In 1979 there was a riot in the maximum security wing of Bathurst gaol. On the heels of previous riots in the ‘70’s and in the midst of the Vinson prison reforms, Bathurst gaol erupted when staff went on strike. Prisoners destroyed their cells, threw burning mattresses out the windows and more. The walkway into the main entrance down between two cell blocks was a mass of smouldering mattresses, refuse and furniture. To walk down there was to invite vitriol and abuse every step of the way.
It was a walk I took twice daily for the duration of the lockdown. As a chaplain to the prison I had been visiting the place for almost 12 months. I knew the people in the wings. We had talked, shared coffee, worshipped together and played table tennis. Yet for this period I ceased to exist for them. Somehow I became a non-person, just a part of that system which they believed abused and oppressed them.
I was one of a handful of civilians allowed in and my task was to hand out the food at meal times, escorted by 6 or more riot squad police who opened the cell doors and were there to ensure things went smoothly. They didn’t. Consequently I witnessed violence I wished hadn’t occurred. The prisoners didn’t exist as human beings to these men who were, in their mind, simply doing their job.
There was little I could do to bring some sense of belonging and dignity but I did what I could. Smiled as I entered with the food and as I left, often with it all over me; placed my self strategically when I knew things were going badly so as to obstruct and mitigate the violence, and whisper encouragement and hope as I placed trays of food down.
I wanted them to know that, in the midst of this chaos they did exist for someone, that someone cared what was happening and that they were not alone. Sometimes my whispers were returned with a ‘Sorry, it’s not you’. After it was all over I continued to visit. I received lots of apologies from the inmates for their behaviour and had lots of discussions about what had happened to them. We talked about how easy it is too lose your dignity when others seem not recognise your existence, and how we all too easily slip into this blindness to others.
It is not that we purposefully oppress or mistreat others, sometimes we do, but more often it occurs when we perceive others as not being there at all. It is not that we do not see Jesus in them. We simply fail to not see them.
And this is the sense of Jesus words in this morning’s gospel;
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
It is not so much that we do or do not do something, but that we recognise something needs to be done. That we see.
The action in this passage follows the recognition of need, that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. The actions are not earth shattering or spectacular. They are simple and small. A glass of water, a meal, a piece of clothing. The actions are not mandated by others but an individual’s response to what he or she sees in front of them. It is not something which people seek out and for which you will receive an award, it is insignificant and often unnoticed.
It is an action that has its roots in the identification with the person in need. It is only when we connect to the humanity of the other are we compelled to act. While ever we can find excuses to not recognise them as human, then they do not exist and we do not need to act.
We watch as others challenge perceptions and injustice and nod our approval. We applaud the people who were instrumental in the big ticket moments and who are celebrated in our world, Wilberforce, Martin Luther king Jr., Ghandi and others
Yet how do we do everyday in the little stuff? We may not have the opportunity to be a part of the big ticket action but we are immersed in the ordinary stuff around us. How do we respond to the needs of others, do recognise the call to action or even accept the part we play in maintaining the injustice in our home, community and the world around us? How are we challenged to recognise all people as equals and as deserving of basic human dignity and our attention?
It is easy to look out and see the failure of others but harder to look at our actions and our presence as part of a system which alienates and ignores.
There is a story told about a poker playing English Lord who after losing a particular tense hand spoke badly to his partner. When his partner objected, he apologised by say, ‘Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t playing with my wife.’
How do we overcome this tendency to blindness, blindness of our implication in the sin of the world and our blindness in failing to see those suffering around us. It could be the neighbour next door who is alone and has no access to transport or support, it could be the disabled boy or girl who is ostracised from the playground; it could be the stereotypical response to the plight of an indigenous person, it could be the way we move away from a homeless person who hasn’t showered recently, it could be….. the many different things we do without seeing, the little things we do we are blind to.
Jesus reminds us in this passage that God doesn’t create second rate people. We are all made in his image and just as Jesus was the face of God in this world, so each individual the face of Jesus in this world. He says: ‘just as you did it (or did not do it) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
William Loader says: ‘Jesus was not the exception to the life of God, but the rule.’ He is the rule by which will be judged. If we look and do not see what is plainly there then God will not see us. It is a daunting prospect, the challenge to be awake to the other in our lives, to others in our family, our community, our workplace and in our everyday interactions.
In the midst of the chaos that was Bathurst Goal the inmates and I were challenged to maintain our dignity and to recognise the dignity, not only in each other but in those deemed to be the villains in this story. In the years since I have learnt while we can often rise to confront a crisis, it is more difficult to do so in the mundane everyday. Jesus challenges us to see and to act with purpose and love in the now. We can only do so if we are mindful of entertaining Jesus in everyone we meet.