The wretched of the earth
(cf. Isaiah 49: 13 - 26)
None of us is free if our brother or sister lies in chains.
by Andrew Thomas Kania
It is often said that some of the most serious lessons are often taught by way of jest.
A 1983 motion picture and black comedy classic, Trading Places, is a good example of this adage. The film opens with Louis Winthorpe III, an Exeter and Harvard alumnus, and senior employee of the brokerage firm Duke & Duke, being feted by the partners of the firm for his skilful handling of their business.
The two Duke brothers, Mortimer and Randolph, in a back-room conversation seek to resolve their debate over whether a man like Winthorpe is a product of nature or nurture by wagering his life on a one dollar bet with each other. In short they seek to take from Winthorpe everything he has by falsely accusing him of theft, and from that point onward, slowly kicking from underneath him, everything he has on which to lean for solace, waiting for him in the process to forgo or maintain his ‘character’.
Swiftly Winthorpe loses his apartment, his car, his man-servant, his country-club membership, his well-healed fiancée, and eventually his self-respect.
Thus the cruel experiment of the Dukes’ unfolds – but only in part. The other half of the experiment relates to a black beggar and con-artist, Billy-Ray Valentine, who is now given Winthorpe’s job and assets. Over the course of the film, Valentine takes on the mannerisms and character of the once polished and slick, Winthorpe.
The fate of the two men’s lives has swung around 180 degrees from rags to riches and riches to rages; spun around all on the precarious thinness of a one dollar note – a life and death bet eventually settled symbolically by the two ageing Duke brothers by a simple handshake in a male toilet.
They have proved that as water can shape the form of the hardest of stones, so most men become what you wish to make them, if you place enough pressure on them.
St. Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662), borrowing from St. Gregory of Nazianzen (329 – 389), described in his Ambiguum 8, of the need for all individuals and institutions which are strong to come to the aid of all those who are weak.
In Maximus’ words: “rather than magnifying ourselves over others in view of the inequality all around us, we should by prudent consideration even out the disparity of our nature, which in its own right is equal in honour, by filling others’ deficiencies with our own abundances”. (Maximus the Confessor, 2003, p. 78).
Maximus was not speaking primarily of material aid, but of giving aid to your poorer brother or sister which relates to skills and opportunity. The great theologian was not so naïve as to believe that total equality of talent among individuals was possible, but what he spoke for was the desire of the gifted to never forget their obligation to those less fortunate in society. If such a desire is held and fostered within one’s heart, the possibilities for eventual betterment for those in squalor or deprivation thus become enormous.
Too often nations, governments, businesses and individuals, by way of either covert or overt means, (depending on the collective or individual conscience’s capacity to feel shame), attempt to reduce people sculptured in the image of God to something far less than what the Creator first envisioned.
History is replete with examples were those with plenty reduce a people to the status of serfs. An Irishman of the 19th century, will sit on his haunches in the quagmire of a bog scrounging for food if that becomes the only recourse for him and his family to survive; a 21st Century Palestinian will look the part of a mindless brute, if you take the land of his fathers from under his feet and let him live for generations in a myriad of tents, displaced, with no hope of a better life, and in the knowledge that the world has forgotten that a people such as yours ever existed.
How many people and peoples die, because either a nearby neighbour doesn’t care, or has dug a deep grave for someone to walk into, and in the process taken away from their prey, their rights, their liberties, their resources – and their self-perception as being created in the image of God?
Perhaps this situation was no better described in the 20th century then by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1961) in his appeal for justice for the world’s marginalised, in The Wretched of the Earth.
Warning poorer societies of the danger of abuse by more materially powerful societies, Fanon wrote: “The casinos of Havana and of Mexico, the beaches of Rio, the little Brazilian and Mexican girls, the half-breed thirteen year olds, the ports of Acapulco and Copacabana – all these are the stigma of this depravation of the national middle class. Because it is bereft of ideas, because it lives to itself and cuts itself off from the people, undermined by its hereditary incapacity to think in terms of all the problems of the nation as seen from the point of view of the whole of that nation, the national middle class will have nothing better to do than to take on the role of manager forWestern enterprise, and it will in practice set up its country as the brothel of Europe”. (Fanon, 1990, p. 123)
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Superpowers wrestled over the right to self-determination of peoples who had been enslaved; seeking to colour their independence with hammers and sickles or stars and stripes – warring over nations until the last vestige of life of a colonial people was extinguished, and then quickly dropping the corpse and marching off to another fledgling state.
In the context of such a political climate, Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961), the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, was being pressurised to resign from office. On one side Hammarskjöld faced a communist bloc that stretched from Eastern Europe through to Asia and the Caribbean; on the other side, Hammarskjöld was being pressurised by a Western bloc, that could not really fathom that the United Nations was not solely ‘their’ organisation.
Hammarskjöld delivered a defiant speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 1960 – a speech in which he clearly stated that the purpose of any organisation, should never have as its primary concern the preservation of the stronghold of the strong, but rather the welfare of the weak.
In Hammarskjöld’s words: “It is not the Soviet Union or, indeed, any other big powers who need the United Nations for their protection; it is all the others. In this sense the Organization is first of all their Organization, and I deeply believe in the wisdom with which they will be able to use it and guide it.
“I shall remain in my post during the term of my office as a servant of the Organization in the interest of all those other nations as long as they wish me to do so.
“In this context the representative of the Soviet Union spoke of courage. It is very easy to resign; it is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist. As is well known to all Members of this Assembly, I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions. If it is the wish of those nations who see in the Organization their best protection in the present world, I shall now do so again”. (Urquhart, 1994, p. 464).
On September 18, 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld’s personal responsibility as a protector of the rights of the weaker nations would end in his tragic death in Zambia, when his plane fell from the skies while on a mission to resolve the Congo crisis. On August the 19 1998, Archbishop Desmond Tutu the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, announced to a shocked world that recently discovered communiqués had revealed that Hammarskjöld’s death had been no accident but had been an assassination orchestrated by a combination of the British MI5, American CIA and South African Intelligence.
We do not have to be a modern-day saint or martyr for justice to understand that in declaring our neighbour to be wretched; in persecuting them, in denigrating them, in ignoring their plight, we too, the perpetrators, chisel away, day by day, at that likeness in the mystical mirror that makes us an image of God.
By deliberately setting the course of our brother’s life on a downward spiral in this world, we fail to recognise that in the end none of us is free if our brother or sister lies in chains, and that the person most wretched of this earth, is he who willingly does to others what he would never wish done on himself; and although sitting in silence, the Great Seer is a witness to all, and in the Great Arbitration, will hold all to account.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is the Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Western Australia. His doctoral thesis, taken at Uppsala University, Sweden, was centred on the life of Dag Hammarskjöld and this man's quest to apply the world of the spirit to the world of politics. As part of this thesis, Dr Kania interviewed many of Hammarskjöld's close friends and relatives in Sweden, in an attempt to come to understand the man who for nearly a decade was head of the United Nations Organisation.