Posted by: Dan | October 18, 2015

“How can I be healthy, when I’m already dead?” Confronting the dominance of the medical model within social services, with an oppression-informed analysis

[What follows is the transcript of the material I tried to present at a conference called Streetlevel.  It’s a conference for people working in social services that are rooted in the Christian faith.  As you will see in what follows, I see this as an highly problematical endeavour.  However, given the audience and given my own background in textual criticism, especially in relation to the New Testament, I found it useful to use language, stories, and characters familiar to the audience in order to try and make some of my points.]

“How can I be healthy, when I’m already dead?”  Confronting the dominance of the medical model within social services, with an oppression-informed analysis


I will begin by recognizing that I am speaking while occupying land that Creator has gifted to the keeping of the Anishinaabe and shared with the Haudenosaunee and Lenape.  I lift my hands to these caretakers of the land and thank them for allowing people like me to live, work, play, and settle in their territories beside the Askunessippi and all across Turtle Island.  As a Settler, I benefit from the ongoing project of Settler colonialism as it plays out in the occupied territories named “Canada” on the maps we learned in school (maps that no longer show European colonies like Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo or Spanish Guinea, but which continue to show Canada).  In these territories, more than six hundred Indigenous nations have been the target of genocidal practices and policies from before independence up until the present day.  In all of this, the government of Canada, the Christian churches, the charities, and all the settlers and citizens of the nation, have been implicated.  Indeed, it is necessary to acknowledge from the beginning that as a white male settler of Christian European descent, I am a beneficiary of the genocidal process of colonization that has secured for me legal rights, access to wealth and education, and political and social status.  So, it is with a sense of my own liability and responsibility that I express my thanksgiving and lift my hands to the caretakers of the land I occupy. Chi-miigwetch.

In light of this history of genocide, so tightly woven together with the history of Christianity, it is often difficult to think or speak of God, and just as difficult to think about prayer.  However, I want to open with a prayer I learned from an elder in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.  After sharing some of his story of surviving in a Christian-run residential school, a student in a class I was helping to lead asked this elder what he now thought of God.  The student was doing what I have seen lots of Christians do – she was struggling to really hear this story of abuse, to see how it was intimately linked to Christianity, and to then respond in a manner that genuinely sought to enter into communion with the man sharing.  It seemed as though she was more upset by the idea that a person may have drifted away from the Christian God because of this experience (because she was convinced that Jesus Christ was not represented but misrepresented in residential schools and that the people who did such horrible things were not really Christians, even though they called themselves Christians). She was wanted to highlight the importance of maintaining a sense of one’s relationship with the Christian God.  She was, in other words, trying to be both sensitive and missional (these two characteristics will come up a lot in what follows).  In response to this line of questioning, the elder was very gracious.  He did not say too much but he did say that there was a prayer that he learned from one of his elders.  This was a prayer he could still pray.  It is one I can still pray, too, and I will pray it now:

Creator, may this day be good.

Introduction: “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Why Ideology Matters

In this workshop, I want us to think about how we see things.  I want us to think about why some things appear good to us, while other things appear to be bad.  I want us to think about why some things appear obvious to us, while other things appear to be more ambiguous.  Why do some things appear to us as natural, while other things appear to be unnatural, perverse, artificial, or contrived?

As we think about how we see what we see, it is important to remember that seeing is something we are taught to do.  For example, what do you see in this picture?

Smooth Sumac

[Here, in response, people say that they see a tree.  We discuss how we know this is a tree.  I then point out that this is not, in fact, a tree but is actually a shrub.[1]   We have now been taught a new way to see the central item in the picture.  Some people also identify this item as a plant, regardless of if it is a tree or shrub.  Conversation ensues demonstrating that we also call some things plants because we are taught to call those things plants.]

So, we see what we see because we have been taught to see those things.  To pick another example, let’s say I see a married couple sharing a kiss in the park while the sun sets.  Does that look like a good thing to me?  What if the married couple is composed of two men?  Does that look like a bad thing to me? We have to learn to see things, and this learning is something always passed on to us from others.

We are taught the names for things from the time we are born, and these names include not only names like “tree” and “bench” and “sunset” but also names like “good” and “bad,” “natural,” and “perverse.”  However, there are often different, competing, contradicting, and overlapping ways of seeing the same thing.  Where we come from, what voices and perspectives dominant our environment, and what voices we consider to be authoritative, are able to influence us so much that certain ways of seeing appear more obvious, plain, or natural to us than others.  This is why Slavoj Žižek says that nature is nothing but ideology operating at its finest (ideology, after all, is just a fancy word people use to talk about ways of seeing).  What Žižek  means by this is that we are taught to see some things as natural and other things as things that are made by people, but this very distinction between nature and not-nature, is one that is made by people.  So nature, itself, is ideology, and whatever feels natural or appears natural to us, reveals the ideology that has must successfully shaped the way in which we see the world.

In other words, from the day we are born until the day we die, we are all given glasses to wear.  These glasses are the words we are taught to use in relationship to the world.  The prescription of your glasses depends upon the context in which you are born and grow up and live.  We often misunderstand and talk past each other because looking at the world through another person’s glasses can make everything look fuzzy and blurry, and can result in feelings of nausea and dizziness.  Consequently, we try to join together with others who have the same prescription we have in order to reassure ourselves that we see things the right way.

So, seeing is something we are taught to do, and what we see is always contested.  However, at any given historical moment, a specific way of seeing may come to dominate a particular field.  Dominance comes about through a process of struggle, negotiation, and conquest.  Orthodox Christianity is a good example of this.  There has never been a single Christianity.  There have ever only been competing, contesting, overlapping, and contradicting Christianities.  We see that already in the letters of Paul in the New Testament – whether he’s arguing against Cephas and the faction of leaders from Jerusalem when writing to Galatians, or whether he’s arguing against so-called “Super Apostles” in Corinth, what we see is that there is a lot of conflict and disagreement regarding what is or is not a critical belief, action, or way of seeing, for people who claim to be members of this group.  Whatever form of Christianity comes to dominate the others, usually has a lot to do with who is connected to people with money, wealth, power, and more advanced military technology.  Augustine, for example, helped to shape what is now considered orthodox Christianity because he was connected with the imperial court so he was able to both silence and kill his enemies.  Although, of course, first he taught people to see his enemies as “heretics” or “enemies of Christ” or “public security threats” which made killing them, and erasing their version of events from history, that much easier.  So it goes with the history of orthodox Christianity.

But there are many kinds of orthodoxies, not just those that are explicitly related to religious creeds, and the orthodoxy we are going to explore today is the one that dominates how we view poverty and homelessness.  A medical perspective has come to dominate social services that are engaging with people experiencing poverty and homelessness.  People now see poverty and homelessness as community or public health concerns.  For example, when you look at the following pictures, do you think you see a contrast between a wicked person who has become good, or between a person a sick person who has gotten healthy?

What do you see?

What do you see?

A formerly bad person who has become a good person?

A formerly bad person who has become a good person?

A formerly sick person (mentally ill? physically ill? both?) who has become a healthy person?

A formerly sick person (mentally ill? physically ill? both?) who has become a healthy person?

Bad to good? Sick to healhty?

Bad to good? Sick to healhty?

Seeing these people as sick people, perhaps mentally ill, perhaps physically ill, perhaps both, who have now recovered or are in recovery, is probably a common reaction in this room.  However, I want us to stop and think why we are being taught to see things in this way.  In fact, as will become obvious, I think it is a very troubling and problematical to view poverty and homelessness as community or public health issues.  However, I also don’t want to return to a traditional Christian social service perspective on these matters.  I think that approach is also problematical and actually follows the same trajectories and goals as the medical model.  For example, let’s look at the pictures we just saw, think about all the makeovers we have celebrated in our work, and include some pictures from other makeovers.

What do you see now?

What do you see now?

Bad to good?

Bad to good?

Sick to healthy?

Sick to healthy?

Savage to civilized?

Savage to civilized?

It is remarkable how much these residential school makeover pictures resemble the before and after pictures we celebrate of people who experience homelessness and come out the other side.  They look identical.  Isn’t this disconcerting?

Here, I am reminded of the words of Mary Douglas: “Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds.”[2]  And I think it wounds, in part, because it does not see well.  In many ways, we are like the blind man from Bethsaida Jesus heals in Mark 8.  When the blind man asks Jesus to heal him, Jesus spits in his eyes and asks him what he sees, “I see people as trees walking,” is the man’s reply.  It is only after a second touch that the man sees more clearly.  I think Christian social services are mostly at the trees walking stage of seeing.  I want to propose another (better) way of seeing – a way informed by an analysis that takes oppression very seriously as a core component of poverty and homelessness.  This way of seeing then opens the door to another way of acting and of being in relationships with others.  Because how we see impacts what we do.  For example, if I look down an alleyway at night and see an evil man, I will act one way.

If I look down that same alleyway and see an abandoned child, I will act another way.

And if I look again down that alley at night and see somebody who has been shot, and realize I am holding a smoking gun, I will act in a third way.

All of these ways of seeing, are ways in which people see those who experience poverty and homelessness.

Consequently, in this workshop, we will begin by looking at the medical perspective as it relates to social services engaging with poverty and homelessness – how it rose to dominance, what it entails, and what it neglects – before drawing on Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4 to explore an oppression-informed perspective.  I will then conclude with some reflections on what that might mean for us in the work that we do.  And here, it is worth considering, one more set of before and after pictures.

Jesus before...

Jesus before…

Jesus after.

Jesus after.

This is quite a different kind of makeover, isn’t it?

Part 1: “Stop resisting, we’re doing this for your own good!” Maintaining the Right to Other Peoples’ Bodies

(1A) A Crisis in Justified Enforcement: From Religion to Health Care

When considering the rise of the medical model and the spread of the language of community or public health, the first thing to realize is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Medicine used to be practiced very differently, health and sickness used to be understood and prioritized very differently, and those concerned with such things used to have a much lower and much less influential place within society.  So, what happened?  How did the discursive practices of health care come to dominate all others?

What happened was this: from the Renaissance onward, there were dramatic shifts within Western societies.  Science, empiricism, and rationalism, confronted the worldview provided by the dominant forms of Christianity.  This confrontation created a crisis in authority for those who were able to legitimately wield force over others within society.

