There is a famous sketch in the first episode of the legendary British comedy show “That Mitchell and Webb Look”. Robert Webb and David Mitchell are dressed as NAZI SS soldiers. They appear to be in a secure position, awaiting Soviet forces that they intend to destroy. Mitchell’s character has noticed something however. “Have you looked at our caps recently? … The badges on our caps… have you looked at them… they’ve got skulls on them. … They’ve actually got little pictures of skulls on them.” After a pausing a second to ponder he asks the question that has been forming, “Hans, are we the baddies?” »
This sketch has become a go-to for many because of how it gets to the heart of one of the great ethical mysteries of our day. How is it that otherwise good people get caught up in systems of astonishing destruction? We look back at any number of historical scenarios and wonder, “Why did they not see that ‘just following orders’ wasn’t going to cut it?”
The only problem with the sketch is that it tempts us to believe that is a problem faced by other people, in other times and places, and that the question it poses is never posed to us.
The misery of need
Victor Hugo was walking to work on a cold morning in February 1846 when he saw a malnourished man arrested for stealing a loaf. He was so distressed by this scene that the memory of it lingered, mutated, and agitated itself into the pages of his next novel, one of the most beloved stories ever told. In Les Misérables he distils that scene in sparse prose and wraps it around the life of Jean Valjean:
A very hard winter came. Jean had no work. The family had no bread. No bread literally. Seven children! … [The baker] arrived in time to see an arm passed through a hole made by a blow from a fist, through the grating and the glass. The arm seized a loaf of bread and carried it off.
As most readers will know, for this crime Valjean is sentenced to five years of hard labour, and the fulfilment of that punishment is what drives the plot forward over 1,500 pages.
Hugo intended to rouse the society in which he lived to the injustices they ignored. The architectural description of bakeries is accurate — they were protected by metal railings because in times of hunger, desperate mobs tended to attack the businesses where food could be found. Back then, the forces of the state disregarded natural justice and sided with the powers-that-be, protecting the property-holding classes even if that sustained a mountain of human misery that reached up to the heavens.
Thankfully, our politics have progressed since then.
The moral simplicity of the housing crisis
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has been writing, researching, and lobbying about the present property crisis since its embryonic stage in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. In 2009, the Centre published a report on the dysfunctional housing system », which clearly articulated how the shift to viewing property as a commodity over a common good would lead to social disaster. The Working Notes dedicated to analysing the present government plan demonstrated conclusively how it was both morally and politically bankrupt ». Of course, all this time and for decades before the Centre even came into being, Peter McVerry has been battling the systemic injustice around housing in Ireland. It can be depressing work. The public discourse machine churns on, month-by-month, now trumpeting some apparent statistical improvement in the situation, then zeroing-in on some family who find themselves overnight in a Garda station, later lamenting when someone dies of exposure, as if that death came upon us like a rainstorm, out of our control, a tragic natural consequence of living in a fallen world.
Contrary to what many argue, while the details of policy will be complicated, the solution to this crisis is simple. Housing is an essential human need and a common good. It is part of the business of government to provide housing. Homelessness is aggravated by various factors including drug dependency or abusive relationships, but it is fundamentally caused by a lack of money. People are homeless because they do not have money for rent. Rents are high because the government has evacuated itself from its role in providing housing.
The homeless person is without a home not because they are a ne’er do well. They are just like you, but they cannot afford a home.
Humans need shelter. Families need homes. Since our society can provide housing for everyone, it is our collective responsibility to house everyone.
There are many complicated problems that justify the expense in training up moral theologians like myself. This is not that kind of problem. Christians, who worship the God who was without home, are straightforwardly in support of ensuring all their neighbours have a place to lay their head.
Housing is property
Ireland’s legal system offers robust protections for private property. The rights are enshrined in the Constitution, supported by legal precedent, and most importantly, assumed in culture. In this country, possession is more than 9/10ths of the law. Christians have a long investment in conversations about what it means to own a thing. The earliest accounts of the church in Acts 2 and 4 suggest that those who followed Jesus left concepts of property behind. This suspicion of individual ownership persisted through the centuries. This debate came to a head with the astonishing impact of St. Francis of Assisi and his followers. A complex philosophical framework developed around their practice of intentional poverty, such that the use of a thing was distinguished from the possession of a thing.
