This morning I woke up and saw that a Radio 4 programme has exposed a sexual harassment case within the management of the Save the Children Charity. And instead of feeling outraged, I felt uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong. I am #MeToo. I believe sexual harassment and assault needs to be called out and challenged. I believe our culture needs to change so that it is never, ever, under any circumstances, acceptable for women to be shamed, manipulated or bullied simply because they are women.
But I think we’ve got something else happening here too.
In the past week or so, we’ve had big media stories about people high up in the charity sector whose behaviour has ranged somewhere between the questionable, and the downright shocking and probably illegal. Brendan Cox (the husband of the murdered MP) has stood down from two charities, Oxfam has been all over the news, and now we have a new exposé on Save the Children.
Is it a co-incidence that this is happening concurrently with a group with prime-ministerially ambitious politicians claiming that we should cut back on foreign aid in order to “take care of our own”? I suspect not.
I think there is deep political and psychological manipulation going on here. And whether it is happening consciously or not, these stories are giving us a get-out clause when it comes to our charitable giving. Thousands of donors have stopped their payments to Oxfam in the past week. I have no way of knowing whether they have transferred their giving to other charities or whether they have simply decided that you can’t trust anyone – not even the charitable sector – so what is the point of trying to help. This get-out clause enables us to keep our hard earned (or otherwise) cash whilst feeling morally superior at the same time. It’s terribly convenient.
Humanity has always wanted scapegoats. In fact, the ancient Jewish people had literal scapegoats. The people would confess their sins, make their sacrifice, and send a goat out from the tribe and into the wilderness. The goat carried the sins of the people far away from them. They didn’t have to think about their own failings any more.
(Human) Scapegoats continue to be part of our psychology – we are desperate for someone to blame – Muslims, Jews, immigrants, unions, Tories, kids, older people. We lump people together and we get on our high horses (which are, after all, clearly superior to goats) and that keeps all the messed up awful stuff far away from us.
I have my own particular favourite scapegoats – education ministers come to mind. But when I start to think they are responsible for all the evil in the world I have lost the plot a bit.
And I have noticed, I think, a tendency over the last decade or so, which seems to have come to a head in the last week, to scapegoat in particular those people or groups whom society has previously portrayed as rather morally good, perhaps even superior to the rest of us in some way. We are much angrier with a Save the Children director who fails morally than we are with the director of a mattress company who does something similar (I have no idea whether any mattress selling businesses have had any problems like this – I’m not trying to libel anyone!). Do we think that these charity workers think they are better than us, and are just a little bit pleased to bring them down?
It doesn’t help that our whole society now revolves around a competitive market place, where not just business but charities, religious and social organisations must big themselves up. We live in an era when even the Dioceses of the Church of England, which in many respects might seem to be still struggling to move on from the nineteenth century, are required to have strategies, clear aims and objectives, and straplines. Some of the straplines are just so embarrassing I can’t even bear to repeat them here (you know who you are), and some of them, at least, seem carry a sense of trying to prove something, looking desperately for approval from God and country, that doesn’t seem to me to bear much relation to the good news in the Gospel. Why are we pretending to be better than we are? I have often thought that the most honest (and possibly appealing) strapline of the Church would be a little more Larkin-ian: “Just like you, we’re all a bit fucked up, but God loves us, and he loves you too”. That’s a Church we can all belong to.
If the scapegoats have changed over the years (and perhaps the Church, as an organisation that has been far from innocent in terms of looking for scapegoats outside itself, needs to acknowledge that there is a certain poignancy to it being our turn now), then the real victims remain the same – the poor, the vulnerable, the unheard, and victims of war as well as victims of sexual harassment. If we really care about the victims, it will not be adequate to respond with shock at supposedly morally upright people and organisations gone wrong, and withdraw our support for them.
If the world’s to get better, then we all need to do something about it. We need to give our time and our money, to take risks, and not use the mistakes of others to shore up our own sense of superiority. We need to work for justice and try to get a handle on forgiveness at the same time.
Some people think lent is about giving up chocolate and gin. I don’t. And only partially because I am very unwilling to give up either of those things unless absolutely forced. I think it is about going back to the basics of who I am. Recognising that everyone, including me, is a bit messed up and sometimes does awful things and that there is, in the words of the liturgy, “no health in us”.
I am going to try to give up scapegoating for lent this year and I will probably fail. But as my imaginary strapline says: God loves us anyway.