Rage Against the Machine

Very honoured and proud to welcome my good friend Ed as guest blogger. Enjoy. Feel the Rage. Read it all, it is worth it:

I used to think ‘Rage against the Machine’ was a pretty weird name for a band when I was growing up – I hadn’t seen enough of life to have any appreciation for what it meant. And I didn’t give it a great deal of thought. In more recent years though, I’ve given it a lot of thought – and especially in the past couple of months.

In March, the 2 year old son of some friends of ours here in Leeds – K (from Ghana) and L (from Estonia) – broke his leg whilst playing with his 14 year old half-brother. They took him to hospital, everyone was pretty stressed, but it looked like he’d be ok… then things fell apart. The Machine kicked in.

The doctors initially felt that the break was probably caused maliciously, Social Services got involved, a lot of chaos ensued, and everyone (especially the family) got very stressed and conflictual. So Social Services took K and L’s 6 month old daughter into foster care, excluded the parents from their 2 year old son’s bedside as a precautionary measure, and very nearly took the 10 and 14 year old half-brothers into care too.

My wife and I know quite a few families who’d I say are struggling, dysfunctional at times, who we sometimes worry about. So do friends and colleagues of ours, who also know K and L and their family. Yet we all agree that K and L are simply not in that camp. They’re an imperfect, yet loving, nurturing, playful family who laugh lots together.

Yet they’ve got history: K spent more than a year in an immigration detention centre, without reason. (One day they realised he shouldn’t be in there, so just released him.) So whilst he is by nature a very chilled guy, he doesn’t (we’ve learnt) respond well to authority, courts, etc. And they’re not articulate, middle class, with the material and emotional buffers to enable them to easily ride out storms. So they aren’t so able (it would appear) to navigate the System, the Machine, to calmly and confidently cooperate with the Powers, and find positive ways forward.

Instead, the System, the Machine dehumanises them. They’re a ‘problem family’, living on a troubled housing estate, aggressive, uncooperative, probably abusive, a case number, not (as a default) to be trusted. That doesn’t make the Social Workers, nor the Doctors, nor any of the representatives of the System, bad – they (and we all) are subject to systems (social, political, economic, cultural) that limit our choices and imaginations, rob us of grace, dehumanise us. And the victims too fall into the same trap, dehumanising those representing the System, the Machine: the Social Workers become oppressive, meddlesome child thieves; the doctors become inhuman bureaucrats; and so on.

The following 2 months have been one hell of a roller-coaster for the family, and those around them. In the midst of the initial crisis, hope emerged unpredictably. We and a bunch of others rallied round, at the invitation of K and L, and things amazingly seemed to de-escalate. At court the following day, the Social Services agreed (and apparently this was highly unusual) to return the 6 month old to her parents that very day – as long as she was supervised 24 hours a day. Similarly, under the same conditions, the parents were allowed back at their son’s bedside.

My wife’s a former Social Worker, and it seemed to make all the difference that she was able to ‘talk the talk’, and seem credible in the eyes of the authorities. So we (and more latterly, L’s mum and others) mucked in and did long shifts at the family home, and in the hospital – a strange stressful status quo, but the family are delightful to be with, so not terrible! So much better than the alternatives.

And as the Social Services started their assessments, things continued to unfold well. The nurses in the hospital had been initially suspicious of this ‘problem family’ with an Emergency Protection Order, but some (not all) were really won round by the love they seemed to see in the family. Character references came in from different angles. Dinners were cooked for the family. Late night lifts were given. Many prayers were prayed. A special wide pushchair was dug out and donated, for the 2 year old to get about in once he left the hospital (potted up from ankle to chest!). A misunderstanding led to everyone laughing together in court. L’s mum came over from Estonia, and – by good chance – we managed to get an Estonian CRB check within a matter of days. Even the Social Workers seemed to be relaxing, becoming warmer and more positive, being open to creative and innovative solutions.

