Seeing Mr Bates vs The Post Office but not perceiving

Photo: Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

James Butler asks if we might see the blockbuster ITV drama but miss the bigger and deeper story behind the parable of the subpostmasters.

My Bates vs The Post Office has been a phenomenon. Great story telling, great acting and a powerful tale of injustice which is bound to lead to television awards. It has also turned a largely ignored story of injustice to a top priority for politicians. There is much to celebrate in the way the arts can contribute to bringing justice, and it is great to hope that people who have been treated so appallingly might get some sense of justice.

But there is a bigger challenge here we shouldn’t ignore.

Hearts grown dull

Jesus said that he taught in parables so that, “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

Is there a danger we might see Mr Bates vs The Post Office, but not perceive?

Jesus went on to quote Isaiah 6:

“For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes,
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and turn –
    and I would heal them.”

We too might ask if people’s hearts are growing dull, if they are shutting their eyes, and if they are not understanding what will bring healing. 

Scratching the surface?

If we watch Mr Bates vs The Post Office, and see it as a hopeful story of receiving justice in the end, then perhaps we are watching and not perceiving. Maybe we have not grasped what will truly bring healing. Because this is not a one off – yes, it may be being proclaimed as the greatest miscarriage of justice in British history – but there are countless stories of injustice and of people never getting justice. How as Christians might we respond to this TV series?

A couple of typical responses by Christians which have been surfacing these last few weeks look like this. One is to personalise – we are all sinners and these people made sinful mistakes like all of us. The other is to point to structural injustice, and everyone was caught in a system.

But we need a more complex way to engage. Both these approaches fail to highlight the way power and privilege shape systems, assumptions and individuals.

Mr Bates and others now have the injustice they suffered publicly named and a surge of momentum behind them – one which will hopefully lead towards justice. But if we are to listen and perceive then we need to allow this to lead us to a greater awareness of all the injustice around us.

Invitation to listen

Mr Bates vs The Post Office is not an isolated incident, and it provides an invitation and opportunity to look again at how our organisations, institutions and yes, even our churches operate. This is an invitation to listen attentively.

We are keen to speak now about how the Post Office scandal is an egregious injustice, but not many were talking about it in 2015 and even less in 2010. Similarly, there are countless hidden injustices around us. In recent weeks I have watched a series about the Magdalen laundries, read a book about injustice in the adoption/case system in the UK, heard about racial injustice in the church – all injustices which have taken many years and brave people to bring to light.

If Mr Bates vs The Post Office is a parable, then I think perceiving and discovering what might bring healing is to welcome it as an opportunity: not to pontificate about the injustice of the Post Office, but to humbly listen to the myriad of injustices around us and allow them to change us. To help us see and perceive, and to act about the injustice around us. To play our part in bringing healing.

Here’s some ideas of where you might start:

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