Welcome to the blog of Commissioner Clive Adams. Leader of The Salvation Army United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland

Fiddling while Rome burns

9 October 2013 - 2:37pm
| by Clive Adams

"How’re things going (in your corps appointment)?"

I noticed a slight hesitation before she responded with the inevitable "Fine, thank you", so I pressed for a less politically (and more realistically) correct response. The officer winced and, seeing the pain she could no longer conceal, I wondered what was disturbing her so deeply, secretly expecting to hear about a challenging corps situation, a difficult person, trying personal circumstances, or the like.

But, I soon discovered that the pain I saw displayed on her face was not her own - its origins were not connected to her personal life in any way, though, quite evidently, it had become her pain on a deeply disturbing level. As she spoke to me, I discovered that she was - possibly quite unconsciously - following Paul’s admonition in Galatians 6:1 and 2, rendered like this in The Message:

Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.

That fine officer (a judgment I made as I observed and listened to her compassionate heart) briefly described the daily encounters she and her husband have as corps officers with people in desperate need - people without work, people whose benefits have been cut, people without food, people without hope. The distress she experienced was mirroring the distress she observes on a daily basis as she is confronted with the brokenness of our world; the helplessness which (quite possibly) had lodged itself in the pit of her stomach (though she never addressed its location so specifically) was a reflected helplessness of people who really do not know what they are going to do to resolve their life’s crises. Her stupefied silence about solutions was the ghostly, ghastly, hollow echo of the silent screams for help that are never heard, simply because the voiceless are never heard.

I felt disturbed by her burden, and guilty that I am not burdened more by the sheer weight of the problem. Earlier that day, I had observed as people’s needs were being met on the front line, “in the trenches, where the heat of the battle is fiercest”. I had listened as other “front-liners” spoke about escalating needs - in some instances, spiralling past 300 per cent - as people attempted valiantly, but, all too frequently, vainly, to keep their heads above water.

These are not exceptions, nor are the experiences of these officers particularly exceptional – increasingly, it would appear as if this is becoming the norm. More and more people are needing help to get by:

  • people coming for food parcels;
  • people struggling to make their payments for basic services - rent, utilities;
  • children arriving at school without having had breakfast and not carrying any lunch;
  • young people unable to find employment.

The list of names is increasing in length, as is the list of needs.

Listening to officers, perplexed in their sharing of the real problems faced by real people, contrasts sharply with the politicking one has heard from the various political leaders during the recent, perennial party-conference season.  I wanted to hear what action would be taken to address the real problems which real people are experiencing –people like those whose challenges so burdened the officer I spoke to recently.   Statistics, not stories, are bandied about as much as they are interpreted to support specific political views. Seldom does one hear about the real people whose lives will be directly affected by the policies being promulgated.

The phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" has been a recurring thought in the last few weeks as I’ve listened for signs of politicians getting their parties lined up to get to grips with some very serious issues, only to be met largely with a lot of politicking. The ultimate example of this out-of-touch political posturing is currently being played (and I emphasise the word!) out across the pond in Washington where the impasse between the President and Congress threatens to cause a major economic crisis with possible far-reaching effects. It’s all about politicking not problem-solving – it’s almost as if some politicians have forgotten why they "joined up" in the first place!

“Fiddling while Rome is tinder-dry!” There does appear to be some distance between Brighton, Glasgow, London and Manchester and the mother having to seek help at the food bank, the father who’s just had his benefit cut, the next generation of unemployed in the same family.

Such real-life stories are referred to as being anecdotal, and whereas they have value to elicit applause, stir up emotions or raise an indulgent smile during a speech, we are told that it’s the statistics that really count. Of course, I readily concede, that statistics have their place and that anecdotes are inadequate in making a case for a particular viewpoint. I also gratefully concede that many local MPs are diligent in their meeting of constituents, listening and learning, with their feet quite firmly planted in the real world, and not a few of these committed politicians regularly hear similar stories to the ones our officers hear so often these days.

Now, I do not know to what extent the political leaders remain in touch with real people. I know from my own experience that, unless one is intentional, it is easy to lose touch with reality and operate in a bubble of statistics and theory. It is my belief that if more decision-makers saw the desperation in the faces of individuals more often, as they eke out a meagre existence, it would make a stronger impression on them than those statistics which are frequently used to justify policy and posturing. I would encourage them to put aside their reports and spreadsheets and meet more real people in real situations. It may result in their being less inclined to seek to score points in debates and set about finding solutions to the problems that make our officers despair with the despairing.

Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.

Time to put down the fiddles, folk, and pick up responsibilities!


Submitted by Luke on

Thank you for this. I wonder if we can ever rely on a government to help these people. Maybe it is time for the Salvation Army to create change itself and support these people through our own (God's) strength rather than looking on at the inadequacy of the government.

