Being a Good Citizen

Like much of Britain, I have been following the Philpott case off and on. Initially, I didn’t get much further than thinking of the terrible end of the six children who died and the scars the tragedy must have left on the parents and surviving children. Then the media began picking over the case, revealing increasingly tacky, not to say downright disgusting, aspects of the behaviour of the adults concerned, culminating in the suggestion that the fire had been deliberately planned and executed. Yesterday I read the careful summing-up of the judge as sentence was pronounced before turning to reactions online.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the case was not about manslaughter but benefits fraud. With the honourable exception of a few (e.g. Cranmer among bloggers, @Michael_Merrick among tweeters), the people involved were almost forgotten in the rush to condemn and vituperate. I have to say I found the anger and outrage misplaced. Yes, it is right to be shocked that such things should happen, but that does not make it right to wish all manner of violence on those responsible for it. Although it will seem naive to some, I pray for the conversion of heart of Mick Philpott and the others; I pray also for the Philpott children who, as Michael Meyrick perceptively remarked, must be left with the sense that it would be better if they had not been born. But in addition to praying, I am left wondering how we understand citizenship in Britain today.

One of the the disturbing aspects of public reaction to the Philpott case is, in fact, fairly general: the assumption that being a taxpayer confers some sort of moral superiority on someone. In fact, it is merely one of the obligations of citizenship and citizenship is not dependent on it. There have been times in my own life when I have paid tax (quite a lot of tax, as it happens) and times when I have paid none (because I had no taxable income), but I was the same person throughout, with the same obligations towards the State, just as the State had the same obligations towards me. One of the subtexts of public discussion of the Philpott case seemed to be that anyone who does not pay tax but receives benefits from the State is an inferior kind of citizen. Now, there may be grounds for thinking that Mick Philpott valued his children principally as a source of income, but it is a huge step from that to the generalisation that anyone in receipt of State benefits is somehow less of a citizen than the taxpayer.

That is an important question, because as we face yet more economic uncertainty, the number of people who are unable to find jobs will inevitably increase. Some of the discussion of the Coalition Government’s welfare payment changes has been, I think, simplistic; but what constitutes being a good citizen, the rights and duties that it confers, is closely bound up with how we perceive the value of the people who make up society. The phrase ‘hard-working family’, with its overtones of nineteenth-century industry, may make one smile; but hear it often enough (and our politicians do seem fond of it) and one will begin to think that only the ability to be productive assures value. As a Christian, I find that wanting. As a citizen, I find it disturbing. Maybe as we reflect on the wider implications of the Philpott case, we could consider how we value others and are ourselves valued. Being a good citizen implies more than being a taxpayer. At the risk of sounding ‘preachy’, I’d say it involved an element of being good, wouldn’t you?

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20 thoughts on “Being a Good Citizen”

  1. Very hard not to become judgemental – a shocking case.
    You have raised something very important, would the behaviour/lifestyle/crime have been viewed any differently if it had been a wealthy eccentric? There is a temptation in society at the moment to despise everyone above you and below you in the social scale (income). People are very quick to judge and assume they have the moral high ground. I was disgusted by some of the behaviour reported, but I should not have been interested in that at all. My thoughts should have remained focussed on the tragedy for that family (all of them) and been moved to prayer. An element of schadenfreude/delectatio morose certainly crept in.

    • I feel confident that you, and many who visit this blog, will indeed be praying for the Philpotts and for some of the issues I did not highlight, e.g. domestic violence, the nature of evil, etc.

  2. Thank you for such an insightful comment on this case. I too am concerned at the simplistic response to the case by those in government and the apparent witchhunt of those who suffer real long term disability due to the apparent belief that all must work to be of value in society. I have just written a sermon about relationship with the key point that secular societies miss the point that human relationship needs to include relationship with God. Where to next?

  3. Thank you Dame Catherine for eloquently saying what I’ve been thinking. I’ve deliberately not written anything on this anywhere because it’s been so contentious in the media. Any words against the general outrage being displayed results in mountains of abuse.

    But you are quite right. We each have a mutual responsibility as citizens to play our part, including paying taxes, and even now that I’ve retired, my pensions are still taxed, so the idea that pensioners are not contributing is erroneous.

    The government itself has to accept some of the blame for the media frenzy, particularly in some of those who support them in their apparent campaign to demonize those who are not productive in our society, many through no fault of their own. And the so called benefits scandal is a smokescreen to cover the lack of unity within the government and their lack of ideas on how to value all of their citizens as unique, human beings, loved equally by God.

    For a government which likes to trot out it’s Christian credentials, it displays a morality that appears to me to emanate from the darkness not the light.

    I’m afraid that I am unable to understand the mindset of those who appear to want to use violence for revenge, when the law has taken it’s course and justice has been passed. There is no doubt that those convicted will suffer while in prison, I wonder if they will consider those children who are left trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, while living with the horror of what was done.

