This is the final section of a three-part series on Theodore Dalrymple’s book Life at the Bottom, which explores the lives of the ‘underclass’ living on schemes.
In the chapter ‘Choosing to Fail’, Dalrymple strikes right at the heart of the problems we face in the schemes. Commenting on the many excuses that people have to justify their destructive behaviour, he writes, ‘That is the lie at the heart of our society, the lie that encourages every form of destructive self-indulgence to flourish: for while we ascribe our conduct to pressures from without, we obey whims that well up from within, thereby awarding ourselves carte blanche to behave as we choose’ (p122). He just doesn’t understand how close he is to scripture with that description. Proverbs 28:13 says, ‘Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.’
We work hard at confronting people with their sins in the scheme. They have to take responsibility, which is hard in a culture of support workers who want to raise their self-esteem or tell them that things aren’t their fault. But the Bible is clear that we are all responsible before God for our own sins and not those of other people. Understanding and accepting that is the first step toward salvation and peace with God. We do people no favours, spiritually speaking, by making excuses for their behaviour, even if they have been sinned against terribly.
Perhaps his most haunting lines are toward the end of the book:
‘The most poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty, it is poverty of the soul.’ (p143)
‘In the culture of the slums, men and women are past their prime by the age of 25.’ (p162)
‘Violence, vulgarity, and educational failure: three aspects of modern English life that are so obvious and evident that it requires little observational power to discern them.’ (p251)
‘The destruction of the family as an institution…has resulted…in widespread violence consequent upon sexual insecurity and in the mass neglect of children, as people become ever more egotistical in their search of momentary pleasure.’ (p254)
The real tragedy of his book isn’t his observations, for they are often witty, wry and true. He just has no solutions. He has no answers whatsoever. Further, he realises that the medical profession, the government and the police can contribute hardly anything constructive to stopping the demise of the growing underclass in our society. That’s why we thank God for Jesus. For the hope of the gospel. For the good news that no person is so far gone that they cannot be changed from the inside out by the power of the Holy Spirit. I once preached a sermon called, ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ My answer was no. But Jesus can change them. God help our council estates and schemes. A book almost twenty years old has not only highlighted the fight we are in, but just how far society has sunk in the past two decades, and how far away the church is from our neediest communities.
A story is told of the time Thomas Guthrie met Thomas Chalmers when he first moved to Edinburgh. He was looking down over the Cowgate, horrified by the drunken men and women and the young street children wandering the streets dirty and hungry. A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the famous preacher and social reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers. Guthrie recalls:
‘Hopeful of success, he surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into ‘dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody’. Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, ‘A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation.’
A beautiful field indeed. It is my field and I hope to persuade others that it could be theirs too. Please pray for us.