BBC Radio 4:Rev Roy Jenkins - 05/08/17


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The judge’s warning could hardly have been starker. If appropriate specialised care was not provided for a 17-year-old determined to kill herself, he said, ‘We will have blood on our hands.’ The language might shock. But so should the despair of a girl who requires quite extraordinary supervision to stop her taking her own life - and the claims that other young people with serious mental illness are not having their needs met, either.

A bed was reported to have been found for the girl yesterday, but what leapt at me from the judgment of Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, was his confession that he felt shame and embarrassment at what he’d discovered; the lack of proper provision was ‘disgraceful and utterly shaming’, he said; we should all feel ashamed.

But what should that look like? Shame can be much derided. Surely I don’t carry personal liability for every failure by a government department or the local council? It’s not my fault if bad things happen in the prison system or if the trains are overcrowded and don’t run on time. Indeed.

And it’s not at all unusual for the victim of serious abuse to be swamped in shame, when the perpetrator feels none. Some people feel ashamed because poor health prevents them doing what they’d like for their families…or because their marriage has ended even though it’s their partner who’s wrecked it…or when they’ve survived a disaster and friends haven’t. Shame can be assumed wrongly.

But it can also be healthy - when, for instance, it confronts us with facts we might long have been hiding from: the effects of our actions on people close to us; the mismatch between what we claim to believe and what we actually do, brought home in some moment of humiliating embarrassment.

What matters is what we do with the insight which has brought us low. If the standards I aspire to have been missed, how do I change? How differently should I live, use my time and energy, divide my resources, set my priorities? To use a religious term, I need to repent, change course, which in the Christian faith implies accepting forgiveness and committing myself to God’s way rather than my own.

That’s no less true when I share the sense of shame with many others, on issues for which I bear no direct responsibility. To feel ashamed at the way vulnerable people can be abused, treated unfairly or simply ignored is not irrational: it’s an assertion that we are part of a larger body - and an incentive to make a difference. If we belong together, we must be willing to be shamed together.

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