Photo courtesy JDS

This was a part of well-loved hymn I would love to sing during the early years of my school career. I cannot actually remember whether these words were omitted by then as they are now, or if I sang it without disdain at that time. As I became politically aware, these words stirred resistance within me as I felt that it was contrary to my faith and the book that guided it. It came back to me as I read last Sunday’s paper and other recent reports of the attempts being made at grabbing land, the poor who have had promissory deeds or real deeds evicted without any compensation, the Mews Street fiasco but very specially the video clip of the political offspring doing some threatening of what would happen to people if they do not vote with the current political juggernaut.

What came back to me was actually in question form. Why have not any of the religious leaders protested? All religions of Sri Lanka have common ground in that they call for concern for the poor, albeit could be for selfish reasons. Why cannot we see any problems with a situation, which places the rich man in Colombo and puts the poor man to be in the outskirts?

This article desires to question very specifically leaders of the Christian faith. The protestant ethic we have been told by many a management historian was one of the propelling forces of industrialization. A people enjoying freedom from spiritual bondage due to the sacrifice of another felt a stirring within them to be productive for the good of the larger community, which was to be their act of gratitude to the one who sacrificed for them. True enough that capitalism squashed all such altruism, but there was always a voice in the wilderness. Why is that voice missing in this island nation?

Having mentioned the protestant ethic it might sound absurd to talk about the Catholic Church. Maybe frustrating the poor is not a cardinal sin in the Catholic Church, or maybe the Cardinal feels that nothing done by the current regime can come close to being put into the sin bin. If the plans to beautify Colombo by removing all that is displeasing to the eye people included is carried out, a significant number of those affected will be from the catholic community. The protestant church having made some noises in the pre May 2009 era is reported to have come under fire from both sides of that divide and might have decided that the apples look better when in the cart. The new evangelicals might be the biggest surprise here. Proclaiming loudly that the whole book is meaningful and needs to be practiced, have they succumbed to the constant accusations that the means of their increasing influence is due to unethical practices and have decided to be safe rather than serve? They make some declarations under names of umbrella organizations, which are unknown and thereby ineffective, though non-have been made with regards the eviction of the poor.

What is so disgusting about the phrase “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate…”? Quoting Professor Rodney Barker who is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Rhetoric,

“This long since omitted verse from ‘All things bright and beautiful’ is often quoted slightly derisively for the distance that is supposed to exist between the assumptions of the Victorians, or at least some of them, about social hierarchy, and our own. The relative positions of the rich man and the poor man were as immutable, natural, and God given as the purple headed mountains or the river running by. God made them what they were, high and lowly, and ordered their estate but there is an equally interesting assumption in the verse that is less noticed: rich and poor are synonymous with ‘high’ and ‘lowly’. Social status is not only fixed and God given, but it is measured, equated with, determined by material wealth. This skeleton in the cupboard verse of the hymn points out, in musical form, a defining characteristic of ideology in both the long and the short twentieth centuries: It reveals the classification of society, the account of social identity, principally (not of course exclusively) in material terms, in terms of control over or access to material resources, in terms of wealth, property, land, houses, capital.”

What is disgusting is that it is not keeping with the Christians book. It results out of syncretism with the popular culture of the day, and was thrown into the dustbin of Christian history or so we thought.

Evicting the poor is not about beautifying the city, it is about access to material resources, in terms of wealth, property, land, houses, capital. We judge wages paid to the labor force based on how much three square meals would cost the laborer and the amount left over. We keep ignoring the larger families that are at home, ignoring the aspirations of their children, ignoring that a work day lost due sickness, lack of business or in the past a curfew causes undue frustration. In short we are ignorant. Now consider that those who provide vital labor have to travel from afar to their work place causing further expenditure from their near non existent resources. Think of the extra time consumed in such travel. More importantly it is good for the well-to-do to see daily the lives of those who are struggling and their families. To see their life style and the meager resources with which they manage. Not to cause them pride as to what they have inherited or achieved nor as a punishment for their wealth but to elicit the purpose for which they have been blessed. At least for some it could be a moral mirror to do what is right.

Our poor have become so servile they most probably will be travelling from somewhere way beyond Godagama having got up at 4 in the morning in an overcrowded 170 bus on a humid and sultry morning, plying on the Parliament road and contort their neck to view an air taxi landing on the new lake made by the armed forces on what was the Waters Edge golf course earlier, to take people from a highly developed high-rise residential complex to the airport or some leisure destination, and be thankful that the country has made progress. That would quite fit the description of the poor man at the gate.

This article was aimed at the religious leaders of the nation. The loss of morality is the responsibility of the moral rather than that of the vile. As I have closed in on the stunning silence of the leaders of the Christian faith I conclude with a quote from the book,

What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night,
thinking up evil plans.
You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out,
simply because you have the power to do so.
When you want a piece of land,
you find a way to seize it.
When you want someone’s house,
you take it by fraud and violence.
You cheat a man of his property,
stealing his family’s inheritance.

We Need a Voice. If we don’t call for reform we will have rebellion.