years ago. And its importance in life as a precept to hold onto and to be imitated as in the example and manner of The Lord Jesus – looking back now seems to have been a powerfully deciding influence upon my time spent since.
I really even yet do not know whether I am or was slightly autistic; or have some such impairment; because I felt and considered myself to be apart from many others I mixed with at school; and I have done so ever since; apart because I made early it seems a half-conscious decision not to take part in what I was sketchily able to discern at that age of what might be termed the illusions, delusions, and snares; being the costs to the soul of committing primarily to unhelpful social demands and so necessarily thus compromising one’s commitment to what I half-discerned to be life’s essential values.
Just as I made a point of not joining those clubs, teams, etc which would meet under an agenda of self-interest and exclusion of outsiders, of others; clubs which tended to found and to reinforce their identities as groups by using these negative stigmas as their means; thus also I kept away from presentng myself as a fabricated persona, and thus eschewed using buzzwords and following fashions and putting on affectations in attempts to show I had ‘attitude’ or ‘kudos’; I felt I saw that the hype and the styles and so on were pretty hollow stuff and I saw things rather in the way that that great poet Robert Burns saw them:
“A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Now this is not myself back-patting my own genius and perspicacity etc; because this position from which to view life which I do not know how I was able at the time to distinguish as being that position for life that I wanted for myself, has cost me all lot of trouble over the years, and in those earlier years of life particularly, before I began to obtain a clearer view of what I was up to and why I was wanting to be like this, I was often in much confusion and difficulty in trying to make any sense of the world which I could feel I could grasp onto.
I saw what I somehow instictively felt; that around me many of the people I knew and associated with were willing to allow themselves to be thrust into onerous situations wherein they were being manipulated by their takes on the tenacious expectations/demands of the group; and by their own desires, sometimes by an over-sanguine estimation of themselves; thus being shackled to the constraints and mores of the crowd they hang out with.
There are two episodes I want to throw into my story just here: both illustrate this tyranny of social life that I am trying to explain about.
The first is a story in an essay written by George Orwell and called ‘Shooting an Elephant’. Orwell was a Colonial Policeman of the British Empire and based in Burma for some years in his early manhood in the 1920s. He was a District Officer; in effect he was The Law over an expanse, a vast tract of colonial territory in Burma. On his shoulders in his district rested the whole reputation and authority of the British Empire over the native peoples.
One day a working elephant had gone ‘must’; that is, it had had a fit of uncontrollable rage and rampage; and in its fit it had killed a local Burmese person. Elephants go ‘must’ from time to time, it is accepted just as a hazard of working with them. This elephant was a valuable working animal able to move and stack new-felled lumber; and to replace the elephant was a costly and difficult task. Orwell had been called to the scene by the locals; he had seen the dead native person and had seen that the elephant’s fit was passed and that the elephant was able to resume work and to be once more obedient and tractable.
Yet he sensed that the crowd that had gathered was looking to him to ‘do something’ about the situation; he felt also the weight of that British Empire responsibility fully; and he also felt the equal weight of the native peoples waiting expecting something definite, definitive, of his great colonial delegated power in the district. Then he realised what they expected: they were waiting for him to shoot the elephant.
The situation was irrational; the elephant was no more nor less dangerous than any other working elephant now that it had setted back into its stride. To kill it was a great financial loss and waste to its owners. The situation in effect was over; done and dusted. Except that he knew that unless he killed the elephant the people would lose their respect for him; and for the British as their masters in general. He was The Law. And The Law needed to be seen to be done, and seen to be effective; able to manage such things like this episode of the elephant, which threw themselves up from time to time and out of the blue.
He cocked his rifle; took aim; and shot the beast. It fell dead on the Burmese dust. Orwell writes of how he felt humiliated by this event. He writes of how the ‘tail had wagged the dog’; that is; of how in fact it was the native peoples who called the shots and were in charge of this situation; their blind singleminded unstated demand to him to shoot the elephant could not be withstood rationally, by him, and at the same time himself continue as a strong leader of these people and as their authoritative District Officer. Were he to lose face; the British Empire loses face likewise. He had had to shoot the elephant: no choice.
This example of Orwell’s shows how the social situation is able to dictate affairs; even to no purpose de facto; even to loss and damage de facto; but nonetheless the evil has to be done so as to preserve to status quo; so as to meet laid down rigid expectations all round.
The second story is about a movie titled ‘Brassed Off’. ‘Brassed Off’ is a fictional tale about the demise of the British coalmining industry which occurred in fact during the early 1980s here. The movie focuses on a single pit (coalmine) around which a whole small town had grown up and depended upon the pit for its continued existence. In fact many actual mines and mining towns were really like this and their towns died the day their mines were shut down.