For example, during the Inquisition, deviant or threatening groups or individuals could be classified as witches and as heretics and then force could be legitimately brought to bear upon their bodies – they could be tortured or killed or both – and this right of some people to act in violent and dominating manner towards other people, was justified by the Roman Catholic way of seeing that was widespread at that time.  Similarly, on the Protestant side of things, people like Martin Luther could urge the German princes to mercilessly slaughter any peasants who dared to challenge the authority of those princes, because, according to the Lutheran way of seeing, the  authority of the princes was aligned with the authority of God.  To speak or act out against them, was to speak or act out against God and was a crime that merited death.  Consequently, what was essentially a popular uprising of an oppressed and exploited people was crushed with divine blessing and plenty of reference to Romans 13, as Luther urged the princes to “stab, smite, slay whoever you can.”[3]

The dawning of the age of scientific reason, created a crisis for those who had used religious discourses to justify the use of force against others.  If deviant people are not witches, heretics, and sinners, by what right can those in centralized places of power use force in order to ensure that the trajectory of the status quo continues to be structured around meeting their needs and further entrenching their access to power, wealth, status, influence, land and property?  Force can always be used by people with the means to act forcefully – anyone with a knife or gun or cage can use it to harm the body of another person – but how can the use of force be justified and be made to appear to the rest of society as right, appropriate, and acceptable?  With the decline of religion and the rise of reason, something of a vacuum of legitimacy appears.

Over time, one of the consequences of this move away from a religious or Christian worldview, is a shift in the group of people who are at the hub of centralized power within society.  Ultimately, the decline of religion leads to a decline in the legitimacy to rule claimed by monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats.  This creates the space for another group to make a move to rule.  The group that rises to power is the capitalist class – the elite members of the bourgeoisie.  Technological advances, both in the production and transportation of goods, allowed this group to gain and hoard vast amounts of wealth.  Wealth, paired with the collapse of the belief that hierarchies on earth mirrored hierarchies in heaven, allowed the capitalists to take charge of or create new central institutions of power.  Hence, Christendom is replaced by the nation state, the aristocracy is replaced by the capitalists, and blood is conquered by money.

However, a vacuum related to justifying the use of force over others also appears here.  The propertied classes are keen to hold onto all the money, goods, and land they accumulate thanks to their ability to exploit the labour and lives of others.  People who are exploited, however, tend to feel differently about things.  Force becomes necessary in order to maintain this arrangement.  However, saying, “I have the most money so I am justified in using the most force” is not a justification that gets a lot of widespread credibility. Something different is needed in order to fill the vacuum created by the decline of religion and the rise of capitalism.  It is this vacuum that is filled by the rise of medicine and the discourse of public health.

In order to understand how this works, it’s useful to provide a brief history of the notion of mental illness.  In this section, I will briefly summarize Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, while simultaneously drawing on Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness by Peter Conrad and Joseph W. Schneider.  As we survey this history, it is critical that we reflect upon our own experience within social services.  How much to our institutions mirror the values, trajectories, and structures, of the institutions that we discover here?

Western society is unique in understanding “madness” to be “mental illness.”[4]  How did this come about and what are the implications of this?  Foucault argues that with the rise of reason during the Renaissance, cultural values shifted away from Christian virtues, and behaviour that was previously classified as sinful came to be seen as “folly” or a “great unreason.”[5]  Here, as continues to be the case over the years, we see behaviours that were already classified as deviant being reclassified as sickness – illness, in other words, follows after a predetermined badness and negative evaluations of behaviour precede any explanations of that behaviour.[6]

With sin reclassified as folly, institutions of confinement are built by the mid-1600s to house any who are considered mad or fools.  These institutions would grow so large that in Paris, for example, 1 out of 100 people ended up being confined at some point.  Niether hospitals nor prisons, these houses of confinement threw together the unemployed, criminals, people experiencing poverty, libertines, beggars, idlers, and people considered mad.[7]  However, the primary markers of madness were poverty, unemployment, and idleness.

It was important to the emergent capitalist class that the focus be on associating madness with these characteristics.  Because their rise to power required an easily exploitable and docile base of workers (the proletariat), it was necessary to ensure that work remained both possible and necessary for those who could not live without it.[8]  Beggars, idlers, paupers and the abjectly poor (the lumpenproletariat) were seen as embodying a threatening alternative to this.  Previously, cities had tried to address this threat by using force to expel beggars, idlers, and the unemployed but this approach led to violent, popular uprisings.  A more effective approach was needed. Reclassifying those who could not or would not work as mad was more conducive to the exercise of force over deviants.  People were reclassified as mad, and so they were housed and fed – since their madness turned them, by definition, into dependents who couldn’t care for themselves – but they were also deprived of freedom and the institutions that housed them, also forced them to work.[9]  Consequently, those who demonstrated an adequate work ethic while staying in these institutions, were considered sane and permitted to return to society.

Here, the mad person is not yet considered sick.  He or she is considered more like an animal, controlled by passions.  However, fear began to spread that such people were contagious.  People were afraid to live close to the institutions housing the mad lest they also become infected. A reorganization took place to address those fears – those who could work were sent to workhouses or back to society, those who were criminals were sent to prisons, and those who were mad were sent to the insane asylum and placed under the control of doctors.  They were isolated, not for their own well-being, but because it was feared that their madness would spread to the working poor and to the criminals.  This reorganization came along with the realization that poor people – paupers – were actually beneficial to the wealth of nations and of capitalists as they allowed a rotating labour pool and could be used to keep workers in line – if workers threatened a strike, or asked for a greater share in the profits of their labour, they could be replaced from a standing reserve of people experiencing poverty who wanted to work but could not.  Consequently, people experiencing poverty were reintegrated into society as people experiencing poverty and were then maintained by charity in order to function as an ongoing threat to any kind of organized labour.[10]  The abjectly poor, in other words, become a useful tool for disciplining the working poor.

Within the insane asylum itself, the cure for madness continued to be seen as having patients accept the morals, values, and priorities of bourgeois society.  The focus remains on teaching patients to accept obedience, work, and the value of property.  Sanity comes with learning to judge things in the same way as everyone else, and developing the same habits as everyone else.[11]

Much of this trajectory continues until the 20th-century when major developments in psychotropic medications increase compliance in deviant groups without, simultaneously, severely limiting the functionality of members of those groups.[13]  The (no longer mad or insane but) mentally ill, then, no longer need to be isolated but can continue to fit within the trajectory and values of the status quo and can fulfill their role within it, as long as they continue to take their medication.  However, class interests continue to prevail.  Members of lower classes are more likely to be diagnosed and described as “psychotic” and confined, whereas members of the upper classes are more likely to be diagnosed as “neurotic” and receive psychotherapy.[14]  Furthermore, the more members of a higher class exhibit problematical behaviours, to more likely that cluster of behaviours are to be identified as symptoms of an illness.  The more members of lower classes engage in behavoiurs that are not mirrored by higher classes, the more likely those clusters of behaviours are to be identified as criminal activity or badness.  On average, people experiencing poverty who are diagnosed as mentally ill, tend to be seen as a threat to others, people experiencing wealth who are diagnosed as mentally ill, tend to be seen as nonthreatening, and simply working through a process of self-discovery which, itself, speaks to their more enlightened state of being.

However, this shift in the location of those who are mentally ill – from institutions to the community – has led to a massive expansion in community based mental health programs, which now play a critical role in the maintenance of the social order.  As Conrad and Schneider observe: “Virtually any human problem [can] be addressed by community psychiatry and… through the lens of the medical model.”[15]  A remarkable shift in the definition of “health” has been a critical component of this expansion.  Previously, health was defined as “the absence of disease” but now health is understood as relating to a comprehensive list of biopsychosocial determinants.  The World Health Organization is clear about this: “health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” and health includes “healthy or unhealthy behaviours.”[16]  Essentially anything can be considered a health determinant.  The medical model is now distributed through all areas of life – it has successfully replaced religion as the moral compass of society and the tool by which force can be brought to bear on the lives and bodies of the general population at anytime, anywhere.[18]

This infusion of the medical model into all areas of society is also very profitable for a good many of the elite members of the upper classes.  “Medicalization increases directly with its economic profitability.”[19]  Tracing the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM, commonly referred to as the Bible of psychiatry) illustrates this.  In 1952, when the DSM was first published,106 disorders were identified. In the current version of the  DSM, the DSM-5, over 300 disorders are mentioned.  Nearly 70% of the professionals who prepared the DSM-5 have significant financial ties to pharmaceutical companies (up from the 57% who revised the DSM-IV).[20]  The Chair of the DSM-5 task force, had previously worked as a consultant for Novartis, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson and a host of other pharmaceutical related companies and organizations.[21]  Hence, Allen Frances, the former chairperson of the DSM-IV task force, stated that the DSM-V would be a “bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry.”[22]  (Additionally, updating the DSM is a profitable exercise and it is estimated that the American Psychiatric Assocation made $100,000,000 from sales of the DSM-IV, given that it is a required text for many counselors, schools, lawyers, and others.)

So we now live in the highly profitable world of health care.  What does one discover here?  Well, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, we discover that 20% of Canadians will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives, and that 100% of Canadians will be impacted in some way due to mental illness in society.[23]  However, class and distributions of money, land, and power, continue to matter a great deal.  The closer one is to the central hubs of power – the richer, better educated, more connected, and privileged one is – the more likely one is to be healthy.  As one Canadian report emphasises: “Being poor is in itself a health hazard; worse, however, is being urban and poor.”[24]  Hence, civil authorities now speak about “curing homelessness” and treating poverty as a community or public health concern.

However, we must remember that what is often being medicalized and treated is deviance – i.e. “behavior that is negatively defined or condemned in our society.”[27]  Previously, immoral, sinful, or criminal behaviour, has been reclassified as sickness.  Deviance has been redefined in this way because the people and institutions at the centre of power and wealth have shifted, but what has not shifted is the way in which these people are able to impose their categories of condemnation and negative judgement onto others and onto the whole of society. The medicalization of deviance, leads to the use of medicine, treatment, or health care, as a form of social control.[29]  It is a handy tool because the medical model claims to be rooted in the objectivity of science, reason, and evidence-based studies, and so the fact that moral decisions, judgments and violent or coercive actions are being made and taken is often masked by the discourse.[30]

Not only that, but the morality associated with health care is one that is deeply committed to the maintenance of the trajectory of the status quo and current distributions of power, wealth, land, and property.  Illness is considered deviance because it threatens the stability of the social system, especially because of the manner in which it impacts a person’s ability to perform the role assigned to him or her within that system.[31]  Conrad and Joseph do a great job of showing how this unfolds in relation to things like things like alcoholism, drug use, and homosexuality.  In light of their studies, they conclude that: “Criminals are punished with the goal of altering their behavior in the direction of conventionality; sick people are treated with the goal of altering the conditions that prevent their conventionality.”[32]  Hence, health-based interventions aim at “returning sick individuals to compliance with health norms and to their conventional social roles, adjusting them to new (e.g. impaired) roles.”[33]  One of the consequences of this focus on conventionality and understanding one’s proper place within the status quo is that there are now right and wrong ways to be sick.  If a person is sick the right way – i.e. if one recognizes that one is sick, if one takes responsibility for getting well, if one sees that being sick is undesirable and tries to recover, if one agrees to seek out and cooperate with a treatment or recovery plan assigned by the officially recognized authority  – then that person is exempted from normal responsibilities and expectations for a set period of time.[34]  However, if a person is sick in the wrong way, if he or she does not see it as a priority to spend most of his or her waking hours working a bullshit job in order to give money to a landlord to rent a shithole apartment in a house he or she will never afford to own, and if the sick person does not cooperate with the parties assigned to help him or her attain these goals – refusing to express remorse for his or sickness, refusing to take responsibility for his or her situation, and refusing to express gratitude to the parties who line up to get him or her back on track – then the sick person can expect to be punished – dropped by social workers, discharged from shelters, targeted by police officers in public spaces and by security guards in corporate spaces, and likely institutionalized in jails or psychiatric wards.

