john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thoughts about empathy from Liverpool 8

    Lydford Parish and Community Magazine
    August 2011

    The singer and activist Garth Hewitt, who is set to appear in Okehampton on 7th October, has been here before: to The Pannier Market in Tavistock in 1991. Barbara Weeks was there that evening and recently she lent me a copy of the words and music book of Garth's which she bought on that occasion. In it we noted a song which Garth wrote in 1987, 'Thirty-Two Years'. It's about someone experiencing sudden unemployment after a lifetime of service to a factory, and how God values the person who feels forgotten by society. This is so very fitting for the current situation in our area, where a number of large employers have been closing their doors, leaving significant numbers unemployed.

    As I know from personal experience, being without work means not just financial difficulties but also the loss of self-esteem and having to bear the brunt of unfair criticism from others lacking empathy and quick to judge (remarks about Œwork shy scroungers' don't wash, but do hurt). So a return visit for Garth seems timely, whose songs have been described as Œanthems of hope for the forgotten ones ... songs to move our feet and change our minds. Songs of prophetic challenge.'

    The challenge for many of us is empathy. Without being sentimental or manipulated, is it possible for us to see things in the same way that others - particularly those who are struggling - see things? Indeed, I think it is one of the greatest effects of Christianity on our culture: that our awareness of the victimisation of Jesus which led to his unjust and brutal death makes us more aware of unjust victimisation wherever it is happening. The amount of empathy we have with the struggling, victimised and scapegoated, signals how much Christianity is in our genes. So, for example, for as long as we English continue to side ourselves with the underdog, there's still a trace element of the old faith at work in our land.

    An email from my friend Robert Gallagher, priest in charge of Saint Margaret of Antioch, Toxteth, took me back to the events of thirty years ago in that part of Liverpool where his church is placed, where I have been privileged to worship and minister over the years. The email was Robert's annual invitation to a patronal festival on St Margaret's Day, 20th July, which the parish marked with what Robert described as Œa "Holy Supper", to hold, to absorb, the "blight" put on this Parish, that maybe we may come again to know the grace of understanding and celebration for this community.'

    My awakening to the so-called Toxteth Riots of July 1981 came when walking into the living room of our suburban family home, where my parents were watching the Saturday evening news. On screen was a building I immediately recognised: a petrol station very near my workplace where I regularly refuelled my motorbike and bought a newspaper; the newsreel showed it smashed up and ablaze. The epicentre of the riots was in a part of Liverpool 8 known as Granby, and I worked a little way from there in the dockland area of Dingle, but the world's press soon tagged the entire area ŒToxteth' and this (as the people of St Margaret's know very well indeed) stuck, with all the negative associations placed on it. Toxteth (once royal deer park, boulevarded zone of Georgian grandeur for the monied captains of maritime empire, bohemian hangout for the leading lights of the 60s Liverpool Scene): shamed.

    The spark for the riots was the perceived heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Friday 3 July. This led to a disturbance in which three policemen were injured. The immediate background was the Merseyside Police force's poor reputation within the community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under the "sus" laws. The wider context for the 1981 riots in Liverpool 8 was an economy in recession, with unemployment in Britain at a 50-year high and Liverpool being hit harder than most. Then, as now, Toxteth had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Then, as now, there was discontent on the streets.

    Empathy with the people was well expressed by Father Austin Smith, a Passionist priest who lived and worked in Toxteth for almost 40 years until his death earlier this year. Described by Robert, who knew him very well, as a Œprophet and commentator of these parts for a long time', Fr Smith once said, ŒThere is no problem of the "poor". The problem is riches... and power and control...' It was with that sort of understanding of the situation that the church people of Liverpool 8 opened the doors of their places of worship during the period of the riots, to anyone who wanted to come in, for sanctuary, for prayer, for healing, for reconciliation, even for the amnesty of stolen goods. The Police and the policed, and other local people all responded well to this. Robert recalls Œ... the buildings that had become foci of community grievance razed to the ground by fire, while Synagogue, Greek Orthodox Church, St Margaret's School, Church and Vicarage, ... stood untouched, and guarded as some did say, stained glass and all'.

    The churches were open for rioters and police alike. I don't know if it ever happened but I like to imagine a police officer and a rioter kneeling together in prayer at the altar rail. Empathy with those troubled by others does not involve justifying them becoming troublemakers; empathy with the oppressed does not support them becoming oppressors. Empathy is equally giving and gracious.

    Empathy provokes difficult tensions. Siding with the poor ought not to mean condemning the rich, though it can involve advocacy and dialogue. In 1981 the widely-respected Toxteth councillor, magistrate and Chair of the Merseyside Police Committee Margaret Simey criticised the tactics used by the Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford. Subsequent reports vindicated her criticisms, but at the time, when she said of the rioters Œthey would be apathetic fools ... if they didn't protest', Ms Simey lost some credibility because it sounded like she was justifying violence.

    Empathy, says the dictionary, is Œthe intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another'. Mostly it's in our minds, or intentions. But if we are keen to deepen our Christianity further then we can take a lead from Jesus, whose crucifixion demonstrates that he empathises with us vicariously, ie, he puts himself in the place of those who are suffering, and does so willingly, completely, in body, mind and soul.