Submitted by Alan on

Luke, the main political have failed miserably to address the problems that folk in the UK are experiencing. Even the coalition, which has forced two parties together has not, it would appear, to fully address and support those suffering most during the austerity measures.
We, that is us as individuals do have the hard-earned right to use,our vote wisely at the next election and those that follow. We go in the strength of The Lord, let make our views known.

Submitted by Graeme Smith on

I don't disagree with the fact that we need to support people with God's strength. The reality is though that we are called to the preach the Gospel, which is the good news of hope for both the future and for now.

Of course it is our responsibility to help those who are in need with their immediate issues - as most corps already do on a daily basis. However we are also obligated to fight against the injustice of a society in which the number of children in poverty is actually increasing!

This means that we do need to call our politicians to account. They have chosen to stand in elections to fight for their constituents and make life better for those they represent. But all too often we see people falling victim to an agenda that helps those who can help themselves and those unable to get hopelessly lost! And I, like Clive, am thoroughly sick and tired of hearing politicians - admittedly primarily the front-bench representatives of the 3 parties - spouting political rhetoric that makes little or no difference to the people who are paying the price of the austerity measures!

If we can't offer hope by fighting with our reputation for the glory of God, then what point is there of having the reputation we have gained?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Great to read this thought provoking article.....Some may argue that there are similarities between the detachments of Government and its people and Salvationists throughout the UK and THQ. Good to hear that your open nature encourages people to give these less politically correct responses....which may take courage....Let us hope that The Salvation Army benefits throughout the Territory because of your response to such heartfelt concerns.

Submitted by Kevin Fenton-Herring on

Great to read this thought provoking article.....Some may argue that there are similarities between the detachments of Government and its people and Salvationists throughout the UK and THQ. Good to hear that your open nature encourages people to give these less politically correct responses....which may take courage....Let us hope that The Salvation Army benefits throughout the Territory because of your response to such heartfelt concerns.

Submitted by Peter Reece on

All too true! Our closest township (to Fish Hoek)has an estimated 50000 people(nobody really knows)with an unemployment rate of about 70%. Talk about feeling helpless!!

Submitted by Iris Bennett on

Our Major Sally Spry is amazing, she ministers to us all whilst she is cooking and herding old people with dementia away from places they like to relieve themselves. She does it all with a smile on her face and love in her heart. A true soldier of Christ.

Submitted by Jennifer Cloke on

When I did a short statistics class/tutorial I was told that stats were (or should be) about story.

Stats should answer questions if they were figures in isolation they were of little value.

So Seniors Ministries stats should not be about how many are attending (although this information has some value) but should answer the questions:-
How are you discipline the Senior Adults of your corps and how are you giving opportunity and empowering/ equipping them to discipline others ?
How are you helping to develop the spiritual life of the adults aged 50+ in your corps ?
How are you evangelising and equipping our seniors to evangelize with peers, younger members of your congregation, and to their family, friends and acquaintances ?
These questions not only give us the story of God's dealings with and love for older Members of our corps but also help to give us a framework for ministry and hold us accountable .

We can apply this to children, youth, Community Care, band, women & men etc ...

Submitted by George on

TC exactly what we face in the north east. So divorced from what many MPs face in the commons. We could so easily give up but I pray we will make a difference wherever we open our Corps doors.

Submitted by Gerrit on

Thank you this it is a commonly held belief that stats are cold and objective and stories anecdotal warm and subjective
I would like to challenge this 'belief' on both counts
Stats can be utterly misleading as Daniel Kahneman demonstrates in Thinking Fast and Slow
On the other hand there should be a reliable way to tell the story that brings out the qualitative rather than the quantatitive Narrative vs Numbers the essence of impact measurement

Submitted by Christine Barrett on

I agree with the previous comment. Individual MPs can be caring and motivated people, but it is hard to move the heavy machinery of government sufficiently to impact the poor and needy. In the end it's down to us to do what we can where we are.

Submitted by Geoff H on

Agree with Luke.It IS time for us to go out and fight.After all,are we not at war with poverty and hunger and is it not our mission to reach out as in battle.We must not leave it to others.

Submitted by Geoff H on

I am reminded of the song "They need you, they need me, they need Christ"

Submitted by Anonymous on

We need less politicking and more action. It is noted that one party will take a negative position in opposition and a different stance when in government. Politicians need to consider what is right for the people and not the position that will advantage them, politically.

Submitted by Howard Webber on

And as if the terrible situations that so many people find themselves in,(described so clearly in this article), aren't bad enough, worst still is the fact that so many are destined to be eternally lost for want of Christ.

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