The View from Below: Be the Change You Want to See

by Sam Tomlin

Ghandi’s statement (as per the title), so often quoted in inspirational talks, was spoken from a position of authority. His leadership (and consequent ‘authority’ to speak) of the resistance movement in India came not from an inherited status or acquired through material wealth, but the life he lived, which people were attracted to and wanted to follow after. He was the change that he wanted to see in the world.

Growing up in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of my city and attending a prestigious and competitive school, I have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might call the view from ‘above’ (expanded later). Opportunity in life for me, was not limited. Yet at 15 years old, through the study of the Communist system and history, I was awoken to the fact that, there was/is not simply inequality in the world, but such gut-wrenchingly vast, deep and unresolved material, educational and gender inequality, I couldn’t quite take it all in.

I believe this meant two quite important things, which today, I am only just beginning to grasp. Firstly, and quite evidently I had been quite sheltered from the reality of life for those who didn’t enjoy the same privileges as me. Secondly, it meant that when I started preaching from my book of social justice over the coming years, my critique, as well as sounding rather hypocritical, lacked basic understanding of the nature of what I was talking about.

An American thinker & activist I have great admiration for once said, ‘My best critique of what is going on of what is wrong in the world is the practice of something better; you can be moral, but still not truly alive’, which essentially is the same quote as that of Ghandi, but I like the way he uses the word critique. I wrote many ‘critiques’ at university in my various essays, I write letters of critique to my MP about issues I am passionate about, I love to critique the opinions and viewpoints of my conservative friends; but a life of critique of the what we believe is evil in the world (or flipped upside down – a life of celebration of what we believe to be good, true, building for justice and peace) will have a hundred times the impact, I think, our words ever will. Not only on those we want to bring round to our perspective, but on our own experience and journey in life.

Does this mean it’s wrong to be in power, to be a politician, an opinion former in society? Of course not. We need people fighting for justice ‘within’ the system; what I am saying is that by doing both – standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed in Parliament, in the courts, in conversations in the pub(!) will have more authority when people can see that it makes a difference in our lives.

In my opinion, one key way to do this is where you choose to live (if indeed you do have the luxury of being able to choose). Having moved to Wood Green in Haringey about a year and a half ago, I have come to realise the extent of my ignorance of the reality of life for the people I claimed to stand for. Patterns of life for those without work, on benefits, broken families, drug addicts are simply beyond anything I will ever truly understand. However, slowly, as I engage with the community around me, these terms, I hope, are ceasing to simply be words I hear in the political arena, but an everyday reality which I see before me, something which gives me even greater impetus to fight. I make mistakes and still say stupid things and read situations terribly badly, but at least I can be corrected by people who really know what they’re talking about rather than the detached, ivory-tower of an Oxford pub.

I want to finish with a quote of a personal hero of mine (which incidentally many believe to have started the movement of Liberation Theology in South America, of which I am a great adherent), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, at the time of writing was sitting in a German jail in 1943 after attempting to help Jews escape the Holocaust. He was killed by hanging less than 2 years later. He entitled it, ‘The view from below’:

There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is that neither bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.

My words to any progressive justice-fighter. If you’re not already there, come and move to Tottenham, Peckham, Shadwell, inner-city Burnley, to Palestine, to Zambia. More to the point perhaps, it’s a lot more fun that way, and a revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having!

  1. Daniel Adams said:

    Small correction, not of major importance. But Bonhoeffer wrote ‘The view from below’ at Christmas 1942, as part of an essay entitled ‘After Ten Years’, which was sent to his friends and co-conspirators as a New Years reflection. (strangely enough Bonhoeffer did not include it in the final text of ‘After Ten Years’. But it was first published in the second edition of the new version of ‘Letters and Papers from Prison [1967]). It was written just a few months before he was arrested and imprisoned, rather than while he was in Tegel prison. But none the less it does in many ways prophetically prefigure his lived experience of imprisonment, and his theological outlook on life. Truly inspiring and all the more difficult to actual live out.

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