A Catholic Monthly Magazine

I, Daniel Blake

Fr Brian Cummings SM

Directed by Ken Loach

A Marist Perspective

At first sight there may not appear to be a great deal in common between director Ken Loach’s powerful latest movie, set in Newcastle in England, and the early Marist missions in the Bugey region of France. 

But while they are separated by 853 miles and 189 years, it is not too fanciful to suggest that Jean-Claude Colin would have related very readily to the situation in which the movie’s central character finds himself. 

As with most of Loach’s work, I, Daniel Blake is an angry film. It aims to challenge, to unsettle, to demand social change, and it is impossible to watch without becoming emotionally engaged with it. 

I, Daniel Blake tells the story of Daniel (Dave Jones), a 59 year old Geordie (Newcastle inhabitant) joiner who has never been out of work. After suffering a heart attack, Daniel is ordered to rest by his doctor. Unable to work and needing support, Daniel turns to the state for the first time in his life. After being put through various tests, he is deemed capable of work because he can achieve minimal fitness standards. And so he is put on a benefit that relies on his actively seeking employment- even though he is not physically capable of actually undertaking any job should he be offered one. 

And so Daniel enters a strange sort of twilight world where he is out of work because of his state of health and yet the state demands he look for work as a condition of paying him a benefit- but should he find work, he cannot undertake it because of his health, and so the state will cut his benefit for not working.

It is a new world for Daniel - and he finds he is not the only inhabitant of it. He befriends and supports Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother with two children, who has been forced to relocate to Newcastle from London because of housing costs. One of the most haunting scenes in the movie occurs when Katie realises how powerless she has become to look after herself and her family and becomes reliant on a food bank for the first time in her life. 

Consumed by utter frustration at a bureaucracy that places order and systems above the real needs of people, Daniel enters into another new (for him) state of life: a political activist, painting graffiti on the wall of his local job centre in an act of defiance against the nightmare of a system that has captured him and so many others. 

The depths of Daniel’s despair, anger and frustration are revealed most poignantly in what become his final words in the movie: 

I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief .

I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so. 

I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. 

I Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you.”

Fr Colin’s Approach

“I demand you treat me with respect” are words that would have resonated with Jean-Claude Colin. 

In March 1827 he, Ẻtienne Déclas and Antoine Jallon visited the region of Tenay, which stands out amongst the early missions the first Marists preached because it was the only one given in an industrial area. 

They found it a challenging place. It was difficult for people to attend the sessions because work began just as the mission got underway and employers were not supportive of their workers absenting themselves. Nevertheless, Colin and his companions continued, with some success, to encourage people to come to the mission. 

Tenay, France, 1905

Challenging as it was, the time in Tenay proved highly significant for shaping Colin’s thoughts in terms of the approach to be adopted by Marists in dealing with people. He advised them to encourage, rather than to reprimand or criticise, those who may not have been able to make the mission: “Speak with esteem and respect of those who have not made the mission. Excuse them by attributing their absence to the pressure of business or other responsibilities.” 

Colin understood that people are not always able to make the choices they might prefer to; and that the demands placed on them by employers, officials, the Church and others may well leave people in a position where they feel utterly powerless. Consequently, the last thing they need is for yet more pressure and expectation being placed on them. 

Commandments for Missioners

This sensitivity towards the burdens experienced by the ‘ordinary person’ is reflected in what Craig Larkin SM has called informally “Father Colin’s Ten Commandments for Missioners.” Although clearly originally written for priests, the principles behind them are valid for all members of the Marist family: 

1. Show great kindness to sinners who come to you in the confessional. Do not rebuff them or appear surprised by their crimes, however great they are. 

2. Never say, “I can’t see you [i.e. ‘you haven’t been attending the mission’]; I can’t absolve you.” If people come to you, that’s a sign that they need something; that’s the beginning of good will.

3. Have a great knowledge of the human heart and find the key to the human heart. You must win people’s esteem, and their heart, in order to win them over.

4. Listen to people quietly and with kindness.

5. Follow all those opinions which give greatest play to the mercy of God, without however falling into a laxist theology.

6. In the confessional, follow those principles: “All for souls”, and “Salvation before law.”

7. Do not frighten people by too severe a sermon. They are not always strong enough to take it.

8. In your preaching, do not enter into great detail about obligations at the beginning.

9. Never scold children.

10. Finally, keep a light touch; find things to laugh about. It loosens up your head and your nerves.

Perhaps the most well-known saying of Jean-Claude Colin in this whole area of caring for people is “It was in Rome that I learned the maxim: ‘Law was made for man.’ If l cannot save him with the law, I shall try to save him without it.” By this, Colin was not suggesting he would cherrypick what he liked of the law- rather, he was making the point that compassion must come first before placing demands and expectations on people. 

Colin’s approach was one that Daniel Blake longed for but could not find in his world. He would have experienced in Colin someone who would recognise him  as a man and not as a client, a customer, a service user, a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, a thief, a national insurance number, a blip on a screen. Someone who would treat him with the esteem and respect that was his right.

The challenge for us in our world - which might also be far removed from Tenay or Newcastle - is that many Daniel Blakes and Katie Morgans continue to be overwhelmed with bureaucracies and systems intended to help, not crush, them. 

As Marists, we are called to show “esteem and respect” to everyone we encounter and to be at all times “instruments of divine mercy.” That encompasses both helping those in need and actively working to change systems that oppress people. I, Daniel Blake reminds us in a powerful and moving way that there is, in many respects, very little space and time between the world of the Bugey and the world we inhabit in our daily lives.  

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