    Something missing in the debate is Mercy and forgiveness and compassion, some might say that those convicted don’t deserve it. I disagree, whatever they’ve done, they remain God’s children like each of us and I can only pray that they are able to feel and to show remorse in time and to seek that forgiveness that can only come from Jesus Christ.

    • I agree. Mercy and forgiveness are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth in our society but we cannot be truly civilized without them. You and I would probably agree on the Christian basis of western civilization, but I think many of my Jewish/Muslim/atheist/Hindu/Buddhist friends would also argue for a different basis for society than the one we see in the comment columns of blogs and online newspapers.

  4. Thank you for this. I have been flabbergasted by some of the comments & reactions I have seen to this story. People forgetting the abusive nature of the relationships in the rush to condemn the receipt of benefits (and completely failing to note the women worked outside of the home). People with a nice safety net who do not understand how so many are one error, one accident, one bad management decision away from joblessness. Them vs Us. My private industry vs your scrounging: regardless of how much ‘invisible’ state funding underpins my business (roads, anyone?)

    The phrase ‘hard-working family’ is also incredibly frustrating for those of us who work hard but are single – as if my contribution isn’t valued; my work is invisible. I paid more in tax on my December pay & bonus than I’d receive in JSA a year if I were made redundant tomorrow. That was a sobering thought. But I don’t begrudge it, since it’s part of my citizenship, just like voting or not dropping litter or obeying the law.

    • Thank you for your comment. Part of the problem, surely, is that we like nice, easy, soundbite answers to questions that have many layers of complexity — and ‘hardworking families’ rufffles my wimple, too!

  5. Very well said, Sister. I am dismayed when I see the crowds around the prison van spewing out hatred and hear people saying what they would like to do to him. I also feel dismayed to hear everyone on benefits castigated. They, all of them, are people and, as such have dignity.

  6. I’ve been angered by the Coalition’s keen-ness to push disabled people into employment by implying that paid work is the primary vindication of a citizen’s existence. What grates is that at the same time they’re full of cynically effusive praise for volunteers, e.g. for those who donate to and work for food banks.
    As for the Philpotts, no doubt they’ll receive rough justice in prison by those who consider their own offences to be lighter on the moral/ethical scale. That’s human nature; but we’re all supposed to curb our baser instincts, aren’t we? Not make judgements about each other? Unfortunately, even though the judge commented on Philpott’s singular lack of a moral compass, I suspect that his deficiencies in this respect are far from unique. Where’s the morality in terrifying disabled people into suicide? Which is precisely what is happening via ATOS assessments, courtesy of the Coalition.

  7. I found the blog post from the Methodist Youth President clear and well written. She writes about some of the media comment : ‘ it twists the emphasis of a tragic story to create a rhetoric that demonises those in our society who are living in poverty and relying on the welfare system. This is an abuse of the memory of those children’.

    The whole joint report produced by the Methodists, Baptists and URC is well written and helpful in giving facts and balance.

    Links to both below in case anyone wants to follow them.

    http://methodistyouthpres.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/truth-and-lies-about-poverty.html?m=1

    http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/

  8. Thank you for putting this so clearly and simply, indeed for stating what to me seems so obvious. Why aren’t more good people standing up and speaking out for people who are in difficult places in their lives. It will happen to us all in time.

  9. I haven’t read the media reports of the Philpott case as it hasn’t made bold headlines here in Canada – we have our own horror stories here as well.

    I will say that growing up in a family reduced to poverty due to my father’s severe disability and the need for my mother’s care we were discriminated against by some who saw our family as socially unacceptable, not the little girl kids from “better” families should be playing dolls and skipping with. There was a deep divide between those Catholic neighbours who helped and shared and our Protestant neighbours who, as one woman I recall stated “didn’t want to spoil us”. Or how about “They had no business having another child.”? (Me)The Protestant work ethic that evolved from the Reformation together with the idealized self made man image contrasts sharply with that of the performance of good works as flowing from a faith filled life.

    Yes, there will always be those who defraud and cheat the system, and the system must be protected in order to maintain it for those in need, but the desire for revenge and punishment, the vilification of those in dire circumstances arises from a twisted mindset and a co-operation with evil.

  10. One of the joys of my sojourn as a Benedictine novice was that my value was no longer based on what I could *do*, as it had been in my career, but was now rooted in God’s love for me, expressed most tangibly towards me by my community. It seems obvious to say, but actually it took me almost a year in community before I could accept that I was loved whether I was able to be ‘useful’ or not.

    Today, living as part of a lay Christian community, I do not earn enough to pay taxes, and I often find myself pointing out that I *used* to work in the City and that I *used* to pay a lot of tax, just in case anyone thinks I am a sponger-off-the-state. There is somehow a great social stigma about not being a tax-payer – unless you’re super-wealthy of course, in which case it’s a sign of great status and accomplishment to not be paying tax… 😉

    As for the Philpott case, I can only imagine it must have been absolutely terrifying to have lived in such a household. I am sure Christ would have asked to stay.

  11. Thank you all for your comments. Clearly, we need to reflect and pray. There may not be many ‘Philpott cases’, but all the ingredients of that tragedy exist in our society.

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