(1B) Health Care: Surveillance, Discipline, Compliance

So far we have traced how health care and the discourse of community or public health has replaced religion as the primary socially acceptable tool employed by centrally located institutions and individuals to exert force over the bodies and living situations of others.  I have also asserted that this discourse it brought to bear especially heavily upon populations that are judged to be deviant – amongst whom, people experiencing poverty, unemployment, and homelessness are especially prominent.  In this section, I want to talk about the importance of surveillance to this model and within our workplaces.  As we shall see, surveillance is an excellent tool for disciplining deviance and for producing compliance.  To normalize a certain way of seeing – let’s call this way of seeing “the medical gaze” – helps to make it invisible and ubiquitous.  This works to provide the medical gaze with access to everything, and produces people who view themselves through the lenses of this gaze.  In order to discuss this gaze and the rise of surveillance, I want to outline two more texts by Foucault: The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.  We will then engage in a group exercise that explores the all-encompassing surveillance that is taken for granted within social services.

In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault talks about how the appearance of medical clinics, from the French Revolution onward, changed the ways in which medicine was practiced and the ways in which people chose to view themselves and others.  With the birth of the clinic, a medical gaze emerges that views people as individual and unique collections of symptoms – the individual becomes, in Foucault’s words, “the portrait of the disease… the disease itself.”[35]  Hence, managing disease, especially epidemics, was as much about managing people and social spaces as it was about treating illness.[36]  From the beginning, the role of the clinical doctor was always a political role and in its initial stages in Europe, there was a dream of replacing all the clergy with doctors in order to cure society.  This is a political task because, to be cured, people must be liberated.[37]  To be liberated, certain (unhealthy) ways of life must be condemned and certain other standards of living must be normalized.[38]  Consequently, it is the medical gaze that establishes these standards and the truths which are used to justify them.

One of the first outworkings of this was that doctors in France were put in charge of aiding people experiencing poverty and it was the medical gaze that judged who deserved assistance and who did not.[39]  At the same time, doctors in Germany proposed the creation of a medical police who would supervise the health and hygiene of the general population and pay special attention to deviant activities like sex work.[40]  Furthermore, in order to advance the knowledge associated with this gaze, public hospitals – which at that time were largely only frequented by people experiencing poverty – were used as areas of research and experimentation.  Because the people treated there were too poor to pay for treatment, they were expected to accept such experimentation, observation and objectification with gratitude.[41]  The rich who funded these hospitals were told that the knowledge gained by testing things out on the poor would be used to their own benefit, and could possibly produce the cures they would need at some point in life.[42]

Hence, the medical gaze both discovers and destroys – it is a “purified purifying gaze.[43]  It determines what is essential, it illuminates what is obscure, and through saying what it sees, it engages in a “seizure of being.”[44]  It lays claim to all that we are, and disease goes from being viewed as something inserted into the body to being the body itself.[45]  As a part of who we are, disease is hooked onto life itself, feeding on it, and sharing in it – life has become pathological life.[46]  Hence, we all appear as individual patients and the unique seat of the disease that are a part of us.

A few things are worth emphasizing here: First, health care is dominated by a gaze that transforms a person into an individualized and objectified seat of disease.  Second, although disease is largely depoliticized and removed from socioeconomic and political contexts, this gaze itself is highly political and has always had a strong interest in exploiting and controlling people experiencing poverty to meet the interests of people experiencing wealth. Third, because the individual is the seat of the disease – because the individual is the disease itself – it is the diseased individual who becomes the threat to the status quo.  Consequently, the medical gaze is focused heavily upon the diseased person, who is deviant precisely because he or she is labeled as diseased.  Everything about that person must be brought into the light, seen, examined, and purified.  Surveillance becomes an essential component of health care.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault focuses much more on surveillance and how it is an excellent tool for controlling deviance.  He engages in this study by examining the rise of prisons.  Prior to the rise of prisons, the public spectacle of torture (cutting off hands or heads or other acts of torture performed in the public square) was used to reveal the truth of crime – it marked the body of the criminal in a way that fit the crime and it also reconstituted the injured sovereign (who was injured by the breaking of the law).[49]  As a public act, people are called upon to act as witnesses and guarantors of the full force of the righteous wrath of the sovereign.[50]However, this was not an ideal exercise of power.  Often the public spectacle of torture resulted in a carnivalesque reversal of values, leading criminals to be treated as heroes and resulting in violent uprisings.[51]  These reversals, paired with shifts in sovereignty – as the aristocracy gave way to the elite members of the bourgeoisie – created a need for a better tool to produce compliance groups that were perceived as potential threats.  Hence, prisons were created not to “punish less” but in order to try and “punish better.”[52]

Much of the focus in changes in criminal codes and incarceration was upon people experiencing poverty (is anybody surprised by this at this point?).  The bourgeoisie were especially concerned with maintaining their property and those who did not have enough to survive, who previously could fly under the radar by committing small property related crimes (which, in many ways, were taken for granted within feudalism), were now confronted with the full force of the law.[53]  Punishment becomes oriented around defending society rather than exhibiting the vengeance of the sovereign.[54]  Hence, the guilty person moves from being made into a public spectacle, to being removed from society in order to be reeducated and corrected.[55]  (This is why, even today, the federal prison system is called Corrections Canada.)  Within the prison, the guilty person must be disciplined.  He or she must learn to be subjected and docile and must learn to be economically productive while being politically obedient.[56]  In other words — obey the rules and make license plates or grow produce for Walmart.

In this process, inmates are categorized, regimented, placed into hierarches, labeled, and made the objects of a massive amount of documentation.  This documentation was particularly useful for determining if a person is truly penitent (hence references to prisons as penitentiaries) as penitence could lead to shorter sentences.[57]  Just as the mad who learned to work could be released from the institutions of the 1600s, so the criminals of today who learned to be docile can be released from prison earlier.

However, it was the invention of the panopticon within the prison system that revealed the true efficacy of surveillance.

The panopticon was a prison that had a central tower looking out on the cells arranged in a ring around it.  The people in the cells were always in sight of the tower, but they, themselves, could not see into the tower.  Here, the inmate is seen, but does not see; he or she is the object of information, but not the subject of communication.[58]  This is the inmate’s constant state of existence.  This state of conscious and permanent visibility, produced a self-disciplining population.  Because they thought they were always being watched, prisoners were far more obedient – even if nobody was actually in the tower.  This model of ubiquitous surveillance then became the desired standard for general society.  If you can produce people who make themselves complaint, who obey without any physical force being needed to make them obey, then you are able to present yourself in a more ideal, humanitarian, and loving manner.  This is also a more cost effective approach.  Having a lot of institutions that are watching people, keeping stats on people, constantly surveying people, accumulating files and information on people, is much cheaper and more effective than maintaining an army or a massive militarized police force.

It is the medical model that justifies the dispersal of this gaze into all areas of society.  Power is not so often or obviously exercised over the social body as it is now exercised within it.[60]  It is from within that the language of “health care,” “treatment,” “cure,” and “public health” can be used to justify interventions that would otherwise appear to be coercive or violent corrective measures.[61]  Criminal behaviour – and experiencing poverty or homelessness is often treated as criminal behaviour – demonstrates an individual’s lack of ability to adjust to the status quo.  This maladjustment signifies illness.  Here, the status of the criminal dovetails perfectly with the status of the sick person.  While the sick person has become the personification of his or her disease, the criminal has been transformed from somebody who is not so much accountable for what s/he does (because s/he is sick) but is accountable for who s/he is – to be a criminal becomes an identity rather than a behaviour.[62] In this shift the deviant person goes from being a moral agent responsible for her or his actions, to being a sick person, not fully responsible for her or his actions, but required to accept whatever course of treatment is recommended by the professionals.  To be cured, the sick person must change who he or she is.  Successful adjustment or conformity signifies that this change has taken place and that the person is now healthy.  But we should never forget that the professional quest for cures for these kinds of illnesses have justified many things over the years – imprisoning and forcefully medicating people, removing people from housing or shelter, suspensing people from of access to support programs, not to mention electric shock therapy and lobotomies and the forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples within prisons.[63]

Those of us working in social services – or the non-profit industrial complex – are complicit in all of the this.  We are on the frontlines of it, essentially playing good cop to the bad cop played by the police force.  We collect massive amounts of data related to the lives of populations that are considered threatening to the status quo.  There is no area of life that we do not invade.  To illustrate this, I am going to ask people a number of questions that are commonly asked to clients.  I’ll be drawing from the Global Appraisal of Individual Needs Short Screener (GAIN-SS), the Ontario Common Assessment of Need (OCAN), the application forms for subsidized housing in London, and the Admission and Discharge Criteria Assessment Tool (ADAT) which is used for accessing treatment centres.  As I ask you these questions, think about how you feel when I ask them to you.  Think about how many of these actually point to behaviours you engage in or feelings or experiences you have.  If you can relate to a number of them, then think about why these questions are being deployed in relation to the people whom we claim to serve.  Remember that all of these questions are health-related.  I expect honest answers.


  1. When was the last time you had significant problems with feeling sad or lonely?
  2. When was the last time you had trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or falling asleep during the day?
  3. When was the last time you had significant problems with becoming very distressed and upset when something reminded you of the past?
  4. When was the last time you liked or conned to get things you wanted or to avoid having to do something?
  5. When was the last time you had a hard time paying attention?
  6. Do you have significant psychological, behavioral, or personal problems?


  1. Do you get enough to eat?
  2. Are you able to look after your home? Do you have problems keeping clean and tidy?
  3. How do you spend your day? Do you have enough to do?
  4. Have you recently felt very sad or low, overly anxious or frightened?
  5. Are you happy with your social life? Do you wish you had more contact with others?
  6. Do you have a partner? Do you have problems in that relationship? How is your sex life?
  7. Do you have children under 18? Do you have any difficulty looking after them?
  8. How do you find budgeting your money?
  9. What medical conditions do you have? List all your current medications.
  10. Do you currently have any legal issues? What are they?
  11. List any illicit drugs, or prescription drugs not prescribed to you, that you have taken.

