The world as it should be, the world as it is and what each gets right and wrong

The shocking news about Sarah Everard’s disappearance has been in the news lately. Human remains have now been discovered and a serving police officer has been arrested on suspicion of kidnap and murder. Another woman has been arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender. I (and I suspect most of us) simply know so little about this case that it we are in no position to comment on any part of it. So, I am not going to do that here. Suffice to say, the whole thing is incredibly sad, as loss of life always is, but particularly so when it is at the hands of somebody else in such a heinous way.

The reason I raise the case, without wanting to comment on it specifically, is because of the other discussion that it has kicked off. Whenever these sort of things happen, particularly when women have been on their own and attacked, two camps very quickly form. On the one hand, there are those who immediately begin to suggest that the woman should have taken more care, been a bit more sensible, perhaps been wiser about where they were walking, how they were dressed and whether they should have been on their own. If only they had taken more precautions, they aver, perhaps things would have been different. On the other hand, there are those who insist that women should not have to take precautions and that the issue lies squarely with male behaviour. We wouldn’t, they insist, suggest that men shouldn’t go out on their own at night, or that they need to be more careful how they dress, so why do we do it to women? This is little more than victim blaming, they claim, and does not resolve the issue.

At the risk of upsetting absolutely everybody, I think both views get some things right but both miss something important. I should add, there is an asymmetry here. I am not saying both sides are equally right and equally wrong. I hope it will become clear which I think is predominantly right, but misses something important and which I think is predominantly wrong, but does land on a grain of truth that is worth noting. But I think there is a way to hold the true things from each camp together. What I suspect it comes down to is a desire to live in the world as it is, on the one hand, against a desire for things to be as they ought, on the other. One emphasises the reality of what is and seeks to offer – often clumsy and unhelpful – advice on how to navigate it. The other emphasises what should be and – though in many ways rightly – wants to address the problem, often overlooks the reality of how things nonetheless are.

So, when Harriet Harman insists on Times Radio, ‘Women should be entitled to walk in the street without fear and that’s why the case has sent such a shockwave. It’s a problem of men’s behaviour, not women’s behaviour’, she is right. The person who attacked Sarah Everard is the one at fault. She did not sin, or do anything wrong, by walking home on her own, at a particular time of night, dressed in any specific way. She is not the one at fault here. The only person at fault is the one who – so far as we can tell at this stage – kidnapped and murdered her. To suggest otherwise is rightly deemed victim blaming. The emphasis on trying to bring about a situation where women can safely walk the streets without fear of being hauled off and attacked is, without question, absolutely right and proper.

The other side of the discussion, those who insist that sensible precautions ought to be taken by the victim, goes wrong when it insists that somebody is somehow to blame for what happened if they didn’t (in the view of the person making the point) take the appropriate precautions. They are wrong to do so on two counts. First, because there are countless examples of women who did take the ‘appropriate precautions’ who still, nevertheless, find themselves attacked so it does not actually resolve the problem of itself. Second, it doesn’t change the fact that there is nothing wrong with walking home on your own, at night, dressed how you please whilst there is specifically something wrong with attacking people, whatever time of day it is and whoever they are. It places the emphasis of blame and the onus of responsibility on the person who hasn’t done anything wrong.

However, we shouldn’t discount where it lands on something true. When I leave my house, I lock my front door and I put on a burglar alarm. I might forget to do either of those things sometimes. If my house gets robbed, it’s not my fault that somebody broke in and stole my stuff. I haven’t done anything wrong and the person should rightly be brought to book for their actions. But most of us would say, despite the fact that we should be able to leave our doors unlocked and not need alarms to know our stuff is safe, it is nonetheless wise to take those preventative precautions because of the reality of the world we live in. The ultimate solution is not burglar alarms and locks – the ultimate solution lies in addressing the actions of burglars – and those who don’t take preventative measures are not at fault for burglaries that happen when they aren’t home. But given the world we live in, it makes some sense to lock our doors and turn on our alarms.

If you take some of the racial issues between black people and the police, many will tell you something similar plays out. Many black people take precautions when they are pulled over by the police, having done nothing wrong, because they know the reality of what may happen if they aren’t extremely careful. Now, it does not mean that the black person has done anything wrong if the situation escalates. The fault does not lie with the black person but with the issues of racial profiling, over-reactive police responses and systemic issues within the police force. So, that is the issue that needs to be addressed, not the response of a black person being pulled over for nothing. However, that doesn’t stop many black people from taking precautions and being careful when these things happen – not because they should have to (in reality, the should not have to) – but because the world as it is now means that if they don’t things escalate and they almost always end up the worse off.

