Friday, 25 November 2011

Human Rights and Human Neighbours

NB a correction in the first line: care homes should be 'home care'.
Here's another article which might be useful to church or parish magazine editors. Feel free to use it, provided you attribute it and put at the end "From the Ugley Vicar blog".
In a shocking exposure of our current social failings, a recent inquiry has suggested that the neglect of the elderly in some English home care provision amounts to a breach of their human rights.
Yet although some of the reported abuses were indeed dreadful and although people certainly ought to receive humane treatment, nevertheless I would suggest that from a Christian point of view the human rights approach to this particular problem is fundamentally wrong.
One of Jesus’ most famous parables concerned the ‘good Samaritan’. The story tells of a man attacked by thieves and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. When a Jewish priest came that way, rather than stop to help, he passed by on the opposite side. Similarly, an assistant priest did the same thing. But then a Samaritan found the man, stopped to help, bandaged his wounds and took the man to an inn, where he paid for his care.
The twist in this ‘tale of the unexpected’ is that at the time Jews and Samaritans hated one another. The idea of a ‘good’ Samaritan was unthinkable to Jesus’ audience!
Jesus told the story, however, in answer to a question put to him by an expert in Jewish law: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ reply was an affirmation of the two fundamental principles of the Law of Moses: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.”
“Do this,” Jesus said, “And you will live.”
But Jesus was talking to a lawyer! So his next question to Jesus was this: “Who is my neighbour?”
Armed with a definition of ‘neighbour’, he would know where his obligations lay under the law and whom, therefore, he had to love ‘as himself’.
But that is where the parable is relevant to our care of the elderly. When we look at an elderly person in need, should our first question be, in effect, “Is this person my neighbour?” The trouble with a ‘human rights’ approach is that how they are treated will ultimately be governed by their legally-defined entitlement.
The parable of the good Samaritan, however, reverses the question, for it didn’t just end with the example of a ‘villain’ turning out to be the ‘good guy’. The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus asked him, “Who do you think was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?”
In other words, it is the attitude of the person giving the love, not the status of the person receiving it, that really counts.
We ought not to have to say to care workers — or to anyone else — “Here is someone who has legal rights which oblige you to treat them in a certain way.” That is the lawyer’s approach, seeking to define “Who is my neighbour?”
Rather, our question should be, “Am I acting as neighbour to this person in need?” How they are treated should depend not on them and their having sufficient ‘rights’, but on us and on our understanding of our love for God and for them.
Jesus finally asked the lawyer to define who was the neighbour to the injured man and the lawyer grudgingly answered, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Surely we need no further instructions?
John Richardson
November 25, 2011
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  1. Another good piece John.
    How very sad that care for those in most need has become the subject of legalise, rather than common humanity.
    'Love' as a concept seems to have vanished from the radar of our society.
    Even basic human kindness appears to be at a premium.

  2. John

    Thanks for this... I am a little confused in that you mention ‘a recent inquiry’ into care.. in ‘English care homes’ noting this could be a breach of human rights. The most recent inquiry (no doubt there could be others) was about home care – which is domiciliary care (i.e. in an individual’s home) provided by care agencies on behalf of the local authority (as you’re no doubt aware the Tory flagship piece of legislation, the NHS&Community Act 1990 required 80% of local authority welfare provision to come from the private or voluntary sector, thus ending local home-help services).

    As you note these are shocking social failings (tho’ the lot of the elderly and the vulnerable is a good deal better than it was a century ago when the churches were fuller and the Bible better known!). Yet your ‘article’ provides little practical advice on a way forward or what Christians in particular could be doing about such a state of affairs.

    “We ought not to have to say to care workers — or to anyone else — “Here is someone who has legal rights which oblige you to treat them in a certain way.” That is the lawyer’s approach, seeking to define “Who is my neighbour?” “

    Is a laudable sentiment, but in this particular case, care workers are provided to care for the elderly and vulnerable precisely because of legal obligation of care under statute. Home care is provided by statute (National Assistant Act 1948; NHSCCA 1990 etc.) and therefore failure to provide adequate care IS a breach of an individual’s and society’s legal rights.