Informed by his Christian faith, when Victor Hugo saw that man dragged away by police, he did not see not a thief, he saw someone who was being robbed. If a person has a need to use something, and another person has possession of that thing but is not using it, natural justice clearly concludes in favour of those who need.
Thomas Aquinas made this argument most definitively ». He recognised the right to private property (which is not a universal conviction in the history of the church). He argued that private property encouraged responsible stewardship, social order, and communal peace. But this right to private property is not unconditional. When the need is “manifest and urgent” then “the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand.” Lest we remain confused, Thomas underlines this point:
… then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.
There are currently 9,891 homeless people in Ireland ». There are over 70,000 households » waiting for social housing, which means close to 200,000 people must be on those lists. Every council in the country is required to keep a register of vacant sites because in the midst of this dire crisis, there is a vast amount of property left idle » or allowed to run into dereliction.
When there is a manifest and urgent need for the use of a thing, and that thing lies idle, Christians cannot object to those in need taking possession and using the resources. To oppose that is to oppose natural justice.
In the modern era, the occupation of unused property has been a significant factor in successfully agitating for the provision of social housing. “Squatting” campaigns were influential in Dublin’s not-too-distant past, from the Dublin Housing Action Committee of the 1960s through to the Home Sweet Home occupation of Apollo House » at Christmas, 2016. By claiming that which is not being used, and putting it to the use that was intended, housing activists enact justice in a way that makes instinctive sense. Instead of sleeping rough, or in a dangerous hostel », or waiting to be placed in a homeless hub or a hotel, why not take an empty bed in an unused house?
Even if every 8-year-old in the country would weigh this moral calculation in a second before concluding that the squatters were in the right, the Irish Constitution strongly sides with the landlord who is choosing, for whatever personal reasons, to hold housing resources back from a society desperately in need of homes. (Interestingly, the 1936 Jesuit proposals for the constitutional clause on property explicitly qualified the right of property — “especially in land” — when it was being deployed so “as to injure the common good.” Much to the dismay of the Jesuits who were consulted, De Valera rejected this clause and adopted the much more libertarian interpretation we have today.)
Are we the baddies?
Last night, Tuesday September 11th, a group of men concealed beneath balaclavas disrupted a direct housing action at 34 North Frederick Street by the Take Back the City group. The as-yet-unidentified men, driving vehicles that were not registered in the State, were assisted by Gardaí who were also wearing face-obscuring masks. Six activists were detained in custody. Reports suggest at least four were hospitalised from injuries, including one person who it seems fell down a stairwell. The Gardaí, who used batons and pepper spray to support the unidentified masked men, insist that their practices were fully compliant with regulations.
While the balaclava-clad men appear to have violated the Private Security (Identity Badge) Regulations 2009 », there is little doubt that the law sides with the property owners, who have left the building vacant for three years. Patricia Ní Greil secured a court order » on August 28th to have the protestors removed. The law is satisfied by what occurred. Christians should have reason to question whether justice is so pleased.
/15 I’ve been told by the Garda press office that the public order unit were wearing “fire retardant face masks”, which are part of their uniform pic.twitter.com/2qCHC05qD6
— Jack Power (@jackpowerIT) September 11, 2018
All of us have experienced moments of moral epiphany when we come to see that we have unintentionally fallen, by habit or tradition or laziness, into supporting systems that are fundamentally unjust. The only reason that bakers do not still guard their establishments with fortifications is because we have collectively agreed to make desperate hunger (largely) a non-issue. Housing, like food, water, and freedom of conscience, is one of those essential cornerstones of existence that we must extend to all.
One suspects that last night some Gardaí went to bed feeling that Mitchell and Webb sketch a little too keenly. One hopes that as a society we do not allow this moment to be repackaged by the public discourse machine into another arid discussion about the personal career prospects of prominent politicians or the deficiencies of whoever we decide is this week’s scapegoat.
It turns out that almost 800 years after he was born, Thomas Aquinas remains as relevant as ever. The discussion about housing is stuck in a deadening cycle of spin and bluster. Perhaps the return of eviction scenes that recollect the worst excesses of British rule will shock us out of technocratic reveries. Our society awaits a moral epiphany like the one Victor Hugo endured. Those who are on top are getting richer and richer because those at the bottom and becoming poorer and poorer, and property is at the heart of that equation. We do not have to wear balaclavas to wonder if we are grouped among the baddies.