Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #16 - The new parable of “Mr Bates vs. The Post Office” - A thought for the day

January 20, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 16
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #16 - The new parable of “Mr Bates vs. The Post Office” - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


Let me begin by telling you a story with which some of you may already be familiar. It’s known as the parable of the persistent widow and is found in the Gospel of Luke, 18:1-5. Because it exhibits, what the Jesus Seminar describe as, “the kind of unconventional features that are characteristic of the parables Jesus told” (The Five Gospels, p. 368) many scholars feel — though none can be absolutely sure of this — that the story, or a something very close to it, really does originate with the historical Jesus, that radical, insightful, reforming Jewish teacher ,working in Roman occupied, first century Palestine.  

“In a certain city there was a certain judge who did not fear God and who had no concern for humankind. And there was a widow in that city, and she came to him saying, ‘Grant me justice over against my adversary.’ And for some time he would not; but thereafter he said within himself, ‘Though indeed I do not fear God, nor do I have any concern for humankind, I shall grant her justice simply because she bothers me, for fear that at the last she will entirely exhaust me with her visits’” (Trans. David Bentley Hart).

Given that, for well over a thousand years, European and North America culture’s religious and spiritual centre of gravity has been found in Jesus, it’s all too easy simply to assume that Jesus’ parables always offer us examples of timeless wisdom. But, inevitably, some two thousand years after they were uttered, not every element of every parable has proved to be timeless, and the past few weeks have served to remind me of two major problems with the parable of the persistent widow that means, sadly, it is, today, all too often obscuring an important truth to which we need urgently to wake up. 

The event that high-lit this for me was the public’s final waking-up to the story concerning the Post Office’s truly shocking, indeed criminal, behaviour over the course of 24 years, towards more than 900 postmasters upon whom a huge, unconscionable injustice was deliberately inflicted. Indeed, it is being called by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the most widespread miscarriage of justice they have ever seen. But even as this story was the proximate cause of me writing this piece for you, the same issue I rehearse here also concerns, for example, those caught up in the cover-up about the Hillsborough disaster, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal and the many, many other examples of failure in the social care sector. It also relates to matters that concern all of us directly at an everyday level, for example, when we find we have cause to complain about the extremely poor practices displayed by a company, or some other private or public sector service provider. Electricity companies forcibly fitting prepayment meters in vulnerable customers’ accommodation, or wrongly over-charging customers by massive amounts, are recent examples that have made it into the general public’s consciousness. 

The vital thing to see clearly about Jesus’ parable is that, for it to work, it relies upon living in a society in which a persistent complainant, with a real injustice to raise, can knock upon a real door, behind which is found a real person with some measure of real authority who, were they persuaded to open the real door, could actually help, and even if the help was only offered on the basis of simply wanting not to be exhausted any more by the complainant’s knocking, rather than any real love of humanity or desire for genuine justice to be done.

But, in our modern complaints systems, through which we must go to report an injustice that has been committed, we are discovering daily that the doors upon which we must knock today to complain about an injustice done — and these “doors” now include telephone helplines and online complaint systems — are no longer the real front doors of someone, like the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable, who has any real power and authority. Instead, these “doors” are part of a carefully constructed, massive defensive structure designed to ensure that the irritating sound of knocking made by a persistent widow will never, never reach the ears of the unjust judge. But, not only this, as we can now see that many modern complaints systems are now also deliberately weaponised, in the sense that they are designed to wear the widow down and give up, leaving the injustice unaddressed, rather than to wear down the unjust judge who must give up and grudgingly see justice done. The world of Jesus’ parable has, therefore, been turned upside down and, in today’s context, the widow’s persistent knocking has effectively been turned into a futile act of self-harm, as for years and years their unheard knocking merely leaves their fists bruised and bleeding, and their spirit and endurance broken.  

Secondly, it’s really important to see that the people behind these modern, defensive, faux front “doors” are, today, simply poorly paid call-handlers and technical staff who are forced to read to the widow from prepared scripts assuring her that things will be dealt with but who are then instructed to send her complaint endlessly round and round the aforementioned massive defensive structure, which, as I have already noted, is designed precisely to keep the widow’s persistent knocking for justice well away from the hearing of the unjust judge.

And, thirdly, we have to ask why the unjust judge is no longer behind the door upon which the widow is knocking? Well, it’s connected with the one element in this parable which is timeless, namely, that given the human condition, it turns out that many people who rise to positions of power and authority begin by being, or end up becoming, unjust. In Jesus’ theistic language, they become people who simply do not fear God and who have no concern for humankind. And, to quote Theresa May from the first pages (pp. 2-3) of her recent book “The Abuse of Power: Confronting injustice in public life” (Headline Publishing, London, 2023), they are people who are do not “use their power in the interests of the powerless, but rather to serve themselves or to protect the institutions to which they belonged.” And, as she makes abundantly clear, what she discovered in her job as Home Secretary (2010-16), and then as Prime Minister (2016-19), revealed to her the need to write a book “about the abuse of power and the injustices that can occur when the powerful abuse their position.”

This abuse of power is today powerfully seen in the massive defensive structures the modern versions of Jesus’ unjust judges have been allowed to build, behind which they can sit pretty and wholly unperturbed, perhaps in their comfy Eames chairs whilst sipping cocktails and looking out at their heated swimming pools, all well out of earshot of the widow’s persistent, and now self-harming, knocking.

Jesus’ parable has become unfit for purpose because the unjust judge and their likes today have learnt well from this story about how to create a world where it is now possible to dupe the widow, and all of us, into thinking that there still exist real doors upon which we can knock, behind which someone with real power and authority can hear, and can be persuaded to get justice done, even if in the end, it is only grudgingly done to stop all the racket.

We all need to wake up to the truth that, today, the parable of the individual, persistent widow doesn’t cut it any more, and neither does any parable of any persistent individual, whether they are postmasters or victims of the Hillsborough disaster, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower fire disaster or the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. None of them, as individuals, have managed to get justice anywhere near properly done.

In all recent cases, where some modest success in bringing about justice has occurred, it has only come about because of the solidarity displayed by a committed group of many persistent individuals, in the case of the Post Office scandal, in the form of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) who, working together with various legal representatives, and drawing on the work of various investigative journalists, finally began to get the story into the courts and out into the world. But remember, the Post Office scandal is only now more properly and fairly being addressed thanks to the fact that a further level of collaboration and solidarity was made with the documentary director and screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes, which resulted in the production of the TV docu-drama, “Mr Bates vs. The Post Office.”

Only such a large group of people, working persistently together over 24 years, has succeeded in pounding on the door of the massive defensive structure so loudly and effectively that they not only succeeded in waking up the far-away, unjust judges who, in this case, are the Post Office and Fujitsu executives, but also, at last, the British Government which, of course, owns the whole company.

In short, I think we need gently, but urgently, to let go of Jesus’ parable of the individual, persistent widow, and see the need of taking up the lesson of the new parable of persistent collective action that we find so movingly told in “Mr Bates vs. The Post Office.” 

Let those with ears hear; those with eyes, see.