London Housing Application

  1. List the annual income of you and any other member of your household.
  2. What is the sum total of your assets and of any other member of your household?


  1. Are you currently in any type of treatment or counselling for emotional or mental health problems?
  2. Have you ever had an eating disorder?
  3. Have you ever had any menstrual difficulties?
  4. Have you ever experienced physical or sexual abuse?
  5. Do you have any sexually transmitted infections?
  6. Do you wish your family or friends were much different?
  7. Do you struggle with feeling close to others?
  8. Are you realistic about yourself and others?
  9. Do you have goals and direction in life?
  10. Do you have any difficulty with sexual activity? Are you preoccupied with sex?
  11. Do you have difficulty feeling satisfaction with your life?

Here was see how the gaze operates.  Many of us could answer a lot of the questions in a way that would be perceived of as problematical – maybe we’re lonely, have a sexually transmitted infection, and have trouble performing in bed.  Maybe we don’t really feel a sense of direction or satisfaction in life and often wonder what we are doing or should be doing with our lives.  Maybe we’ve experienced childhood trauma and are now prescribed several kinds of medication.  Maybe we smoke pot and struggle with eating regularly and keeping our house clean.  Maybe we feel like it’s impossible to know just how well we are doing as parents and have no idea how to determine if our way of viewing things is realistic or not.  However, we are all functioning just fine – that is to say, we are going to work regularly and paying our rent or our mortgages.  We are doing what people at our level are supposed to be doing.  We’re not a threat, we’re not dropping out of the values and ethics of the status quo, and so we’re not asked these questions.  Because it is not so much how you answer these questions that shows there is something wrong with you – it is the fact that you have been selected to be asked these questions that shows there is something wrong with you!

And if you are being asked these questions what exactly is wrong with you?  Perhaps you have a modern form of drapetomania. Drapetomania was a disease diagnosed amongst African slaves by an American Doctor named Samuel A. Carthwright in 1851.  Some slaves – obedient, compliant slaves – were considered healthy, whereas others had a strange mental illness that caused them to run away from their masters (oppositional defiance disorder hadn’t been discovered yet).  Cartwright names this mental illness drapetomania (from the Greek words for a runaway slave [drapetes] and for madness [mania]).  Whipping was prescribed as a remedy and cures included prescribing the removal of the big toe in order to make running difficult.  Is this not precisely what a good many people experiencing poverty and homelessness have today?  Are they not also fleeing from their masters – the landlord, the doctor, the tax collector, the boss, the social worker?  Do we, like the slaveowners, conclude that they must be crazy to do so?  Don’t we then also follow the advice of Dr. Carthwright and do everything we can to make running unappealing or impossible?

Because, it seems to me, what we’re mostly saying in our work is: “Stop resisting, we’re doing this for your own good!”  Isn’t this essentially the message conveyed from the hospital to the prison to the homeless shelter to the resource centre?  The police may be a last resort – they may yell this line while choking a man to death – but doesn’t their murderous action unveil the fundamental violence involved in all that we do?  I came to this realization not that long ago when reflecting on why I hate it so much when I call the police at my work.  I hate calling the police, and go for years at a time without calling them, because calling them reminds me I am them.  But calling the police unveils the fundamental violence of what I am and what I do.  It forces me to remember that I, too, am saying, “Stop resisting, I’m doing this for your own good!” Haven’t we all said this a million times before when kicking people out of shelter, or barring them from programs, or denying them an overnight pass, or cutting them off of ODSP, or denying them national sovereignty?  So, while Christians sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? …Where you there when the nailed him to the cross?” I sing, “I was there when they choked Eric Garner, my hands held his throat and cut off his air… I was there when they sent the kids to residential schools, my hands held the scissors that cut off their hair….” I was there.  I am there.  Stop resisting, we’re doing this for your own good.

(1C) What’s Missing? Patient Zero and People Experiencing Wealth

In sum, looking at our current situation, I believe one can say that the medical model of health care with its discourse of community or public health has replaced religion as the justification for the use of force over the bodies and life situations of people who are considered threatening, deviant, or problematical.  Badness has been rebranded as sickness, but the ultimate goal of producing individuals who can slot easily into the trajectories and priorities and ethics of the current status quo – and the dispersals of power, wealth, land, and property associated with that status quo – has been maintained.  Health care is used to engage in a disciplinary form of surveillance, reward, and punishment over people labeled as sick, with the goal of producing compliance, which is also known as health.

However, continuing to use the language of health care, I want to note that, even from this perspective, the health care providers are inconsistent.  In particular, by depoliticizing deviance – which is often an intentional repudiation of existing economic or political arrangements, a willful dropping out of a system that is built to exploit many, while enriching a few – and by making social problems individual health concerns, social services operating under this discourse engage in a woefully inadequate response to the epidemic of poverty or homelessness. [64]  Any epidemiologist will tell you that identifying the first person with documented symptoms – Patient Zero, or the index case – is critical to controlling and dampening the outbreak.[65]

This is so for at least two reasons.  First, if one can determine where Patient Zero has been, the spread of the infectious disease can be tracked and steps can be taken to isolate and treat people who might be carriers, and the outbreak can be contained before it is totally devastating.  Second, by identifying Patient Zero, epidemiologists can often identify where that person contracted the disease and then steps can be taken to prevent future epidemics.  However, when it comes to discussing poverty and homelessness, while the language of an epidemic can be used, nobody is talking about Patient Zero.  This is because most people aren’t following the disease back far enough.  They are content to follow symptoms back to poverty – all the negative health outcomes associated with experiencing poverty – but it seems as though nobody involved in “curing homelessness” is asking where poverty comes from.  This is like noting a patient is flushed because he or she has a fever – without then going on to ask what has caused the fever.

If one goes further, and asks what causes poverty, the conclusion is overwhelmingly that people experiencing wealth are the cause of poverty.  It is because some people are able to control, hoard, and accumulate massive amounts of wealth, land, food, resources, and property – all of which is then protected by the full force of the law and the police – that other people are made to experience poverty.  If we really want to cure homelessness, the solution is not found by focusing on people experiencing homelessness but is found by focusing upon people experiencing wealth.  So why is the first term “people experiencing homelessness” so familiar to us, while the other term, “people experiencing wealth” never seems to come up?  Well, in part, because the medical model posits that these people are, in fact, likely to be the healthiest people.  But that’s just one small piece in the puzzle.  A more complete answer is what has been provided in this workshop so far – this language doesn’t come up because the medical model itself is driven by the goal of preserving the status quo which is dependent upon massive inequalities in wealth distribution.  Consequently, any true talk of a cure in relation to this epidemic, will require us to confront, deny, and fight against any kind of notion of wealth accumulation in a world where some people are dying or freezing or suffering due to the lack of basic necessities.

Because all this talk of “curing,” “eliminating,” or “solving” homelessness makes me nervous.  It reminds me a lot of how Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of Indian Affairs in Canada, spoke of his desire to find a “final solution” to “the Indian question.”  This language of a final solution was then picked up by folks like Hermann Göring, who studied North American reserves and residential schools – just as the Apartheid Regime in South Africa did – and spoke about a “final solution” to “the Jewish problem.”  And now we are looking at a final solution to homelessness.  But, just like Scott never realized that the violence of settler colonialism was at the root of the so-called “Indian question,” and like Göring never realized that the violent anti-semitism of Nazism was at the root of the so-called “Jewish problem,” we don’t seem to realize that the violent accumulation of wealth and protection of private property is at the root of the “homelessness problem.”  So, as Scott focused on the Indians, and Göring focused on the Jews, we focus on the homeless.  But, just to be clear, people experiencing poverty and homelessness are not the problem (and neither were the Indians or the Jews).  People experiencing wealth are the problem.  And that means that perhaps we’ve gotten everything wrong.  Perhaps we are part of the problem instead of part of the solution.  This is true, regardless of our good intentions.   As the old saying goes: hell is paved with good intentions.

Part 2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”Can We Start Talking about Oppression?

As we now transition to proposing one possible way forward, given this analysis of our situation, I thought I would structure what follows around Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4.  As we consider this, it doesn’t particularly matter to me what you think about the divinity of Jesus.  Instead, in this workshop, I’m much more interested in how Jesus was a part of a grassroots movement composed of people who had been colonized, uprooted from their land, forced into transience, slavery, and poverty, who then found ways to gather together and embody a form of solidarity that resisted the various power structures brought to bear upon their lives, in the pursuit of a more liberating way of sharing life together.  As he engages in this struggle, Jesus enters into a very risky kind of public endeavor – so risky that it will culminate in him being tortured and executed by the rulers.  Jesus, divine or not, died the death of a State-executed terrorist justly condemned according to the Rule of Law.  However, it is not so easy to kill the Spirit of Life that moves amongst people who are oppressed. Life, like hope, does not trickle down.  It rises up.  Constantly and always, it rises up.  The early Jesus Movement is one example of this.  And it is clear, from the beginning, that Jesus has this kind of uprising in mind.  Hence, in his first public appearance, he says.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to:

  1. Bring good news to the poor and proclaim:
    1. Recovery of sight to the blind;
    2. the delivery of captives;
    3. the setting free of the oppressed;
    4. and the year of the Lord’s favour.

I want to dwell on each of these points and think about what they might mean for those of us who desire to be involved in the uprisings of Life that take place in our own situation, dominated as it is by Death.  Again, I am dwelling here and playing with this text, not because I think it is sacred, but because I think what Jesus does to name, confront, and resist oppression is helpful to us as we seek to do the same within our own context.  This engagement within the context of oppression – this uprising of Life amongst those left for dead by the wealthy and powerful who wield Death and build institutions around Death, in order to maximize their profits and their property – is absolutely fundamental to everything Jesus lived for and everything he died for.  Of course, the same could be said of many others: Malcolm X, Ernesto Guevara, Sophie Scholl, Marie Sukloff, Sitting Bull, Assata Shakur, Toussaint L’Overture, Spotted Elk, Violet Gibson, Oscar Romero, Bunchy Carter, Geronimo, Martin Luther King Jr., Subcommandante Marcos and Comandante Ramona, Phoolan Devi, Nikolai Rysakov and Ignaty Grinevitsky, Fred Hampton, Pauline Léon, and all of the other members of this great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us.  I could have drawn on any of these people, and the movements in which they participated (for these people are important precisely because of the movements in which they participated), in order to make most of the points that follow.  Today, for obvious reasons, I have chosen to focus on Jesus.  And Jesus chose to focus on oppression – even if he sometimes found clever or roundabout ways to talk about it, since he wasn’t keen to get himself killed right away.

