I would like to return to the theme of political correctness this week, and expand on one element from my last article. One of the aspects of Jesus’ ministry which is regularly missed (although those who know me will recognise that I am on something of a campaign to raise awareness) is that he was exceptionally rude. This was always for a particular purpose, and mostly that purpose was to expose the wickedness of those in positions of power – both secular and religious – and defend those without power, the ‘widows and orphans’ of his time. Yet the most exemplary example of Jesus’ rudeness comes not when he is criticising the powerful but when he calls a foreign woman a dog, which was just as much of an insult in his time as it is in ours. Why does he do this?
His disciples had just become very nervous about Jesus being rude to the religious authorities – “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard [you]?” – and so Jesus takes them away from the city and they meet the foreign woman, who has a grievously ill daughter. The foreign woman begs Jesus to help but he does nothing – first he ignores her completely, “Jesus did not answer a word” – and then, when the disciples get fed up with her begging and ask Jesus to do something, he basically says ‘get lost’, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, in other words, not to foreigners like you. Then, when the woman persists in her begging, comes the insult, that it is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs, ie the foreign woman.
Notice that whilst all this is happening, the disciples make no complaints about Jesus’ rudeness to the woman. In contrast to the Pharisees, whom the disciples deemed worthy of protection and respect, this foreign woman doesn’t count – and so all the examples of Jesus’ rudeness to her don’t register with them. They see what Jesus is doing as completely conventional and unremarkable, it is exactly what they would do in his situation. Which is why it is so shocking when Jesus grants her request and says to her “Woman you have great faith!” In other words, in contrast to the Pharisees, here is someone who is modelling what God is looking for – and I’m quite certain that this Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he took his disciples out of the city.
Now, in retelling this story, I am not wanting to simply defend rudeness. I am, after all, very much a supporter of kindness and gentleness. Yet what Jesus could see clearly was the way in which the political system can enforce certain cultural standards which work to keep power with some people and prevent others from gaining access to it. In other words, if we pay attention to language, and notice what is generally acceptable and what is not, then we can gain an insight into where the power lies within a particular community. What Jesus was doing was bringing his disciples face to face with the political reality of their time – and ramming home the contrast with what God was looking for. The foreigner had absolutely no status with the disciples, yet she demonstrated great faith. The Pharisees were the opposite, on both sides of the equation.
I conceived my last article as essentially about a defence of the poorer and often older working class man. The sharpest opposition to what I said has come to me from richer and younger women. I believe that this is an indication of where the power lies in our society and I also believe that this is one of the clearest symptoms of how disconnected our society has become from reality.
After all, it is amongst the traditional manual labourers that there is the clearest and most obvious link with the production of economic value; in addition, if those men get removed, society will cease to function extremely swiftly. I say “men” because it is men who do these jobs, and there is very little pressure from wider society for gender-based and egalitarian quotas. This is for the simple reason that women don’t want to do such jobs, and so the political apparatus does not seek to impose such quotas. I am thinking of jobs like working on an oil rig, or fishing at sea, or collecting our rubbish bins early in the morning. Jobs where there is very little glamour but where there is also a distinct lack of cushioning from reality, where a mistake doesn’t cause embarrassment it causes significant injury or death.
I came across an extremely interesting statistic the other day, that the average man is stronger than 90% of women. This, too, is a reason why the jobs that I have in mind tend to be overwhelmingly male, for they are physically demanding and there simply aren’t that many women who can cope with the level of physical exertion required. In other words, here is a difference that isn’t due to some political campaign of oppression but is simply part of the fabric of reality. This is the world that we live in.
So am I now arguing for women to get back into the kitchen, preferably without shoes? Not at all. The issue is about how we look after all the members of a community, and that includes working class men. They, too, must be included. I believe that those men on whom we depend so absolutely for the essentials of modern civilisation have become excluded from the circle of concern in our culture. Where a healthy society would treat such men with a very great deal of respect, acknowledging the vulnerability of a community without what they provided, we have instead cultivated a society of scorn, which looks down on manual labour with a sneer, oblivious to the truth that without them, all will collapse. There are still Pharisees today.
Our polite discourse has settled around a practice of discounting the contributions of working class men. I think that this is wrong, it is an injustice and it is immensely self-destructive. When people seek to express the concerns of this group of people, it is not enough to respond with a squeal of self-righteousness, as if the voice of authority in our culture were a Graham Norton figure saying ‘You’re so rude!’ and pouting. It is because the concerns of some of us are not regarded as legitimate by the rest of us that our political system is going through such upheaval. This will not come to an end until all are included in our circle of concern.