The point then, is that there are two issues here. There is the world as it ought to be and the world as it really is. Both sides of this argument land hard on one or other of these things and, in doing so, overlook other important things. So, those who land hard on the world as it is, can tend to blame those who haven’t (in their view) taken adequate precautions despite the fact that the only person at fault is the one who has committed a crime. But those who land hard on the world as it should be overlook that we all respond to the way things are – even if we rightly insist things should be different and there are ways of making them different in time – we are foolish to ignore the realities of what might happen and to at least think about how we can minimise risk to ourselves under those circumstances.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic takes on a similar tension. There are those who insist we take precautions, and can be quick to blame those who get ill for not wearing masks and distancing. On the other hand, there are those who insist we shouldn’t have to have all these restrictions, our freedom is being curtailed and we shouldn’t blame people who get ill who simply want to live their life in a way we all agree we should be able under other circumstances. Interestingly, those arguing for precautions in this instance are often (but not always) the very opposite people insisting that taking precautions in the case of criminal activity is unreasonable. Likewise, those who argue for freedom from precautions in respect to covid are often (but not always) those who would see the need for precautions to avoid being the victim of crime. But even here, we are dealing with those who see the world we are in – and think precautions are necessary – and those who see the world as it should be and want us to act in line with that.

Whether we are discussing the reality of criminal activity or the existence of a virus, it is important to look and say this is not how the world should be and to seek to bring about a more equitable situation. There is nothing wrong with seeking to do whatever we deem appropriate to try to get us to a point where things should be as they ought. It is right to recognising that crime should not exist and think about how we might go about minimising it as an issue. It is right to recognise that victims of crime are not the ones at fault. It is right to recognise who is really at fault in any situation and to address time and attention to dealing with the problem, rather than putting the onus on victims to keep themselves safe. All of that is right and proper.

At the same time, it is sensible to understand the world as it is. Whilst it is wrong to blame victims of crime for the activities of criminals, and it is absolutely right to try and bring about a situation where they don’t have to fear or take precautions, until such a situation exists, encouraging precautions is wise. I would not blame any person – man or woman – in a town centre, late at night, on their own for being robbed of their cash. They are not at fault and the person who committed the crime is the only one who needs to be addressed as the problem. But that still doesn’t stop me suggesting that because the world is as it is right now, that person could minimise the risk of that happening by staying with a group of friends and keeping their wallet in a secure place. It’s not a guarantee they won’t be robbed, and it’s not always possible to do these things at any rate, but where you can, it is a sensible precaution that would lessen the risk. Again, that in no way says it’s their fault or they are the problem if something happens and they haven’t done those things. It is simply to acknowledge that the world is not as it ought to be and unless and until it is, these things might be helpful, even though they’re not fool proof.

When we were students in Liverpool, my now wife used to walk around parks and rough areas of the town at all hours of night without a thought. Should she have been free to do that? Absolutely. Should she be safe when she does that? Yes. Would she be at fault if anything happened? No. But was she safe doing that? Probably not as much as she thought at the time. Nobody was blaming her for the broken world we live in nor suggesting it’s her own fault if she gets attacked (she wasn’t, but some of my friends were). It is simply to acknowledge the world we live in and though we are not the problem, given that a problem which isn’t our fault exists, we might want to take some precautions to minimise the risk of it becoming a specific problem for us. Not because we are at fault if we don’t, but because it seems prudent regardless.

For Christians, I think it is important for us to hold both of these things in tension. It is important for us to see that the world is not how it is meant to be. W.B. Yeats said ‘there is a better world, but it is in this one’. Well, sort of. There is a better world, and will sort of be in this one, but it won’t be brought about until Christ returns to inaugurate his kingdom, establish the new heavens and new earth and make all things new. There is a better world to be had and there is a rightness in longing for it. Not only is it right to long for it, but it is eminently sensible to live in such a way that we will inherit it. Though we aren’t in the world as it should be yet, we trust in Christ now and seek to live faithfully to the praise of his glory because that is how the Lord establishes his kingdom. That is how God addresses the problems in the world. He sent Jesus to save his people and to defeat our enemies of sin and death and all their consequences. Looking to the world as it ought to be and making sure we are addressing the actual problem and finding a proper solution to where the issue really lies is vital.

At the same time, as Christians, we need to understand the world as it really is. There is a better world to come, but we aren’t in it yet. This world is blighted by sin and we need to learn to navigate it. Sin still exists, not just in the world, but in our own hearts too. We have to learn to live in the world as it really is, not just pretend that we live in world as it ought to be already. Though the only means of addressing our sin once and for all is in the person of Jesus, and a work of the Holy Spirit that will only be complete when we get to glory, because of the ongoing presence of sin, it is sensible for us to take precautions against it. We are justified sinners already – we are counted righteous, blameless and faultless in Christ. But we know the reality of the world as it is, and the existence of sin that remains despite being blameless in him, we nevertheless ought to rightly take precautions because of the sin that we know still exists.

It is important we recognise the world as it should be and hold it together with the world as it really is. We should recognise where faults really lie and seek solutions that address the problem rather than shifting the blame onto others and telling them to be more careful. At the same time, we need to recognise the world as it really is. Though it is not how it should be, and our solutions need to address where the real problems lie, we shouldn’t disparage the need for precautions because though things aren’t our fault, or as we would have them, it is the reality of the world until Christ returns to make it perfect and new.