The scales before our eyes aren’t just
the only balances on which the poor & needy
are outweighed. There are balance sheets
where the poor & needy are written off,
accounts where there is no balance,
where the voice of the poor is never heard. #Amos8#cLectio#thescaleofinjustice
For “Broken” read “broke”.
For “Broken” read “society terribly broken”.
For “Broken” read “heartbreaking”.
For “Broken” read “compassion”.
Broken is a six part drama by Jimmy McGovern set in the north of England (filmed in Liverpool). It is Daniel Blake-bleak. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer.
There are many great performances. Sean Bean makes an excellent priest (playing Father Michael Kerrigan) and Anna Friel plays the part of a single mother well past the end of her tether. They do “broken” very well.
We only get hints about the reasons for Father Michael’s brokenness. He has been shamed and shaming and he is willing to break himself for the rest of his life. We see his brokenness mending as he seeks to make amends for his past, and we see the brokenness around him mending through his offering.
The parish could be any urban area in northern England. It is poverty stricken. The people walk, they don’t drive. The shops are closed. The only shops left open are the betting shops – their gaming machines having bled the community dry reducing people to dire debt and desperation.
Sam Wollaston, in his review for the Guardian, is right when he says: “This is a portrait of poverty in forgotten Britain, minimum pay and zero hours, crisis, debt and desperation.”
This is where people live and where they stay. Father Michael also sounds like a man who isn’t going anywhere. He has a strong regional accent. He sounds as if he comes from somewhere. It isn’t surprising that the priest and people love one another dearly. They might be from different places, but they both belong somewhere – as opposed to the urban metropolitans who could belong anywhere and often can’t be trusted because of that. (See note below about the Anywhere and Somewhere tribes.)
Father Michael is the person people turn to – they rely on him. They trust him above all others. But he is not the “heroic leader”. He is wounded himself, shamed and vulnerable, hoping for heaven. He is unassuming, self-effacing. He knows “it’s easy to forget Christ’s here, giving us strength, easing our pain,” and so he lights a candle as he invites people to open the heart of their troubles.
I could be critical. It is very clerical. But is that liberalism speaking? Is that the criticism of a metropolitan who could belong anywhere. There is no criticism from the people who are THERE, broken. He can be trusted. He is there. He is on their side utterly. They need someone to be on their side. The institutions they should be able to rely on repeatedly let them down. They need his ministry.
Christina played by Anna Friel is desperately poor. Just when we think she can go no lower her mother with whom she lives (and who helps share the living costs) dies. She pretends that she is still alive so she can claim her mother’s next pension payment. She’s arrested. Father Michael goes to court as her character witness. He calls her “this wonderful woman” who does everything for her children. I have no doubt that anybody would ever have called her “wonderful” before, but there was evident integrity in Father Michael’s statement. He uncovered the truth through his love and practical wisdom.
There is a moving scene n the confessional. A woman confesses that she is going to kill herself because she has stolen a vast amount from her employer (to feed her gambling addition). She recognises Father Michael’s vulnerability and witnesses his own confession.
We need more drama like this. We need to know more about people like Christina. We need to understand how wonderful they are. We need her to have more of a say in our national life. We need more priests like Sean Bean. We need more people to know they are “wonderful”. We need as much as ever to find our way through brokenness, and we need our Prime Ministers to learn from the witness of the faithful ministers in our broken communities.
I wonder how many priests, having watched this, will be left wondering how far they have moved from their calling – going somewhere else. And I wonder how many will be left wondering whether they are called to be priests – at any rate, whether they are good enough to be a friend broken for others somewhere just like that.
NOTE: David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics (2017) claims that there are two tribes, the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The Anywheres are light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”. The Somewheres are grounded in place, uneasy with the modern world, experiencing change as loss. Goodhart used this theory to explain Brexit decision.
This is one of the most poignant lines in Scripture (Psalm 137:1) recalling such sad times of exile. Those exiles wondered “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.
Ben Quash, in Abiding, reminds us of the wisdom that the people of God are nearer to God “when they are in some sort of exile”. The Letter to Hebrews reminds us that “we have no abiding city” and Jesus has warning for those who feel too much at home in this world. Exile and the loss of home(land) must be an awful experience, shaking people to the roots of their identity. I don’t know whether it would be possible to sing any sort of song in such a strange land.
Quash, and many others, suggest that Christians should choose exile. This is “some sort of exile” which may, or may not have the brutality of violent removal and fearful flight. Quash refers to Hauerwas and Yoder who commend life lived “out of control”, “without the compulsion to hold on to the strings of power”. This is some sort of exile which is a walking with God who showed himself in Jesus as having nowhere to lay his head and who finished his days on the dump outside Jerusalem’s city wall.
The Jewish prophet Jeremiah points the way to vocation found in exile. He makes the “prison” of exile into a far more constructive way of life. He writes: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
It is countercultural and strange to live “out of control”, accepting exilic status and praying for our enemies. It means that we are no longer to see ourselves as “host” but as “guest”. (It may be that the Church can’t be trusted with being “host”. There have been so many complaints about the abuse of power by the Church “in control”). When Jeremiah suggests that the exiles “pray for the welfare of the city” he is encouraging them to be “good guests”. The exiles’ vocation was, and is, how to be a blessing to a host culture on territory which is strange, without losing heart.
I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile. Pope Gregory VII
Our own culture is strange. There are many things that go on in society which are strange ways. Many aspects of social policy (I am thinking of the “bedroom tax” and other impending welfare reforms and the impoverishment of families and children) are out of our control. We don’t see the world in the same way. Our values are different. In many ways, we are in a strange land. Most of us don’t bear the physical hardships of those in refugee camps, but there is much that we lament. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Singing the Lord’s song in this strange land is something Jeremiah and Quosh insist that we do. The worship offered by exiles is, according to Quash, both resistance and gift. Quash writes:
God’s will to restore people to freedom before him, to overturn the idolatrous service of other gods, needs people who will use their voices to ‘sing his new song’ …
The early Christians may have handled the currency of the Empire each day, but before any of that, before sunrise, they met as the people of God, as the Church. That was their true city, their real ‘kingdom’, their Jerusalem. Christians’ present challenge too, is to live and work in the world in such a way that the song they sing as people in the Church is strong enough and beautiful enough to relativise ad transform other less sacred songs.
How far skims the stone on the water? big bounces, many bounces, final skip each stone weighed with outstretched arm for howls of laughter for cries of pain. How deep gashes the body with violent pelt? Turning stoneson the one hand to the other (weaker) turns random stones from arsenal to cairnno stone unturned
“So, as a woman of faith, as a monastic, how do you see your role and the role of other people of faith in the world?”
Sister Joan’s reply:
It’s a simple one: To see injustice and say so, to find the truth and proclaim it, to allow no stone to be unturned when it is a stone that will be cast at anyone else. It’s just that simple. There is nothing institutional, organizational, political about it. It says: “Where I am, you may not harm these people. You may not deride them; you may not reject them; you may not sneer at them, and you certainly cannot blame them for their own existence.”
“There is no neutrality in a situation of injustice and oppression. If you say you are neutral, you are a liar, for you have already taken sides with the powerful. Our God is not a neutral God. We have a God who does take sides. . . who will not let us forget the widow and the orphan.” Desmond Tutu