Rarely these days in the West do many of us find ourselves at dinners with seating plans, where we are placed in order of importance - perhaps weddings are the most common exception. But it is something I have often come across in my years of travelling to Japan. Once, when I was still not really used to the etiquette, I made exactly the mistake that Jesus describes in this parable. I had plonked myself down somewhere in the middle and ended up being politely moved further towards the end.
It’s interesting to think back to whom exactly I was sitting with at the end of the table, and who was up at the top in the best seats. Up at the other end were the men, the oldest in top place, working down towards the more junior. After the men, came the women and children – and not knowing quite where the foreigner should fit in, that’s where they put me, too. Old Japanese men at the top; at the bottom, women, children and gaijin.
We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that these divisions, these hierarchies of age, sex and race, were restricted to Japan. We have them here, too; and Jesus calls them into question.
Camden Town can be frightening. It feels like there is a surfeit of anger and violent emotion on the streets: always someone shouting, threatening, mocking. I sometimes feel afraid when I’m here on my own in St Michael’s, and someone comes in with a clatter, as I never quite know what drugs or mental condition might be influencing them, what state of mind they might be in. It could be elation, it could be depression, it could be mania or aggression. Volunteers here have even suffered violence. This is not always a place where you can feel at ease.
Much of this can be put down to the inequalities in our society - the hierarchies of power which Jesus calls us to challenge. The table I sat at back in Japan was divided first by sex. The men, sitting at the top, were meant to show power, wealth, success in business, strength in drinking; the women, at the bottom, beauty, desirability, servitude, refinement, moderation. Here in England too, the good husband is the breadwinner, the buyer, the family defender, hard-working, independent and strong; the good wife is the housemaker, the spender, the childrearer, supportive and caring. A man who succeeds in money or war is a hero; a woman who does the same is hard and unfeminine. A man who succeeds in sex is a stud, a woman who does the same, a slut. A man whose wife is unfaithful is a cuckold; there is no equivalent word for a woman whose husband sleeps around. Men are encouraged to seek power by violence; women, to be desired and to serve.
Last week, I was on chaplaincy duty to about 450 teenage Army cadets. They were literally queuing up to talk to someone who could give them the time just to listen to the problems they were having in their lives. Some of those problems would make you weep. Many of those problems drove the teenagers to violent responses. But I noticed a clear divide in how they dealt with that violence depending on whether they were boys or girls. There were several incidences of boys losing their tempers and starting a fight with a nearby wall or floor - needless to say, the walls and floors always won. The girls, though, took their violence out on themselves, cutting or otherwise harming themselves. Without exception, the girls hurt themselves, while the boys looked for an external target for their anger.
We expect boys to be violent. When boys fight, it’s a “scrap,” and we smile as we say, “boys will be boys.” We expect men to fight to preserve their honour, and even more so the honour of their girlfriends or female family members. A man who does not is weak. Yet when girls fight, it’s not a scrap but a “catfight.” We don’t take women seriously as agents of violence. Think of the difference you feel about a man who beats his wife, and a man who is beaten by his wife. One the same line, I once served in the TA at a 21-gun salute on Edinburgh Castle. When a woman NCO shouted out the drill orders, members of the public laughed. So I suppose it is unsurprising that boys want to show off their anger violently by hitting walls or floors or each other - that’s the masculine thing to do - while girls quietly take it out on themselves, cutting or burning or starving themselves in secret. Violence is acceptable for boys, while good girls silently suffer.
So here in Camden Town, it’s hardly surprising that in summer, as the women’s skirts get shorter, so do the men’s tempers. Young, poor men are confronted every day with all those things our society says they need to be proper men: money, fashion, flash cars, sexy girlfriends. And because they’re poor, they can’t get any of those things. Frustrated, angry, they seek to prove themselves “real men” by the only option left to them: violence.
And as for poor young women, many continue to buy into society’s vision for them, too: objects of sexual desire, advertising their bodies for the men to compete over and the best prospect to win. That is probably not how they would describe it, of course, encouraged by the modern orthodoxy that we somehow “own” our bodies and have no obligation whatsoever to think of the effect our appearance might have on other people. The secular trend for women to expose their bodies is, I think, only the flip-side of the practice among many Muslims of covering women up completely: both extremes reveal a mindset that women are essentially objects of desire, there for the best man to win and finally unwrap.