(2A) Recover of Sight to the Blind: Switching Lenses and Conscientization

However, if there is one thing we seem to not like naming, talking about, or considering it is oppression.  Maybe we think about oppression in other places – North Korea, Russia, maybe the United States – but we seem to be blind to it in our own context and in relation to our own work.  When it comes to ourselves and our work, we find other ways of talking instead.  We constantly refer to people experiencing poverty or people experiencing homelessness.  We never seem to get around to mentioning people experiencing oppression.  But this is the core of our situation and an inescapable conclusion once we realize that people experiencing poverty are produced by people experiencing wealth.

Therefore, the first step to engaging in a new way is learning to see that which we previously did not see, or have seen through distorted lenses like seeing people as trees walking.  Recovery of sight to the blind, means learning a new way of seeing.  However, it is crucial that we realize that learning to see the flawed nature of the medical model does not mean simply substituting the old religious or Christian model back into the place from which it was removed.  In fact, despite the current dominance of the discourse of community or public health, the older religious perspective has persisted in some environments.  The problem here is that, in terms of goals and outcomes, there is no significant difference between the religious model and the medical model.  Both neglect a serious analysis of oppression.  Both label oppressed people as deviant, problematical, and threatening, and both then target those people in order to try to make them docile and compliant and fit within their place within the trajectory of the status quo.  Both the religious and medical models function very comfortable within the context of oppression and help to maintain, perpetuate, and further entrench that context.  Perhaps it is hard to see this.  An illustration may help.

I already paired pictures of homeless makeovers with residential school makeovers.  I imagine that all the well-intentioned, kind-hearted middleclass Christians and Canadian government officials who were involved with the residential schools felt the same sense of “wow” when they saw the residential school makeover pictures, that we may feel when we look at the homeless makeover pictures.  “Wow, what a difference we are making!”  “Wow, look at how much better that person looks now!”  “Wow, we really do need to remember that every one of us is a beautiful human being.  Sometimes maybe people just need a little bit of assistance to really make that shine.”

What these pictures suggest is that perhaps Christian social services, and social services in general, are continuing to do with a much broader population, what residential schools did with a specific population.  Similarities in names are also striking.  Do you know which of these is the name of a residential school, and which is the name of a Christian social service: St. Peter’s Mission, Union Gospel Misison, Greenville Mission, St. Louis Mission, Yonge Street Mission, Providence Mission, Mission Services… which is which?  Are they all, perhaps, local manifestations of the same mission?

Union Gospel Mission

Union Gospel Mission

St. Peter's Mission

St. Peter’s Mission

Certainly the content of what children learned in residential schools, looks remarkably similar to the content of what people are taught in social services.  Children in the schools were taught respect for authorities, neatness, thrift, patriotism, charity, labour and the importance of constant, legal employment, home and public duties, Christian moral laws, and respect for private property and land ownership.  Are these not the same things social services teach to their clients?  Here, yet again, Christians and others are justifying conquest by arguing that a savage people is being brought the gift of civilization.[66]  The end goal is to take a person who is “an undesirable and often dangerous element in our society” and convert that person into “a self-supporting member of the State, and eventually a citizen in good standing.”[67]  Those are the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, Canada’s Hermann Göring, but they sound identical to the mission statements of most social services.

Quotes from people involved in residential schools that sound like quotes from people in Christian and other social services could be multiplied.  For example, another Indian Affairs agent said that Indians have problems because they are “untrained to take [their] place in the world” and once they are taught to do this – along with being taught exactly what their place is – they will succeed.  Another school staffer speaks of the need to give Indigenous people the “courage to compete with the rest of the world.”  I’m not convinced that we have progressed beyond this in social services today.

But things do not always go as the colonizers plan.  Life rises up, people flee or fight back.  Expressing frustration about this, an Indian Agent in Nova Scotia (or was it a social worker?) said, “These people think that they can have their own way and would like to do so and when they find out they cannot they get mad.”  But getting mad will get you punished.  The use of force, firmness, discipline, and harsh punishments have always been taken for granted as a part of the civilizing Christian mission.  We all now know many of the horror stories of the brutal abuse that children experienced in the residential schools.  However, social services are no strangers to force, firmness, discipline and harsh punishments.  Have a needle in your possessions and you can be kicked out of shelter – having nowhere to go, even in Winter – for thirty days.  Lose your temper with your case worker and your cheque can be placed on hold.  Don’t keep your house clean enough, and you can lose your children.  Hit a staff member at a Resource Centre and you can be barred for life and even sent to jail if the staff member presses charges.  If this punitive violence fails to produce the hoped for changes in the lives of the people targeted, the people themselves are blamed.  In residential schools, the staff members blamed the children for possessing an inferior and savage nature that was weak and  lacked intellectual curiosity.  It was a nature given over to laziness and lying, and which was only barely kept in order by brute force.[69]  If this all seems incredibly racist and passé to you, I should note that I have heard Christian social workers express the same opinions about their clients, especially substance users and those labeled as non-compliant.

So, sight to the blind in this context means learning to see the troubling history of Christian charity and just how deeply we ourselves are enmeshed within that history. Even charity itself is massively problematical when we examine its historical development.  I’ve already mentioned Foucault’s remarks on how charity came about as a tool post-industrialization to maintain a portion of people in poverty so that they can be used as a threat to the organization of labour.  This trajectory developed in new ways in the United States, in the early 1900s, in the United States of America the multimillionaire robber barons began to create a number of non-profits and charitable foundations in order to redirect money that would have been taken as taxes.  This helped to weaken government, which was seeking to limit the power of the robber barons, while also creating a number of agencies that could then be used to push the ideology favoured by the capitalists.

What do you see?

What do you see?

This trajectory continues after World War Two, when it was discovered that the non-profit industrial complex was also useful for steering the Civil Rights movement in a more Conservative direction.  Henceforth, charities become an important tool used to transform movements proposing radical change into reformist projects that do not fundamentally challenge the status quo.  The professionalization of social work was a critical component of this as it ensured workers would be drawn from the higher classes and would be more educated in the reformist tradition than workers rising to positions of authority out of the streets from more radical movements.  Hence, social services, at the level of staffing, become a way of managing and controlling dissent and suberting those who want to make big changes in society.  Furthermore, the clients of social services – because they are no longer the personal friends, neighbours and peers of the workers – tend to be objectified (even by those who speak of being client centred), disempowered (even by those who speak of empowerment… who thereby presume they are needed to empower their clients), and victimized (and seen as disadvantaged or at risk or sick). In this way, social services become an effective buffer that people at the top of society need to prevent people at the bottom from organizing for dramatic social change.

The piecemeal individualistic work of the good-hearted social service workers is then used to replace a systematic public approach to address the root causes of poverty.  Consequently, millionaires continue to fund social services in order to appear humanitarian, and because social services do not threaten the dynamics that allow them to gather the massive amounts of wealth they possess.  Revolutionary struggle, which seeks to seize stolen wealth, power, or land, by any means necessary, is not funded.  Carlos Slim, frequently rated as the richest man in the world and described on Wikipedia as “a Mexican business magnate, investor, and philanthropist,” isn’t funding the Zapatistas, and Shell Canada sure as hell isn’t funding the Wet’suwet’en pipeline blockade.  However, anti-revolutionary struggle, which puts a lot of money into the pockets of Canadian and other corporations is massively funded, which is the primary purpose of Canadian foreign aid today, even though it, too, cloaks itself in the language of altruism, humanitarianism, spreading democracy, and so forth.[70]

Of course, capitalism doesn’t have a monopoly upon using charity to maintain an oppressive status quo.  This has always been the primary purpose of charity from Kings to Caesars.  Given my own areas of study, I’ve spent a lot of time examining the Graeco-Roman system of patronage and benefaction and it is striking how much that resembles our charitable practices today.  What is also striking is how much the early assemblies of Jesus followers – especially those associated with Paul and his co-workers – resisted the imposition of these practices and the hierarchies they imposed, in order to pursue something entirely different – not charitable giving as practiced between patrons and clients but economic mutuality as practiced between brothers and sisters.  So while, charity has a lot to do with Christianity over the last two thousand years, it doesn’t have much at all to do with Jesus and Paul.

In some ways, it seems to me that many contemporary Christians social services think they can escape these charges of corruption within charity because, willingly or not, they have gotten out of politics, not realizing that: (a) the depoliticization of the matters addressed by charity is exactly what the wealth and powerful desire; and (b) charity is itself a particularly Canadian form of imperialism – which we have used to deadly effect everywhere from the Arctic Circle to the slums of Haiti to the gold mines of West Africa.  Consequently, if Christians or other social service workers desire to be truly extricated from imperialism and settler colonialism, they must extricate themselves from charity.

Another way of referring to this process of recovering one’s sight, is through the lens of conscientization that Paulo Freire offers to us.  Freire uses the term conscientization to refer to learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.[72]  In order to achieve this, Freire argues, it is necessary to learn from people who are oppressed.  It is the people who suffer under oppression who know the way to liberation from oppression.  Kind-hearted oppressors, who generally are unaware of how truly oppressive they are, will not bring liberation.  Study the history of liberatory momvements and you will discover that they rise up from below.  Liberation – for both the oppressed and the oppressor (for all are lost within the context of oppression), does not come from the powerful and wealthy but rises up from those who are left for dead but refuse to die.  I have witnessed this uprising of solidarity, resistance, and liberation firsthand in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.  The original Downtown eastside Neighbourhood Council, the Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group, the people at Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, folks organizing out of single-room occupancy hotels and the Carnegie Community Centre, these people truly are operating with a deep sense of what it means to engage oppression as people who are oppressed struggling against parties that are committed to being oppressors.  If this is where life-giving and –affirming change comes from, it is worth asking ourselves a number of questions:

  • Where do you go to learn from people who are oppressed?
  • Where do you go to be led by people who are oppressed?
  • Where do you go where people who are oppressed make the rules?
  • In what actions that you take are you under the supervision of people experiencing oppression?

I know where these things are not happening – in social services.  And so why continue to identify people as trees walking, just like we diagnose the experience of oppression as illness, and praise people who hoard wealth, power, land, and property as philanthropists.

(2B) Delivery of Captives: Whose side are we on? Captors, Friends… and Enemies

Part of the reason why the language of oppression does not get used very much is because it creates a great deal of discomfort.  This discomfort is created because, for oppression to exist, it is necessary that there be oppressors.  It is here that social works tend to fall silent.  But it cannot be denied that oppression is structured around a fundamental enmity that oppressors create between themselves and the people whom they oppress.  In this context, neutrality slips away from us.  We are either friends or enemies of those who experience oppression.

But perhaps you will object here.  Perhaps you will say, “I have no enemies, I’m everyone’s friend” and perhaps that statement fits the way you feel.  But it is not your feelings that matter in this context.  Your actions are what matter.  And to the child who worked in a sweatshop with suicide nets over the windows to make the clothes you wear, and to the Indigenous people who had their land stolen and water poisoned to mine the metal you use in your electronics, you are an enemy.  Your enemy is not the person who harms you – which is why Jesus makes a distinction between our enemies and those who harm us.  Jesus says to pray for those who harm you and love your enemies.  Your enemy is the one whom you are harming.   When Jesus says, “love your enemies” he is not saying, “have nice feelings about people who hurt you.”  Instead, Jesus is saying, “stop exploiting, dispossessing and murdering all of those upon whose body and blood your wealth depends.”