    Yes, it is worthwhile to note that Jesus commands us to love one another, but this is in fact a call to live out the ‘Great Commandments’ i.e. the Law of God – if the Law of Torah had been adhered to by the priests etc. in the Parable of the Good Samaritan then there would be have been no question of him being left by the side of the road. Even today the Jewish notion of ‘Tzedakah’ translates as both charity, justice - or ‘righteous obligation’* (*my translation, tho’ I’m no Hebrew scholar).

    You have presented a fine and well written discussion, but it is a bit thin on practical solutions. It also glibly side steps the reasons why a MINORITY of home care provision is poor. This is basically because of an underfunding of care services and the fact that we live in a society where care workers are seen and treated as the lowest of the low – the typical wage of a home carer is minimum wage or only a slightly above. Likewise, we trust the care of our vulnerable members of society to those often poorly educated and (in urban centres) frequently to immigrants who have little understanding of British culture.

    ‘Jesus says...’ has its place but can just be nice words and sentiments. There are complex and varied reasons why home care services have failed. Here it seems as if the answer is that we should reject ‘Human Rights’ as the ideal and embrace the Gospel and everything will be hunky-dory. There is little mention of the real cost of caring – whether that be giving up some time to do a bit of voluntary work, visiting vulnerable people, or the harder choice, of giving up work to care for an elderly relative or whether more funds should be made available for the training and ‘professionalisation’ of care workers (i.e. either greater taxation, or charging older people or (as they do in places like Germany) their relatives for home care). There is no questioning of why so many elderly people are reliant on home carers – sometimes the only human contact some elderly people have is with a paid carer.

    Whatever, it is clear ‘Love thy Neighbour’ was preached from the pulpits for centuries, but it is only by recourse to a legal framework of rights that the elderly and vulnerable of society have had any assurance of a decent level of care in what was supposedly a Christian society. Surely that is something to celebrate and for Christians to ponder...?

    Peter Denshaw

  3. Peter, thank you for pointing out the mistake about 'home care' rather than 'care homes'. I've made a correction.

    The main reason why the article doesn't say more is that it is intended, as the heading said, for parish or church magazine use, and this imposes a pretty strict word limit. Actually your response is 120 wrods longer than the article!

    The intention is to provoke thought on a topical issue in a 'reader friendly' way but using fewer than 600 words - more like 'Thought for the Day' than a complete analysis.

    I hope you understand the basis for the article's brevity.

  4. Revd John

    Thanks - yes, I wish I could understand brevity!

    But there are things churches and individual Christians can do... I remember having a hard fought battle with a manager when I was a social worker because an elderly woman I was working with had broken her hip and suffered permanent disability, meaning she could no longer go under her own steam to All Souls’ (Langham Place) luncheon club. There was an Age Concern Day Centre opposite where she lived and my manager said the woman should attend it if she should couldn’t get to her luncheon club. I argued that the luncheon club was more than just somewhere to go, out of the house, but rather fulfilled cultural and religious needs. I noted we provided (at considerable expense) transport for an elderly man to travel to an Orthodox Jewish day centre in Hendon (tho’ he lived in the West End) because nowhere in his local area could provide for his cultural and religious needs; we paid for transport and a placement at an Ismaili community centre, for an elderly Ismaili Muslim woman, so why couldn’t we contribute towards the costs of a taxi for my client to visit the All Souls’ luncheon club? In the end I won – but it was a battle. But the club was an example of just what churches can do – besides visiting older people in their homes.

    (I will add, just to give you a flavour of how professional social work works in light of your previous post – personally I wouldn’t set foot in All Souls (I was a member and on the staff of one of its sister churches and that was enough to put me off for life!); but personal beliefs and prejudices are ignored by a good social worker: your role is to advocate for your client! Human Rights’ case law and legislation is a good bartering tool in such cases!)

    Peter Denshaw