The pit in the movie is to close down. The story of the movie is the fight of the miners to save the pit; and their failure. There’s also love interest and many laughs on the way; but the movie catches well in its characterisation of its personas a certain style of workingman’s culture once commonplace in Britain; and found in many places here still even now. The minerworkers were poor folk; oppressed even, exploited, by the mine owners. In the heyday of coal Britain was made rich by the sweat of underground workers who actually suffered many abuses from their employers by today’s standards. This common and heavy burden on the backs of whole townsfolks of mine workers and their families led to the development of very close knit and almost claustrophobic mining communities; communities which carried certain strict, almost Puritanical in their rigor, social mores; dos and don’ts, permitted and non-permitted, social dogmas.
Whether or not one wanted to, one was compelled to adhere to these mores and dogmas, otherwise a person who ‘bucked the system’ was ostracised from the community, often labelled a ’scab’ or a ‘sympathiser with management’, and so on. In part such tightly knit societies and in their way strict communities were necessary to help their peoples survive the tough lives they led.
Loyalty to the community was foremost; and no criticism of its way of life or even raising the question. Not being ‘wet’ or showing, admitting, weakness. Admitting no allowance of toleration for pit management. Certain personal things never being publicly discussed; a sort of tactiturn fortitude towards personal upsets and losses. The whole attitude of these communities was to do with putting on a brave face to the world, and for men in particular not to show any of the more gentle feelings, which were necessarily to be repressed socially and often in the home also.
Thus it became very difficult for young persons in such communities to break out of them and to attempt to rise in life, say by use of higher education or by finding and training for a professional vocation. The community had a tight grip on them and on what their life expectations and life trajectories ought to be and for the most part would turn out to be. This kind of community is depicted quite accurately in the movie ‘Brassed Off’.
I myself was brought up in a community pretty much akin in many ways to such a mining community. I remember as a teenager how so much of life seemed to be designed to prevent adventures of thought; and to curb questioning of why and what for were things done in the way they were done in my locale. I was witness to card games in which young men gambled at a level of stakes which were ridiculously beyond their pockets; and they would make some pretty stupid calls whilst playing simply so as to show off and try to acquire ‘kudos’, and also I suspect because their desire for gain got the better of their sober judgements. The result was that lads lost sums of money to others which they could not afford to lose; sometimes over and above their takehome pay for a week’s work.
It had become the established expectation amongst them to gamble away at such high stakes, and like the shooting of the elephant these card games had to be done like this so as to give the ‘proper’ appearance of being done with ‘cool’ and so in the accepted manner.
Likewise certain topics of conversation were not acceptable for airing; the arts in general, particulary ballet, and opera, nor any music except mainstream pop; also drinking other than shots of spirits and beers (‘men’s drinks’) was thought strange, unacceptable. No reference to one’s more sensitive feelings etc etc. These were the strict ‘mind-forged manacles’ of my upbringing.
One last additional story I want to share which like the two before it illustrates extremely well this commonplace social deference which people who buy into it are forced to accept to their social mileaus. It is in fact a parallel bind to that those persons who being part of the rich and famous find themselves constrained by; having to be seen to be so; those who go to Stringfellows and also give conspicuously to charities, who spend lavishly at top tailors and stores exclusively; and who set up Projects and Foundations, and in general run a PR machine which gives them a halo etc etc. They have little other choice if they want to stay part of the rich clique
In the times of Josef Stalin in the USSR (as Russia was then) when the pogroms of Stalin sent millions to their deaths in ‘concentration camps’. Such an experience the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn recorded in minute detail in his three volumed epic achievement: ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, Solzhenitsyn writes of an episode half-comic, half-terrifying in respect of being a Party official arrested and destined for the camps.
(It is with this Stalin episode as it was with George Orwell when he noted seeing the Hitler’s ralies at Nurenberg in the 1930s, with troops goosestepping ferociously through city streets with banners and almost medieval gothic heraldries and ghastly regalias; Orwell said that the sight would be laughable were it not so frightening)
Stalin was speaking on a platform at a Meeting of District Party Representatives, the chief of whom were stood on the platform behind him during his talk. He laboured on for a couple of hours or more wearying eveyone in the hall listening to him and eventually he finished and sat down. Everyone suddenly like lightning came awake and stood up and started applauding him. The guys behind him on the platform also.
The applause went on – five minutes, six, eight, ten, twelve minutes, people began visibly to wilt; and one brave man on the platform decided to put an end to this absurdity, and he stopped clapping and sat down. At once, as if at a signal, everyone followed suit and stopped clapping and sat down.