So, oppressors – people experiencing wealth – are the enemies of the oppressed – people experiencing poverty.  But you will not hear social services speak this way.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, as explored above, the dominance of the medical model within social services entirely masks this. Second, the enemies of people experiencing oppression are the funders and patrons of the social services.  It is people experiencing wealth – millionaire philanthropists and multinational corporations (legally, corporations are people, too) – who fund social services.  So, instead of identifying the hoarders of wealth as oppressors they praise them as moral examples that all of us should emulate.  In this way, the wealthy hoard both goods and goodness.  They don’t only steal land, life, and resources from the people whom they oppress, they also steal the ability to be defined as righteous, generous, moral, and good.  The rich are admirable.  The poor are pitiable… if that.  As Leonardo Dicaprio’s character says in The Wolf of Wall Street, “There’s no nobility in poverty.  I’ve been a rich man, and I’ve been a poor man.  And I choose rich every fucking time.”  This speech seems to strike a chord with one percenters.

Furthermore, to even receive official charitable status, with all the tax breaks and benefits that charitable status provides, a charity cannot engage in any partisan politics and can only allocate a maximum of 10% of its time and resources to non-partisan political work.  If you break this rule, you will lose your status, which will cause you to lose your donors, which will cause you to lose your job.  So, when it comes down to the choice of confronting oppression, or confronting our own unemployment, it’s a foregone conclusion which option we will choose (“I’ve been a rich man and I’ve been poor man.  And I choose rich every fucking time.”)

Thirdly, we tend to not use the language of oppression, because we don’t believe we’re actually dealing with oppression.  We tend to think that we are dealing with a fundamentally good system that simply needs to be reformed or changed from within.  We still have a hangover from the medieval Christian worldview that sees governing authorities as appointed by God, and wealth as a reward for good stewardship, hard labour, thrifty moral living, and the general fulfillment of the Protestant work ethic.  Consequently, people experiencing wealth and others who are oppressors are not seen as enemies but as people to  be courted as friends.  In fact, given our own bourgeois status, chances are many of them are already our friends because we’re already connected  to them in various other environments.  It is hard to realize that people we genuinely love and admire may be on the wrong side of history and may be judged by later generations in the same way that we judge the Rhodesians or the Babylonians.

Not only that, and this is the fourth point, but we do not deploy this language because we ourselves are counted amongst the oppressors.  We may not be one percenters, and we may not own the sweatshops where our products are produced, but we can afford to buy those products and are counted among the wealthiest people alive today, and easily some of the wealthiest people in all of history.  We, too, are people experiencing wealth.   William Stringfellow had it right – my people is the enemy.  The thing to realize, however, is that by saying this I am not removing myself from being counted among my people.  I am a member of my people.  I am the enemy.  That we desire to be otherwise, that we feel like we are otherwise, does not negate the truth of our violent actions.  We may be sensitive and kind-hearted but we still hoard property and colonize stolen land.  So we do not talk about oppression because we ourselves are oppressors.  We are the enemies of the people whom we claim to serve.  We are the causes of their poverty.  We are the causes of their homelessness.  Yet we masquerade as their friends and all the force we bring to bear upon them is said to be used in their best interest.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the very real enmity that exists between people experiencing wealth (the oppressors) and people experiencing poverty (the oppressed) within the context of massively unequal hierarchies of property, power, position, and persuasion (oppression), is the police.  In an important book, Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams asks: “What are police for?”  Instead of rushing to the answers that seem immediately obvious to us given our location in society, Williams writes:

Let us focus less on what the police say they are doing and instead assess the institution based on what it actually does.  We should ask, always, who benefits and who suffers?  Whose interests are advanced, and who pays the costs?  Who is protected and served?  Who is bullied and brutalized?[73]

The conclusion that Williams comes to is that the police (in America) are a racist institution built to sustain class divisions, protect the property of the wealthy, and ensure that the trajectory of the status quo, wherein these divisions are maintained and deepened, can continue with as little disturbance as possible.  We, ourselves, are usually so deeply embedded within the propertied classes, and so far on the good side of the police (whom we generally view as our friends and protectors) that this perspective may sound far-fetched, embittered or even paranoid.  This is one of the reasons why the Occupy movement was so beneficial.  It may not have created the systemic and structural change it longed to find in these territories, but it did help us to see the truth about the police.  What Occupy showed us is that it doesn’t matter if your white and healthy and middleclass and educated and have a long history of docility and compliance.  If you dare to try and interfere with wealth accumulation, private property, and present dynamics of power, the police will not hesitate to fuck you up.

Even if you are a pretty, middle class, white girl who has always done everything properly, the police will fuck you up (of course, not nearly as much as they will fuck you up if you are a person of colour of poor or mentally ill… but they’ll still fuck you up if you interfere with wealth distribution).  I think people found that especially shocking because, throughout it’s history, the police has justified the use of lethal force as an unfortunate but necessary way to protect white women from the rapacious violence of people of colour.  Watching police pepperspray pretty white girls tears the veil off of this racist lie.  It was Occupy that revealed to many people that the, first and foremost, police serve people with wealth.  The police are the frontline soldiers of a deeply racial, colonial, and patriarchal class war.  White middleclass settlers may only just be awakening to this state of affairs – and so it is interesting to observe that the police are militarizing as class consciousness is spreading.[74]

However, Indigenous people have known about this function of the police for as long as police have existed on Turtle Island.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has long been used as a paramilitary force deployed against Indigenous resistance.[75]  This history goes back to its inception as the Northwest Mounted Police but I can recall many armed assaults upon Indigenous land defenders in my own lifetime, usually using the RCMP in conjuction with provincial police forces and sometimes also the Canadian army.

Kanehsatake and Kahnawake

Kanehsatake and Kahnawake









It remains to be seen what will happen with the Unist’ot’en camp resisting pipeline development on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.[76]



Indigenous people, simply trying to stay alive under the twin forces of settler colonialism and capitalism, know all about what it means to be confronted by the guns and bullets of police officers.  Now the RCMP comes with its guns to take Indigenous lands and give them to multinational corporations.  Not that long ago, the RCMP came in the same way to take Indigenous children away and give them to the Church, government run institutions, or the foster care system.  Resist then or now and you risk being shoot, killed, or imprisoned.  Hence, Indigenous peoples continue to be incarcerated at much higher rates than setters.   While Indigenous people make up roughly 4.3% of the overall population of these territories, they account for roughly 25% of all adults and youth incarcerated in Canada.[77]  In a related manner, although residential schools have ended, Indigenous children are still being stolen at very alarming rates.[78]  There are now more than 40,000 Indigenous children in foster care – more than three times the amount in residential schools when that school system was at its peak.[79]  So, the police are not working alone.  They work alongside of the prisons, the foster care system, and social services.  The police are just the armed foot soldiers in this systemic racist, colonial, patriarchal class war.  They carry the guns and shoot people, while also continually refusing to do things like engage in a serious investigation of the more than twelve hundred missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada (in some places, the word on the street is that investigations are not being done because the perpetrators were or are RCMP officers – the voices claiming this are being ignored just like the sex workers who reported the Pickton Farm to the police were ignored).

Police are also killing more people in Canada these days, especially people experiencing a combination of poverty, homelessness, and mental illness.  Over the last twelve months, there have been 16 known police-involved deaths in British Columbia.[81]  My friend Dave Diewert explains that most of the time “those who were killed had diagnosed mental illnesses, addiction issues, or were going through a mental health crisis due to drug use or difficult life events.”[82]  Careful academic studies of police reports in Vancouver have noted that the police are invested in associating mental illness with dangerousness and this association is used to “construct the victim as socially problematic and justify the use of lethal force.”[83]   This is asserted despite the well-researched conclusion that people with mental illness and addictions are more likely to be victims of violence than threats to others.[84]  However, this fact is ignored as police in Canada and in Vancouver especially, have managed to successfully position themselves as a leading authority related to the discourse and regulation of mental health.[85]

So the police, as a whole, are trained to view people experiencing oppression as the enemy and, as a whole, they certainly treat them as such. However, as I suggested earlier, we, too, are like the police.  We are also frontline soldiers engaging in a class war, only we speak softly while the cops carry the big stick.  It is absolutely necessary to name this and know this before we go on.  How can delivery come to captives if the existence of prisons and guards is denied?  How can freedom come to be if subjection is denied?  How can we love our enemies if we deny that we treat some people as enemies?  Being honest about these things, is the first step to acting as a friend towards those who are oppressed.

(2C) Setting the Oppressed Free: Solidarity, Selfies and Allies

The critical change needed in order to move from acting as enemies towards people experiencing oppression, to being friends with people experiencing oppression, takes place when we shift from charity to solidarity.  Eduardo Galeano begins to get at the distinction between these two things when he says:

I don’t believe in charity.  I believe in solidarity.  Charity is so vertical.  It goes from the top to the bottom.  Solidarity is horizontal.  It respects the other person.  I have a lot to learn from other people.

However, solidarity is not better simply because it is more humble respectful.  Solidarity is better because it recognizes that the hierarchies established and maintained by charity are, themselves, a source of violence, poverty, and oppression.

The crucial question is what does solidarity actually look like?  Is it even possible?  Are there not massive gaps between those who oppress others and those who are oppressed by others?  How can male, lifetime beneficiaries of patriarchy, move into solidarity with women?  How can settlers, living within the context of a total system of colonization, move into solidarity with Indigenous peoples who have had their lands stolen and have experienced generations of genocide, trauma, and loss? How can members of the dominant group move into any kind of meaningful, more-than-simply-rhetorical, solidarity with members of marginalized groups?  How can those who have lived life in abundance, move into solidarity with those who have been left for dead?

Solidarity is easy to talk about but difficult to do and, unfortunately to us, we live in a culture where we constantly confuse talking with doing.   A prime example of this is the solidarity campaigns that one sees in social media every other day.  Somebody posting a picture on themselves with a sign saying, “I stand with Ahmed” or “I stand with the Syrian Refugees” or whatever else.



Of course, if you want to be really radical and get a lot of facebook likes for your picture, you’ll go one step further and take a selfie holding a sign or standing next to riot cops at a protest.



But, while all this picture taking may increase our radical brand status, it generally does not do much to change the fact that we are immersed in privileges that come to us stained with the blood of others.  Not only is such spectacular posturing not an act of solidarity, it is a form of anti-solidarity because it permits us to feel like we are good people when, in fact, we are not.  This is a problem because if we think we are good people, we will feel we don’t have to change all that much.  Sure, everyone could use a little improvement, we might muse, but at least we have aligned ourselves with just causes.  No.  No we have not.

