The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

I’ve been reminded today of Ursula LeGuin’s brilliant short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (from “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”). While I strongly recommend that you read the actual story, it tells of a land where everyone is happy and well provided for – except one poor, retarded child, kept in appalling conditions and never to be spoken to kindly (if at all), a child who, moreover, once knew happiness and a loving family. The thesis is that the happiness and prosperity of the rest of the citizens is entirely dependent on the misery of that child; it is absolutely necessary for it to continue that the child be kept miserable. Adolescents are, at a certain age, shown the child, and the reason for keeping it so. Some of them, at that point, start walking, and walk all the way out of Omelas – presumably to another land which is far less attractive than is Omelas; others reach adulthood and, eventually, reach the same point and start walking.

There is a conservative interpretation of “the poor will always be with us”, which argues that it is inevitable in our society that some will be poor. This is, indeed, the inevitable end-point of neoliberal economics – there are going to be winners and losers, and a certain viewpoint argues that the losers need to be destitute in order to provide the appropriate incentive for people to strive to be winners. Indeed, that viewpoint is inclined to imitate the imperative in Omelas never to speak a kind word to the child, and label the unsuccessful as “shirkers”, “freeloaders”, “layabouts”, “parasites” or “deadbeats”. No doubt you can add several other pejorative expressions, particularly if you read some of the tabloid press.

Added to that, there is such paranoia at the idea that someone might just possibly get something they are “not entitled to” that those claiming benefits are made to feel like garbage (and probably criminal garbage) just for claiming, and people are removed from benefits for trivial reasons – or no good reason at all. Not a few of them are then so desperate that they take their own lives. Others end up living on the street…

If that is indeed the society in which I live, I want to walk away from it. Even if, which I do not believe, the poor did “deserve” their fate, I cannot be like Thomas Aquinas, who wrote Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

It is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity, in which grace (entirely undeserved benefits) is key, and God provides whether or not we toil or spin. We are, as Teresa de Avila remarked, the hands of Christ in the world. How can we not, communally, look after the least in our society?

The bad news, perhaps, is that there is nowhere to walk to. Globalism is ensuring that neoliberalism is everywhere.

The good news, the gospel, if you like, is that unlike Omelas, our society doesn’t have to be like this. We can be Christ’s hands, and feet, and body, and together makes something better.

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