‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is, in fact a pseudonym, due to the fact that Dalrymple was a GP and a doctor in the prison service. And this is why the subtitle to his book, ‘The Worldview That Makes the Underclass’, is so important.
Dalrymple’s thesis is that it is the way the underclass look at the world that causes most of their problems. They are victims, not of blind forces or social structures, but of themselves. It is anathema to the Liberal and it is, of course, dangerously seductive for the Conservative. But given that Dalrymple writes entirely from long personal experience, it is a thesis which must be heard, albeit with care.
Dalrymple points out, for example, the way those who have murdered or assaulted others deny personal responsibility, preferring to say ‘the knife went in’, rather than, ‘I stabbed him’:
The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.
It is also, perhaps, no surprise to find that Dalrymple identifies the welfare state as what some theologians might call a structure of ‘institutionalised sin’, keeping the underclass under. This may sound heartless and preposterous until you read, for example, his description to a doctor from overseas of what would happen to a woman whose boyfriend repeatedly beat her and wrecked her flat:
“They’ll find her a new flat. They’ll buy her new furniture, television, and refrigerator, because it’s unacceptable poverty in this day and age to live without them. They’ll charge her nothing for the damage to her old flat, because she can’t pay anyway, and it wasn’t she who did it. He will get away scot-free. Once she’s installed in her new flat to escape from him, she’ll invite him there, he’ll smash it up again, and then they’ll find her somewhere else to live. There is, in fact, nothing she can do that will deprive her of the state’s obligation to house, feed, and entertain her.”
I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic, but spiritual, moral, and cultural. (138-139)
Of course we must ask whether it would be a better world in which such a woman did fear hunger, disapproval or God. But clearly her life is not improving as things stand, despite all the provision being made for her. And of all people, Christians should surely listen when someone who is apparently a man of no discernible faith writes of a spiritual ‘squalor’ damaging people’s lives.
As Christians, moreover, we must also ask how the gospel addresses the terrible situations that Dalrymple describes. Elsewhere he writes of teenagers who are,
... condemned to live in an eternal present, a present that merely exists, without connection to a past that might explain it or to a future that might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another. (70)
Surely the gospel offers such young people something by which to get their bearings in life. Yet how are they to be persuaded of the gospel’s truth and relevance?
One of the things we are told constantly is that people judge the gospel, and are drawn to it, by its effects on the lives of others. And this should surely be as true with the ‘underclass’ as it has been anywhere else. Indeed, we know it can be! One of the often-quoted features of the Methodist revival is that people improved their social status after their conversion, due to the change it brought about — changes that Methodism deliberately fostered — in their manner of life.
What is odd, however, is that in the 1970s this social improvement was derided by Evangelicals as a betrayal of the working class. The Methodists, and others, it was claimed, left the working-class areas as their lives improved and so the gospel ceased to be proclaimed.
That is as my be, but the answer is surely not to deride the effectiveness of the gospel in bringing about individual social improvement. Rather, the gospel preached to the ‘underclass’ should be that of breaking free from the chains that bind — including the chains of blaming anything but oneself for one’s problems.
Dalrymple’s book challenges the Evangelical orthodoxy of the fourth quarter of the twentieth century which had ceased to confront the personal choices that, in his view, create the underclass. Indeed, he gives instances where an almost ‘evangelical’ personal challenge has, on rare occasions, resulted in someone turning their life around and leaving the past behind.
Might it not be that, far from helping those with whom it rightly sympathises, the church has ironically wound up colluding with them, because it has failed to identify the true source of their problems? Might this, indeed, specifically explain the failure of the church to help the black community, despite the widespread prevalence of religious belief? Might it also be why Islam sometimes succeeds where ‘Christianity’, so-called, fails?
These are weighty questions. They are worthy of thoughtful answers.
Revd John P Richardson
27 June 2007