The following morning the guy who had been brave enough to stop clapping and sit down alone, he was arrested and interrogated and eventually sent to the camps to wallow there for years. When he asked wholly astonished why he had been arrested, interrogated, sentenced he was give the reply: ‘Never be the first person to stop clapping’.
This final example of the onerous demands of social situations is particularly extreme; but it serves well to highlight just how constraining and life-denying they can be.
Thus Our Lord Jesus as he ever does always cuts to the quick and discards all such impositions of men upon men; and disregards ever all those airs and graces of men and does not consider men’s prides and lofty senses of themselves and their self-imposed hierarchies and salutations (nor women’s neither). The Lord Jesus looked at the man and/or at the woman and saw what was there for real; and whether here stood before Him was a charitable, modest kind, generous person or else a grasping, wicked self-centred character stood before Him; or else like most of us, someone inbetween.
This outlook of The Lord Jesus was one which was primarily and instrumentally the mundane cause of the trajectory he was tasked with by His Father to follow towards an ignominious death on the Cross (and of course to a glorious resurrection from that death). It is an outlook necessary to life, and to life in abundance for any person who wishes to follow the example of The Lord Jesus. It is the example of the Early Martyrs of the Roman persecutions, and those martyrs of the later Reformation. It is the example which says; ‘No love has a man greater than this; to lay down his life for a friend’ – in these cases our Friend is The Friend of every person; being The Lord Jesus Himself.
The way I see it, and I believe scripture and the gospels are my guide and compass here, it is the case that unless there are persons in the world willing to be the first to stop clapping; willing not to shoot the elephant; willing not to bow to, kowtow to onerous expectations of how one should present onself to others so as to be orthodox and acceptable; but yet willing to speak truth to, and most importantly to try to live truth before, these tyrannies of power and of social and group despotism.
It is the way to sorrow and unpopularity very often, mostly; to suffering and death for a few; but a world without such persons in it who are willing to bear the personal cost, is one where there is no Presence of The Kingdom and so no hope for the world. Thus such persons are truly Christ’s representatives, through whom He is working and is present in the world even yet.
Now there have been times when I have caved and not gone the whole nine yards in this respect of attempting to be for Jesus in my life. As TS Eliot wrote:
“though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
and again he writes:
“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
At times I have been wrong also. But nonetheless I feel I have done what I was able to do and that I still continue to try to do what I can. I want to share a particular occasion of a lapse of mine with you, because it seems to me to illustrate so well the way that such personal choices and decisions to ‘stand up and be counted’ can become difficult to see clearly and discern well. It concerns my late ‘career’ in the UK Civil Service during which I was no doubt penalised regarding advancement (which I myself felt not unmixed about gaining and accepting) by my reputation for speaking out which had been gained by me over a period of 30 years within the Office I worked in. It is at once painful to me to reflect on this area and time of my life; but also I do feel in the main vindicated and relatively at ease in my conscience about my choices I made in those days. The situation having been an ongoing one and in the developing over many years, grew into a complex one which will need some unpacking and close detailing to be understood by you in a reasonably whole light. Please be patient.
The kernel of the situation I refer to occurred when the Chief Executive walked into a room in which I and two colleagues were working. These colleagues were my manager and a friend of mine. The two colleagues stood up and I did not; but I remained seated not out of disrespect, moreso because the practice of standing was not usual to me, nor was it usual to occasions previously when the Chief Executive had entered a room I had been in.
The Chief Executive, she got offended at me, and showed me displeasure; so I stood up and apologised. I felt embarassed and a little cowed.
Having thought about this event since, I considered that there had been no real choice between appearing rude by not standing; and standing and so setting a social situation in which one is always subservient, an unequal and in an unbalanced relation, so that one would never be able to meet the Chief Executive on wholly human terms; i.e. on those terms which are defined by the phrase ‘no respecter of persons’. Thus there was no way by which a truly authentic and mutually engaged conversation could be had between us. This was my view.
Now this outlook might seem presumptuous in me; though I feel I should add here that my understanding is that persons who attempt to be self-governing and who try to show restraint and consideration for others, ought not require supervision and submission to hierachies; but only require being informed what is required to be done and of the method for doing it and so be left to proceed in trust and belief. Hence proper human relations remain ever a possibility between these kinds of person and others like them.
Now I had got along fine with this Chief Executive at times; at other times she had showed me distrust and suspicion. I had aroused these negative feeling I believe by my writings in the Staff Magazine in the first place; which had been critical of some flagship policies of the Office; and by certain untoward leaks to the national press concerning follies having happened under her watch; but not leaked by me, ever.