It seemed like we were discovering a re-humanising way through the crisis. My worldview, my theology inspires me to believe that the System, the Machine (aka the Powers and Principalities, the Oppression System as writer Walter Wink calls it, or Babylon as others call it) inevitably seeks to crush us – and especially those at the fringes of society. But equally, we’re called and empowered to seek and work for creative, humane, more covenantal solutions that have the power to subvert the Machine – and ultimately enable new life, redemption. So, it was tough and tiring, but everything felt good – like we were winning. It felt inspiring, like K and L (and all of us) were being held in love by a wider body of people.

But the Machine is no push-over. After the initial exuberance and hope, everything went ten steps backwards. The judge assigned to the case seemed thoroughly inhuman, fearful, controlling, blinkered. (She wasn’t actually inhuman, I don’t want to dehumanise her (!), but even the Social Workers seemed taken aback by her hardline approach and perspective…) Meanwhile, a surreal set of events (I think the right word is Kafkaesque) led to L (mum) being disciplined for doing something that no-one had told her she couldn’t do. It was mind-numbingly frustrating, like a football match where one side doesn’t know the rules – and is losing, repeatedly.

Overall, L (mum) said she felt like they were being condemned like criminals, and crushed, even though they were innocent. (Which sounds theologically familiar to me.) Everything was escalating again, and I for one (very much an optimist, normally) felt pretty hopeless. The family’s lawyers (who were great, throughout) were similarly downbeat and pessimistic. I was convinced that the kids would be taken into care, and I seriously worried that that would only lead to further unravelling, deeper darkness, greater brokenness…

And I was struck by the realisation that history is littered with really good people who’ve fallen and failed. Not the ones who’ve heroically given up their lives in the service of goodness, and in some way have improving the world even if nothing seemed to have come of it. I’m thinking of the lives snuffed out, unknown, unnoticed, undramatically crushed in one way or another. People like me (and many of those who read this, I suggest) are used to winning. Sometimes you have to really graft to get there, it often doesn’t look like we imagine it will – but we dodge the crushing blow, the utter destruction. Yet it seemed here that that’s what this family were facing…

Except actually, it all turned around again – miraculously. The family were back in court a few weeks later, and the judge (who a lot of people had been praying for) was like a completely different person – arguing vigorously for the rights of the family. The doctor’s report was presented, and demonstrated a similar turn-around (they couldn’t be sure that the injury had been caused maliciously). So despite ongoing resistance from the Social Workers, the case unravelled remarkably quickly in the favour of the family. As of a fortnight ago, the family are pretty much unshackled, in the clear, back to normal.

I’d like to think this is the norm – and it’d be reassuring to believe that the System naturally rights itself, that justice is typically done. But it appears not. The family’s lawyers could not get over the turn-around: they said repeatedly that this case was ‘unique’, ‘miraculous’, ‘incredible’, etc. And I recently heard a Leeds foster carer (not connected with this case) say she’s repeatedly seen families who’ve lost their kids permanently (ie to adoption) – simply because they lack the capacity simply to articulate themselves in the face of the professionals, and the resources (especially other people) to give them the strength and skills to navigate the System.

So my fears in this case didn’t come to pass, and our best prayers and hopes won out. But I won’t be able to escape the reality – one that I’ve discussed with K and L – that they’re actually lucky in some ways. They’ve had people to rally round them, hold them, and help tilt the scales somewhat in their favour.

And I will remain haunted by the realisation that the Machine, the System is crushing people all the time. Hundreds of people in Leeds (and millions round the world) are at this very moment unjustly losing their battle with the System, in one form or another. Maybe in different ways, we’re all losing – but as I think this story demonstrates, for some the stakes are so much higher. Some are losing far worse than others.

So what to do? We’re called to a great mission, to re-humanise ourselves and one another, to love, to share ourselves and our resources (especially our time, skills, our connections) with others, and to subvert the System. It won’t always work, and sometimes we and other will get crushed along the way. But we surely have to try, and we can sometimes (like here) make a difference.

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2 thoughts on “Rage Against the Machine

  1. I was one of the people who were used to winning. Then I became an obstacle to the system. In my case the NHS and they crushed me. Twenty two years on and I’m a wreck. Just waiting to die, wishing I had the guts to shorten the waiting time.

    1. Theodora, I’m so sorry to hear this. I hope you are able to find the strength to see small beauties in the world. Wishing you continued strength and hope you find peace.

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