Solidarity requires much more than this.  Changing our material circumstances can be an important thing to do.  Learning not to accumulate wealth and learning that the extra pair of shoes we own do not belong to us but belong to the person who does not have any shoes are  a crucial part  of removing ourselves from certain forms of structural violence.  However, wealth is often still necessary to make this shift – to engage it what has been called ethical consumption, buying locally-made clothing, only eating organic food grown in one’s own region, and so forth, generally takes a considerable amount of time and money.  Consequently, those who can afford to do these things are often simply showing that they are rich enough to live righteously.  The single-parent family in poverty who can only afford to shop at Walmart or take the kids to McDonald’s on extra special occasions when they can actually find the time or money between the bills and picking up shifts at three part time jobs, don’t usually have the luxury of such righteous living.  Solidarity is still lacking here.

Furthermore, even if I were to embrace poverty as a way of life and renounce all my possessions, living in parks or homeless shelters from now until I die, I would still not have attained solidarity with most homeless folks, let alone with others.  For me, becoming homeless would be a deliberate choice.  For most people, it is not.  It is something forced upon them.  Similarly, for me, remaining homeless would be a choice, as I have plenty of good, kind people in my life who would give me a place to stay if I asked.  For many people experiencing homelessness, no such people exist.  Or, if they do exist, they come with strings attached – like returning to a husband who beats you, or returning to a pimp who pimps you.  All the privileges I have been born into do not simply evaporate if I choose to dramatically change my material status.  I can have no shoes but I still have years of education inside of me. No matter what I give up, I still live in a world that is designed to give the best possible outcomes to cishet, white, settler men with European and Christian backgrounds.

What, then, does solidarity look like?  To journey into solidarity with people experiencing oppression means learning to be an ally of people experiencing oppression.  What does it mean to be an ally?  To be an ally means to be united around the pursuit of a common interest.  In this case, it means uniting ourselves with people experiencing oppression in the interest of naming, destroying, and replacing oppression with a more life-giving and life-affirming way of structuring life together.  This requires several things.

First of all, being an ally means getting out of the way so that the oppressed can set themselves free.  We have presented ourselves as though we are the saviours of the oppressed, when really we are the very people oppressing them.  It’s like calling ourselves a voice for the voiceless.  As Arundhati Roy says, “There is really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’  There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”  Consequently, we need to get out of the way, shut up, and listen.  People who are oppressed are not passive victims.  They are historical actors with agency, with knowledge, hopes, dreams, and power.[86]  They are the one’s who know best what needs to be done.  People experiencing oppression do not need us to show up, trying to organize them, in order to set them free.  There are already many brilliant organizers living amongst the oppressed working towards these goals.  If we do not know them, it simply shows that we have not been listening.  So get out of the way, shut up, and listen.[87]

Once we start doing that we can move to the second step of being an ally.  Being an ally means taking direction from people experiencing oppression.  It means helping in ways that we are asked to help not in the ways we want to help or in the ways we think we should help.  We don’t get to set the agenda nor do our (generally bourgeois and class-based) moral concepts get to be applied as limits on what can or cannot be done by the group.  Being an ally means being a servant – not a servant leader.  You don’t lead, you follow.  For example, I am currently going through the vetting process of assisting as a facilitator at meetings held by the London Area Network of Substance Users (LANSU).  LANSU is a group of people who have mobilized to confront the oppression experienced by substance users experiencing poverty in London.  I am not a substance user.  I am not experiencing poverty.  If I am accepted by the group, I would not be an official member, I would not speak for the group, and I would not participate in votes or any decision making.  I would simply be there because I would be able to assist the group in having a space to hold meetings and I would assist with meeting minutes, research, and whatever other tasks were assigned to me.  This seems like an appropriate place for me to be in relation to substance users.  This is one way that I can get out of the way and start acting as an ally.

Third, being an ally is earned and not something you can simply claim for yourself.  You do not get to decide if you are an ally or not.  It is communities of people who are experiencing oppression who decide if you or an ally or not.  Furthermore, being an ally is not something that you forever remain once one person refers to you in that way.  It is a status that must be continually maintained and deepened by the actions you take.[88]  Being an ally, in other words, is about maintaining a constant state of becoming an ally as recognized by those with whom we wish to ally ourselves.

Fourth, and I’ve already touched on this so I will be brief here, being an ally means taking sides.  Sometimes this means refusing to call the police, press charges, or bear witness – because the police and prisons are not the friends of the people whom we claim to serve.  Sometimes this also means actually choosing between siding with people experiencing oppression or siding with the rule of Law that oppresses them.  For example, before harm reduction became a government-sanctioned approach to substance use, nurses in Vancouver’s downtown eastside were giving clean needles and injection paraphernalia to intravenous drug users.  They could have been fired for doing so, but they chose to be allies instead of just following orders.  Similarly, before the legal safe injection site was established in Vancouver, there were illegal safe sites operating at various locations, run with the assistance of allies willing to break death-dealing laws in the service of life when requested to do so by the people whom they desired to serve.  The same challenge will confront us all at some: will I be an ally, resist oppression and serve life, or will I obey the rules of my place of employment or the laws of society, and continue to function as an oppressor instead?  It is a difficult choice, with difficult consequences, but confronting oppression is a difficult task.

This helps to illustrate my earlier point about how social services co-opt movements dedicated to radical change by offering people a job as a reformist.  Commenting on this Arundhati Roy says, “The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried 9-to-5 job.  With a few perks thrown in.  Real resistance has real consequences.  And no salary.”[89]  So, while I can perfectly understand why someone might choose to not act as an ally – how else will I clothe my kids or pay my rent or save for that family vacation to Disneyland? – what I don’t understand is how those who always follow orders think they can brand themselves as allies.

Because, generally, social service workers, playing by the rules, and aren’t very good allies, when it comes to engaging with oppression.  We could continue on as social service workers – like quasi-medical clinicians addressing the medicalization of deviance and assisting people to realize Arbeit macht frei – or we could choose to act as allies, in solidarity with people experiencing oppression.  It is a choice.  We must not forget this. Whichever option we take, we are the ones choosing it.  The easy option is broad and well populated and you will find a lot of people to praise you and reward you and say they wish they could be like you on this way. The hard option is narrow, few people take it, and those who do are usually ridiculed, fired, fined, imprisoned, or forcefully medicated.  But the broad way leads to destruction and the narrow way leads to life. Only you can decide for yourself what you will do and which way you will go.

(2D) Good News to the Poor: what news is good news and for whom?

Now all of this may be difficult for us to hear but, bringing this back to Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4, this was never supposed to be good news to us.  All of this is a part of the embodied proclamation of good news to the poor.  Good news to people experiencing poverty often appears as difficult, troubling, or bad news to people experiencing wealth.  Good news to Hebrew slaves looks like terrible news to Pharaoh.

But Jesus, like Moses and the prophets before him, was not focused upon people experiencing wealth.  Jesus was focused upon people who were oppressed, colonized, uprooted, enslaved, and poor.  When he did talk with people experiencing wealth it often sounded a lot different – sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, you whitewashed tombs, you child of hell, you blind fools, you who devour widows’ houses, you are of your father the devil and you want to do the desires of your father.  We have been taught to read Jesus’ harsh words as directed at religious hypocrites – people whose words don’t align with their actions or goals.  This is somewhat true but it is only half the story.  Because the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians who all conflicted with Jesus were people who were amongst the upper classes.  The issue was not that their faith was insincere – most of them were probably very sincerely devout in their faith.  Their core hypocrisy was that they were accumulating wealth in the context of poverty. The issue wasn’t that they didn’t believe or want to follow God, the issue was that they thought they could do so while being situated in places of privilege, wealth, power, and high status in a colonized and oppressed land.

So, if all of this does not sound like good news to us, maybe it’s time to reconsider which characters from the Gospels we most resemble.  Churches teach us to identify with the disciples and those who followed Jesus – but do we have in common with sick, the homeless, the colonized, enslaved, conquered, and poor people who gathered with him?  Thieves, revolutionaries, sex workers, day labourers, heavy drinkers, slaves, social outcasts, and deviants – why do we think we are like them?

This proclamation of good news to the poor, which is simultaneously troubling news to the rich, is one of the fundamental differences between those who are considered the prophets of YHWH in the Bible and those who are considered court prophets.  The prophets of YHWH understand that the pursuit of justice means taking sides and their good news for people experiencing oppression is always paired with criticisms and condemnations of people who oppress others.  Court prophets, on the other hand, are still very concerned with justice but they find ways to talk about justice, oppression, wealth and poverty, in a manner that does not upend or overturn the current balance of power.  Instead of understanding wealth as theft and poverty as a condition that is imposed by the rich upon the poor, they might do things like talk about why the rich and the poor need each other.  Along the way, they may receive commendations from the king or the mayor or the Governor General of Canada, who will speak about how folks like these inspire us all and the world would be a better place if there were more people like them, and so on.  It is because of these court prophets that I avoid using the word justice.  I think they have corrupted our understanding of it too much.  Besides, how dare we talk about justice when we live on stolen land, purchase toys and electronics and clothing stained with the blood of child labourers, and pay taxes to a government which uses that money to buy bombs to drop on foreign families?  Shame on us.

So, all this to say, if this does not sound like good news to you, please excuse me but what makes you think you should be the recipient of good news?  I am trying to proclaim good news to the poor.  The thing is, I should not be doing this.  I shouldn’t be speaking at all.  I should be listening.  We all should be listening to people like Glen Coulthard, or Freda Huson, or Ivan Drury, or Harsha Walia, or Ellen Gabriel, or Wendy Pedersen, or Darlene Ritchie, or any other person rooted amongst a community of people experiencing oppression and fighting to resist Death while also helping a community organize itself in a manner that is more life-giving and -affirming.  These are the people who need to be heard at this kind of gathering.  These are people who know what it means to live life as a part of a community that embodies the proclamation of good news to people experiencing oppression.  They don’t just speak it.  They live it.

But, even after all this, this still is good news to all of us.  Because oppression warps and wounds everyone.  People who are oppressed are killed, they have their health, their land, their food, their children, their labour, their bodies, and their lives stolen.  But people who oppress others also become less than they would be otherwise as they live off of the lives of others and become identified with property and brands and develop a warped sense of self and goodness and love and entitlement.  Continue to look through the Rich Kids of Instagram tumbler and you see, wow, these people are fucked.  Not that I’m saying, “boohoo, oppressors suffer, too” – because, even if they do experience some sadness, lostness, confusion, or hurt in life, they are the ones responsible for the sufferings that define our context.  What I’m saying is that they are also held captive by this context, even though they are the ones who built the cages and continually reinforce the bars and locks every time they get rattled.  We are all caged.  The oppressors try to keep it that way, but it is the oppressed who hold the keys.

