"It's not fair!"
We've all heard that cry. Probably from our own lips at some time or another. Behind it lies a perception (sometimes correct to a degree) that an injustice has occurred, usually befalling the complainant: someone has exerted disproportionate influence on an outcome; someone has disproportionately benefitted; someone is losing out or suffering unfairly, or wrongly. Most of us have some understanding of 'injustice'.
Let's go to 14 June 2017, to North Kensington in London. 24-storey Grenfell Tower became the Towering Inferno, claiming 71 lives, injuring as many, and rendering over 200 homeless and with very few possessions. The horror of this tragedy reduced experienced firefighters to tears.
And, although the case is not yet closed, it seems clear that the fire was aided immeasurably by the appalling state of the building's exterior cladding, which was apparently highly flammable, and attached to the structure with a small gap in between. In effect, the gap formed a flue, allowing the fire to rise very quickly through this pocket of air.
I wanted to say this was substandard, but it wasn't. That's one of the most tragic parts of the story. This poor, ultimately fatal, state of the building was actually within the regulations. The problem, rather, was the "systemic failure of regulation", according to Thomas Lane for Building Design. The cladding had been added to the building around three years earlier, as part of a refurbishment. Presumably this was cosmetic, to improve the aesthetics of the council housing block that towered above the millionaire mansions of Kensington and Chelsea, (one of) the UK's wealthiest borough(s). Grenfell was home to some of the borough's poorest residents. Among them, asylum seekers and the previously homeless. For the survivors, the wait continues for a safe and more permanent refuge.
The Grenfell residents were victims of unjust structures. Not just the physical structure they called home, but the structures in which they lived. Firstly, the 'improvements' to the building which cost so many lives cut corners and costs, and was as much for the benefit of others (who spent more time seeing the building than those on the inside). And many of these were already making significant gains in a game of life that is weighted in their favour.
Add to this the review of the regulations which allowed the fire to spread - the review has been 'on the agenda' at Westminster for some time, certainly before Grenfell, but curiously never seems to happen. As circumstance would have it, a number of those who might be involved in such a review have links with landlords, or are themselves landlords. Moves to raise standards in housing may prove costly to such people, and a government hellbent on reducing spending might not be in a hurry to improve its housing stock. If I didn't know better, I might suggest that some people have a vested interest in conditions remaining as they are. And that would be unjust for those who have to live in these conditions.
Here we hit on structures of injustice. Grenfell is a harrowing example of what unjust structures can do. I would define these as any system or structure of organisation that maintains and protects privilege and power for the few against the many, that disproportionately benefits some to the detriment of others. Such systems can be oppressive and exploitative. Other terms for this include structural/institutional violence and systemic evil.
A quick way to check how just or unjust a structure may be, is to ask, 'for whom does this work? Who gains most from the status quo, and who loses or suffers?'
I would like to suggest that some structures can be 'passive oppressive'. By this I mean that they don't seem bad - in fact they exist to perform necessary and good functions - but they are not as good as they look, often toxic below the surface. I think here of, for instance, democracies and churches. Many great and good institutions are riddled with structural violence, where a small number (usually at or near the top of the particular tree) exert an unhealthy controlling influence over the rest, and in some cases their position is, or seems, unassailable. I notice that in restructures, redundancies rarely hit the boardroom. And politicians making spending cuts, never vote to cut their own salaries.
As a (left-leaning) Christian, I like to ask more questions about systems and structures too:
"Is it life-giving, or life-stealing? Does it promote life and freedom and creativity, or death and oppression and destruction?"
And, "How easily do information, resources and people move from one layer to another within the structure?"
Before I am unmasked as a Marxist, I call to the stand the witness of scripture. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus lays before his audience a choice, between two gates: the narrow and the wide. I think this is often interpreted (with some merit) as a (one-off) decision between following Jesus, or not, leading respectively to heaven or hell. However, the text doesn't say that, and Jesus has mentioned hell only a few verses earlier, so why not mention it again here? Instead, Jesus talks here of life versus destruction. I think he is presenting the choice between life-promoting or death-promoting. Our decisions, every day, have consequences in one or other of those directions - and not just for us, in the immediate or eternal perspective, but for others. It's like the butterfly effect.
Later in Matthew's account (20:20-28), Jesus corrects his disciples' view of greatness. They are not to promote themselves and their interests, to "lord it over" others, but rather to serve. For Jesus, it's not about exercising power over people, but power under them.
Of course a biblical consideration of justice certainly must take in the Old Testament prophets, and as an example I refer to Isaiah 5:8-10, where God's message is for the landlords, the landowners, who squeeze others out. They'll be left with nothing, in a collapsed market. Again, in verses 18-23, those who decide what is right and wrong, to their own advantage and agenda, will also get their comeuppance.
Finally, in John 10:10, we have once again the contrast between life-giving, and life-stealing. Jesus is speaking of those with (religious) power and influence, when he says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy..." On the other hand, Jesus continues, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
When we find ourselves in structures, wherever we find ourselves within them, let's just ask, is this facilitating life in all its fullness - like Jesus? Or is it stealing it?
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