Attending an Open University summer school in Sussex back in 1989, the final afternoon was a workshop on industrial relations. The case of the closure of the British Steel works at Shelton Bar was the background for a role play exercise. A group of us were cast as workers in the plant, efficient, productive, unable to do anything more to save the plant and so save the jobs. Reading through the script of the role play, there was the realisation that there was nothing that we could do; no form of words that could change the reality of the situation. When it came to our turn, we set aside the script, climbed upon the desks and declared that we were engaged in direct action and that the plant was henceforth under workers’ control. The lecturer smiled, ‘a nice try’, he said, ‘unfortunately direct action doesn’t work’.
He was right, of course. Every effort at direct action has always failed. Walking through Paris last summer, it was sobering to read of the thousands of ordinary people executed by the army for their support of the commune in 1871.
Direct action begs an answer to the question in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?” People undoubtedly prefer the latter, standing up and shouting does not come readily. But would direct action not be the prophetic thing, would it not be a statement, ‘I am a person; I am alive; I have rights; I have dignity?’
Listening to the 10 o’clock news, there were reports of protests against hospital cutbacks, ‘we will not tolerate this; we will not allow this’, declared the protesters’ spokesman, but when it comes to the crunch, what will he do? What can he do?
In the Old Testament times the prophets would have understood Kundera’s quandary, yet they were unafraid of standing up and shouting. Jeremiah achieves little in practical terms through his protests and ends his life in exile, but truth and justice mattered more than personal achievement.
Jeremiah has no successors among our church leaders. There used to be CORI, but when religious orders evade redress payments through a deal with a minister, they hardly speak with much integrity. There is Bishop Willie Walsh, but his first allegiance is to an institution which flouts the sovereignty of the state, the Pope thinking himself superior to the decisions of any national body. As for the Protestants, we do ethos, not prophecy.
The hospital protesters probably stand closer to Jesus of Nazareth, who declared that he had come to bring good news to the poor, than do any of the shepherds of his flock. Perhaps their actions will be no more than gestures’ like standing on the desks when you realize all the cards have been deliberately stacked against you, but they at least will be remembered for speaking with integrity and truth, unlike those who go silently to the end.