For this reason, good news to the poor is actually good news to the rich.  It’s just that the rich are so warped when it comes to recognizing goodness that they can’t recognize it, even when it (literally) hits them in the face.  Good news to the Hebrew slaves is good news to Pharaoh, because it offers him a more life-giving way to be in relationships with others.  It offers him the chance to prioritize people over profits, and life over death.  But Pharaoh is too much of a self-absorbed asshole to realize this.  So, here’s my final request for those of us who want to be allies: can we please stop being self-absorbed assholes?

Conclusion: “Your brother will rise again.” Revenants, Uprisings, and Terrifying Life

In this workshop, I have tried to propose a different way of seeing, paired with a different way of being and doing.  I have examined how the medical model has risen to dominance within social services and have explored some of the implications of this.  I then tried to propose a way of seeing that highlighted the importance of understanding the place of oppression within our context.  In light of this analysis, I proposed another way of being that removes us from charity and places us in the pursuit of solidarity as we try to act as allies of people experiencing oppression.  I want to conclude with a few remarks on revenants, uprisings, and terrifying life.

Part of the fundamental dishonesty of the medical model is how it neglects the root causes of the illnesses it diagnoses amongst deviant, non-compliant or threatening populations, like the urban poor.  It is not so much that people are sick as that we have beaten them, robbed them, stripped them, and left them for dead by the side of the road.  It is the voice of this person that calls to us in the title of the workshop: “How can I be healthy, when I’m already dead?”  Because many are still alive whom we have left for dead – we would rather they stay dead, but they do not.  Their presence haunts us like revenants, walking corpses who return from the grave to terrify those who abandoned them by the side of the road.  They refuse to be buried. They refuse to be disappeared.  They refuse to be silent.  Neither sick nor dead, these are the people in whom the Spirit of Life is moving and it is moving so powerfully that all the forces brought to bear upon them cannot keep them down.

Because, while Death is at the very centre of all the institutions and structures and agents of oppression, and while death-dealing is the most orthodox practice of civilization itself (civilization is just another way of saying Empire), any orthodoxy is vulnerable to being challenged and overthrown.  Death presses down upon people experiencing oppression, but Life rises up.

This kind of Life is terrifying to those who benefit from oppression, colonization and capitalism.  Watch almost any zombie movie and you will realize what is feared is not so much animated corpses coming back to life as the global poor rising up and striking back against those who stole everything from them.  This point was brought home to me yet again recently when I watched a video of Syrian refugees overwhelming a line of policemen in a village in Eastern Europe.  I couldn’t tell if I was watching the news, 28 Days Later, or Dawn of the Dead.

Which is which?

Which is which?

Zombies or Refugees?

Zombies or Refugees?



It’s not the dead we fear so much as those who we have left for dead refusing to die.  What if they return to us?  What if justice come with them?

The Greek word anastasis summarizes this well.  It is the word we commonly translate as resurrection.  But it has multiple nuances.  It also means to get up from a reclined position.  It also means an uprising.  Anastasis means both resurrection and insurrection and the two concepts are interconnected.  This is why the Sadduccees, those most centrally located at the networks of power built around Herod’s Temple denied the resurrection of the dead.  It is also why revolutionary Judean movements (like the early Jesus Movement) affirmed it.  This is what I hear them saying to us: “You tell us that the dead stay dead and that we should stay down when you kick us down, but the dead do not stay dead and we will rise again.” So, if you count yourself amongst those who see Jesus – a member of an oppressed and colonized people who was tortured to death by the State and by people experiencing wealth because he affirmed abundant life for all and not just for some – if you see this Jesus as being amongst those who refused to stay dead, then you may need to think about which side of the barricades you are on.  For, although Jesus said the poor were blessed he also said:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

No death-dealing arrangement lasts forever.  Civilization is a snake eating its own tail and if you wait until its belly bursts to try and show you really meant no harm and did the best you could and really you felt terrible about everything and you’re actually one of the good ones, it may well be too late for you and your children and your children’s children.

I will conclude with one final makeover, one last before and after picture.






[1] According to the American Forests website, “As defined in the Checklist, trees are woody plants with one erect perennial stem or trunk at least 9 1/2 inches in circumference (3 inches in diameter) at 4 1/2 feet above the ground (breast height), a definitely formed crown of foliage, and a height of at least 13 feet. In contrast, shrubs are small woody plants, usually with several perennial stems branching at the base.” Note that the “Checklist” referred to above is Agriculture Handbook 541.

[2] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Socities. Trans. by W. D. Halls. Foreward by Mary Douglas (New York, W. W. Norton: 1990), vii.  Mauss’ now classic study is important for considerations of charity and what it might me to give gifts.  Jacques Derrida explored this quite a lot in his philosophy and others, and David Graeber also picks up on it in his monumental book, Debt: The First 5000 Years.

[3] Martin Luther (1525), “Against Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.”  Available online:  Accessed 15/October/4.

[4] D&M, 38.

[5] M&C, 13, 24.  See also D&M, 38, 43, 261-62.  Conrad and Schneider also suggest that the medical model also mirrors the Protestant (largely Calvinistic) ethic with healthy/sick replacing saved/damned, with deviance – like one’s status as damned – being largely innate, determined and irreversible, and with health replacing salvation (264-65).

[6] D&M, 266-67.

[7] M&C 40-46; also D&M, 44-45 and P/K, 168-71.

[8] M&C, 46.

[9] Already by the end of the 1600s enterpreneurs areexploiting this cheap labour market in order to make a profit (M&C, ???), and this continues up until our present moment with the prison industrial complex providing corporations with a huge pool of labourers who have nearly no rights and make nearly no money. (Cf.;; – accessed 15/October/7).

[10] M&C, 232.

[11] D&M, 46-50.

[12] M&C, 246.

[13] D&M, 60

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] Ibid, 69.

[16] Canadian Institute for Health Information, Reduction Gaps in Health: A Focus on Socio-Economic Status in Urban Canada (Ottaway, nt.: CIHI, 2008), 2.

[17] Ibid., 1.

[18] D&M, 240.

[19] Ibid., 275.

[20] Cf. – accessed 15/October/4.

[21] Cf. — accessed 15/October/4.

[22] REF!!!

[23] Cf. – accessed 15/October/9.  In England the numbers are slightly higher – with 25% of people having mental illness at some point in life – and according to the World Health Organization, more than 450,000,000 worldwide suffer from  mental illness ( — accessed 15/October/9).

[24] Canadian Institute for Health Information, Reduction Gaps in Health: A Focus on Socio-Economic Status in Urban Canada (Ottaway, nt.: CIHI, 2008), 1.

[25] Ibid., 2.

[26] Lemstra M., Neudorf C. Health disparity in Sasakatoon: Analysis to intervention. Saskatoon: Saskatoon Health Reagoin, 2008, 6.

[27] D&M, 3.

[28] Ibid., 5-7.  Illness, in other words, is a social construction, cf. 31.

[29] Ibid., 8.

[30] Ibid,. 13.

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 242.

[34] Ibid.

[35] BoC, 16.

[36] Ibid., 29.

[37] Ibid., 36-38.

[38] Ibid., 40.

[39] Ibid., 48.

[40] Foucault mentions this in both BoC and MC, but Conrad and Schneider spend a bit more time with it in D&M, 12.

[41] BoC, 101-102.

[42] Ibid., 102-103.

[43] Ibid., 61.

[44] Ibid., 108, 116.

[45] Ibid., 167.

[46] Ibid., 188-91.

[47] DP, 7-8.

[48] Ibid., 16.

[49] Ibidl, 44-49.

[50] Ibid., 58-59.

[51] Ibid., 63.

[52] Ibid., 82.

[53] Ibid., 76-77, 87.

[54] Ibid., 90.

[55] Ibid., 110-111.

[56] Ibid., 138.

[57] Iblid, 244-50.

[58] Ibid., 200.

[59] Ibid., P/K, 155.

[60] Ibid., 39.

[61] D&M, 221-22.

[62] Ibid., 222.

[63] Ibid, 250.

[64] D&M, 14, 250-51.

[65] I’m drawing on comments made about Patient Zero in movies like Contagion, as presented in this blog post: — accessed 15/October/6. Also: — accessed 15/October/6.

[66] Cf. TRC, 47-50; A National Crime, 53.

[67] National Crime, 33 & 4 respectively.

[68] A National Crime, 199.

[69] TRC, 127; A National Crime, 179-83.

[70] Here the case study of Canadian involvement in Haiti is especially instructive.  Cf. Hallward, Engler, and also Paved.

[71] Graeber, Debt, REF???

[72] PoO, 35.

[73] Williams, 1.

[74] Cf. Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop.

[75] For a brief but insightful history of this see here: — accessed 15/October/11.

[76] For some of this, and many other events that predate the last twenty or so years, cf. “The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book” by Gord Hill.

[77] Fact sheet re: “The Gap in the quality of life between first nations people and Canadians: Key Facts” from the Assembly of First Nations, posted by Myeengun Henry of facebook on Oct 6, 2015.

[78] — accessed 15/Oct/7.

[79] Henry.

[80] Cf. – accessed 15/Oct/7.  It should be noted that the actual number of people killed by cops is probably higher as law enforcement agencies and government bodies do not track these stastitics and so these are only deaths that have been confirmed by independent research bodies.

[81] Drawing here from Dave Diewert’s soon to be published articles, “Death by Cops on the Rise in BC”.  Cf. The Volcano, awesome news source.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Cf. Jade Boyd & Thomas Kerr (2015): Policing ‘Vancouver’s mental health crisis’: a critical discourse analysis, Critical Public Health, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2015.1007923.

[86] Paved, 251; also Imperialist Canada, 404.

[87] This is why Bono’s remarks some years ago about how the Palestinians are still waiting for their Martin Luther King, Jr., is such an ignorant and obnoxious pontification.  There have been many MLKs in Palestine – it’s just that Israel has successfully killed or imprisoned them all. [REF!!!]

[88] Cf. — accessed 15/October/11.  The author of this piece makes several good points about what it means to be an ally.  Anne Bishop is also a good resource here.  Cf. — accessed 15/October/11.

[89] Quoted in Paved, 245.

[90] Endgame, Volume 2, I think.  Lost the page reference.  You should just read the whole thing… and email me the page reference when you come across it.


  1. This has sure given me a lot to think about. Obliged.

    • I see what you did there.

  2. […] a major cornerstone of the argument I presented at a small conference in a paper called “How Can I Be Health When I’m Already Dead?” Confronting the dominance of the medical model withi…“).  Conrad and Schneider make a very compelling argument that activities that were […]

  3. […] course, as I (and others) have argued extensively elsewhere, the rise of the discourse of public or community health in relation to things like poverty and […]

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