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‘Nothing without us can be for us’

05 April 2019

People who have experienced poverty know best what justice is, says James Hawkey

Facebook/Leeds Poverty Truth

Members of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission outside the city’s Civic Hall before presenting their “HuManifesto” on poverty to the city council, in March of last year

Members of the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission outside the city’s Civic Hall before presenting their “HuManifesto” on poverty to the ...

“FAIR enough” is a laconic phrase that British people use when they don’t want to admit that they disagree with each other. Justice is always threatened when truth is a casualty, and, in our public discourse, we often confuse fairness and its associated emotions with justice.

Questions of justice are necessarily linked to questions of identity: who and what demands our respect? What can, and what cannot, be treated as a non-moral disposable utility? In other words: who is my neighbour?

We live at a moment of considerable conceptual fluidity over questions of alliances, regions, and blocks, and how macro questions of politics and geography map themselves on to individual lives. The refugee crisis reveals this sharply. Within a series of overlapping cultures, which are themselves changing faster than we can perceive, we need to work for a shared commitment to justice, and therefore truth, without resorting to the language of “values”, which is itself too nebulous and potentially divisive.

I WANT to consider a situation in which we see a working out of justice, allied to truth and equity, and rooted in a clear commitment to fundamental human rights.

The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission was established five years ago. Politicians, journalists, leaders in industry and business, policy-developers, and others in the third sector work together alongside local people affected by poverty, to help the city tackle both causes and effects.

Andrew Grinnell, who established the commission, recalls how, even in recent history, public officials were unintentionally set up against local people in meetings. Theories were discussed and policies set by those with little first-hand knowledge of issues, while inequality just seemed to get worse. Mr Grinnell writes that, “despite much time, energy, and resources being put into reversing the trend, the gap between rich and poor was widening. If we were to narrow the gap, there needed to be a change in the way the city responded to poverty.”

A combination of research, preparation, and a mixed commission of civic and business leaders, along with 15 people with ongoing experience of poverty, led to “a celebration of dignity . . . as the ‘voiceless discovered their voices’”. The commission works to bring evidence into the room, and its memorable strapline is: “Nothing without us, about us, can be for us.”

Mr Grinnell’s point is simple. Justice requires truth-telling — not least because solutions that can be explained as “fair” can also be inherently unjust.

He tells the story of one commissioner who arrived at a meeting particularly distressed, having received two bills that morning totalling £2000. Moving between jobs, she had been misadvised, and had not filled in the correct forms. She now had to repay the overpayments. A business commissioner said to her: “I don’t know how you carry on. You try to do the right thing, and from what you’ve told me, something always seems to go wrong.”

The same day, another commissioner spoke of the challenges posed by national rules in how benefits might be distributed. He explained his conundrum, and the same individual who had arrived distressed said, “I don’t know how you do your job. You’re a good bloke doing this . . . for the right reasons. Except you can’t always do the right thing, because people who don’t understand or seem to care about us are telling you how to do it.”

In this case, justice would be aided by greater trust in local analysis, local decision-making, and through involving in the conversation the people whom the policies are talking about.

IT IS impossible to speak of justice without its allied virtues of truth and equity. Justice is a relational practice through which human communities learn more of the deep truth about themselves, their nature, and their value.

In a world where “fake news” risks the fatal undermining of both justice and truth, the Natural Law tradition (for all its difficulties) reminds us that — at least, in part — we discover truth through observing the world around us, and searching for the truth.

Justice is enfleshed in respectful, charitable relationships, underpinned by truth and equity. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his followers to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” — because, unless justice is done to the people I engage with, I cannot receive it myself.

The Revd Dr James Hawkey is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.

This is an edited extract from a lecture, “Fair Enough? Justice in the 21st century”, delivered at the Westminster Abbey Institute on 5 March. The full lecture can be viewed on www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/the-institute/past-institute-lectures/justice.


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