Because I had been controvertial in my magazine articles; and their drift had shown fairly clearly that certain policies of the organisation were not sound; I felt, and I think my intuition was correct, that I became under suspicion by managers for being disaffected, and so I became a prime candidate for being the unknown culprit(s) who had leaked damaging stories to the press.
This suspicion against me I felt was a misunderstanding of me and my intentions and loyalties. For myself it spoke more about the outlooks of those who suspected me than it did about the extent of my disagreements with the organisation. In the first place I considered that whatever I wrote should always be a ‘domestic’ affair; something which has no business going outside the organisation. I do not think this position of mine was ever understood or accepted by the managers.
Secondly I had I believe absolutely no intention of bringing external shame and embarrassment on my organisation and its managers. I had no intention even of doing these things internally by my staff magazine writings; although there may at times have been a little self-pride in what I wrote; for the most part my intentions I do feel were to clarify and to show, to demonstrate where policy was not making reasonable sense. I do believe looking back that my intentions in the main were not negative nor aggressive nor destructive.
I believe that because I was in a relatively lowly position in the Office that I became suspect of leakages and disaffections; in a kind of stereotyped way those who suspected me saw the culprit to be likely to be someone lowly and with a grudge. I believe it was a little convenient to suspect me also, because in eyes which read me wrongly I already ‘had form’ – vis my articles.
The main point is though that I was and still am very idealistic; and I tend to have unrealistic goals and far fetched hopes (although my Christian hope is not one of these – I consider instead it is a life-essential). This affair of my writings but not my leakages gave me some insight into how even people at the top of organisations think, and which insight I never before suspected. I saw that like many other people, maybe most people, idealism by them is misunderstood and viewed and interpreted in terms of it being at bottom self-aggrandisement, revenge, mischief, malice, in short all of the lowest motivations were and are attributed to idealists, even by educated persons who ought to know better, and who are heading up the organisations which govern us and are providing us with goods and services.
It may be, as I believe it is, that ‘to the pure all things are pure’ but it is conversely true also that ‘to the impure, all things, including pure things, are impure’. This was the bitter fruit of my experience in these ongoing affairs at my workplace.
I am not claiming I am wholly pure; nor was I 100% not to blame for anything. Like the rest of us my motives were mixed; but I know I tried in the main to give service in the ways I was able to, even in my magazine articles.
I add a coda here. I worked for 30 years or more there, at a lowly grade but often carrying out work which a person four or five grades higher than myself would have found difficult and perhaps too much to do; I mean in its required depth of thought and long perseverance. I make one boast here as an example of this kind of work. At one time I was the only person in the Directorate in which I worked who knew how to and had the skills to and actually could and did compile Risk Assessment Reports for that Directorate starting from the blank page, to the consultations with staff, the data forms and their fulfilment by heads of departments, to their interpretations and compilation and writing up into a formal report – twice yearly.
There are lots of other examples I am able to give.
I’ve never resented nor yet do I resent having given such service. I enjoyed it. It was a privilege. I was not rewarded by the organisation in money terms, in status terms, but I made many good friends and I felt the respect of many people, not for my skills, but for my attempts for truth – I hope and believe. I have otherwise been blessed with good things in life which I had no business to expect and no justification to have. I have very little to complain of. In these I am indeed blessed.
My one sadness is that even at the top of the organisation; and I fear at the top of perhaps most organisations, any vision present is marred, tainted with, what I guess to be a cynical lowest common denominator view of people and of people’s actions and motivations. Maybe I am out of order in saying this next thing, but I do feel it may be true, that this basically cynical outlook on things and on people is sometimes merely a transposition, a projection onto others of, the self’s own faults and failings of outlook and conduct – in short – one ascribes to others motivations and deeds which oneself considers oneself capable of doing and likely to do under similar circumstances.
And of course this is why Jesus insisted/insists on being’no respecter of persons’ because he ‘knew men and knew what was in them’ and so had no need of human endorsements or praise or support or authentication, which are in my own experience always so frequently tarnished by the kind of thinking I experienced at my workplace amongst even managers.
Jesus is thus that ‘two-edged sword’ which is able to ‘pierce even to the heart’ and so ‘divine and divide its secret thoughts’. His absolutely adamant will to meet people always at a level of a basic common humanity, without frills or honours and all those sorts of silly paraphernalia intervening so as to distort relations between persons; this quality of Jesus was and remains yet The Way to Salvation for us all. It is part of the route which He provided/provides to us. Only by such direct, and fallible human to fallible human relations and by us discarding being a ‘respecter of persons’ are we ever going to be able to see one another as we are inmostly and clearly; and thuswise shall we make possible that chance of seeing our race of men and women working for and eventually living out The Kingdom of God on earth.