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  • Ross Moughtin

Living out of sight, in the Basement

G'day folks,

Pressing the correct button in a lift can for some of us be a challenge.

Staying in a rather upmarket hotel in the Australian capital of Canberra I found myself going down to B rather than up to 1. The doors opened - and abruptly I found myself in the Third World.

I'm writing this offline but it was John Le Carre, I think, who observed that hotels like banks aim to intimidate as much as impress - and our hotel was no exception. No expense spared to display a sense of grandeur, to remind each guest that they are privileged even to set foot in the place, this palace even. (I exaggerate, of course, but I'm making a point.)

However (and it's a big 'however'), the reality for the staff, especially those in house-keeping, can be very different as I discovered when I found myself in the Basement. This was very much a modern equivalent to Upstairs/Downstairs.

The problem is that for many of us Upstairs we have little contact with those Downstairs; they live in a very different world to ours, on a separate level. We may say a polite "Hello" to those cleaning our rooms as we pass them on the corridor - but that's about it.

Increasingly our society is being compartmentalised. It doesn't take much to avoid making contact with those in the aptly-termed underclass. We no longer stand in the same bus stops nor shop in the same shops.

Again, I'm offline and I don't have direct access to the facts but I recall reading recently how the top 10% in the US now have very limited social contact with the the remaining 90% and certainly not with those who are at the bottom of the pile. I guess it's similar for us in the UK.

And as Christians we see this as an affront to the God who made us, each of us, in his image. For the revolutionary message of the cross of Jesus is that each of us - whoever we are - is valued and cherished by God himself. We each hold the same inestimable value.

The wonder of the Gospel is that because of this love Jesus freely chose to come to us as one of us. He refused, in the words of the apostle Paul, to exploit his equality with God. "Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7)."

To stretch my metaphor, the Son of God pressed button B deliberately and then got out of the lift to take the job serving the guests, even those who look through him as if he wasn't there.

And that turns upside down our understanding of how we are to relate to others, especially those who live on the margins of our society. In fact, only on Tuesday outside the oldest church in Sydney, St James, we came across a sculpture of Jesus as a homeless man. His pierced feet stick out of his covering blanket, an image which is meant to subvert our social ordering.

As a direct consequence of all this, the mission of the church - where there is "neither slave or free" - is to demonstrate God's welcome to everyone. We should be setting the pace for social inclusion, something we don't do very well by and large.

I recall the St Nicholas' Blundellsands of my childhood. The church building was situated where two very different neighbourhoods met. The posh people entered the church through the north door and so sat on that side of the church while the riff raffle, we entered through the south door and sat on our side of the church. We knew our place, although I did sit on the other side once.

I should now add that nowadays everyone at St Nicks enters through the one door and you sit where you want!

But this is something we need to work on, to make the church a visible expression of the cross of Christ destroying all barriers, every social division. "Here," observes Paul, "there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." (Colossians 3:14)

So as Christians we each have a responsibility here, both individually and corporately, to challenge the social stratification which bedevils our various communities.

But there is a further dimension, one which I witnessed yesterday as Jacqui and I joined the tour of the impressive Australian Parliament building in Canberra. I was even more impressed by the way the Aussies are facing up to their past

For recognising the wrongs we have done, is never easy, invariably painful. But in the case of Australia terrible injustices were done to whole groups of vulnerable and disadvantaged peoples - to the child migrants as well as to the original inhabitants of the land.

The aboriginal people were appallingly badly treated and in particular, by the established practice between 1910 and 1970 of forcibly removing children, usually mixed race, from their natural parent(s) to be placed in 'civilised, white families.' In some regions it was between one in ten and one in three, the stolen generations.

Moreover during this time about 500,000 children were placed into inadequate institutional care - the 'forgotten' Australians. Then around 7000 children from the UK and from Malta were shipped en masses to Australia for a better future. The practice only ended, incredibly, in 1970.

Many of these children, here I quote from the photograph I took, "were frightened, abused and neglected at the hands of the people who were responsible for looking after them and keeping them safe."

Appalling - but now in the last ten years the Australian people through their elected representatives have made two national apologies to these basement Australians. As such, only words - but sometimes words count and such apologies can make all the difference to those people who would otherwise feel overlooked, invisible, out of sight.

Australian politics can be very cut throat. They will soon need a bigger hall to house all the portraits of their prime ministers, such has been the rapid turnover in the last few years. However, to their credit, they are making bold steps to create an inclusive society.

Which made me think, what apologies do we need to make to demonstrate to those people, to those groups, whom we have demeaned? The cross of Jesus demands an answer.

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