One of the sharpest social critics of 19th century European industrial capitalism was…Charles Dickens. Those who have read Karl Marx’s writings see the world that he is attacking; those who have read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Bleak House, or A Christmas Carol will see that same world. However, we find the world described by Dickens, because it is novelized, less abrupt and perhaps more understandable.
I just returned from seeing my children perform in a children’s production of A Christmas Carol and I had to write this. It has been on my mind since last Christmas season.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol occurs the following exchange:
‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’
‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man! look here! Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!’
‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’
It is easy to sit back and criticize the government for either not doing enough for those who are in real need or for providing entitlements and creating a portion of society dependent on and enthralled to an entity of force. It’s like “shooting fish in a barrel” to complain that business is “heartless” and seeking profit at the expense of the worker.
Where does the responsibility lay? Is it the purview of religion to make sure there is no Want or Ignorance? Is it the isolated role of the education establishment to assure gaining of knowledge, guaranteeing that there will be No Child Left Behind? Do the specialists in the media have the role of informing, opining, swaying public opinion and in effect telling people how to think?
At whose feet does Dickens lay the problems of Want and Ignorance? At yours. At mine. Are there no institutions to solve the problems? Are there no schools to educate the ignorant? Why is ignorance persistently present? Are there no TV programs, internet sites, radio programs, newspapers? Are there no welfare programs? Are there no church programs to address the issue of want? The problems are yours and mine. The solutions will be found in how you and I see the world and our fellow inhabitants hereon.
How often do we find that we use the excuse that Scrooge does early in the book in an attempt to justify Jacob Marley’s existence on earth: “But you were always a good man of business.”? How often are we too busy, to involved in “working for that which does not satisfy” to recognize what we must be truly about here on this planet? True social leadership requires some degree of the following attitude:
“Oh! Captive, bound and double-ironed, not to know that ages of incessant labor, by immortal creatures, for this earth, must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused!
When we choose to follow the path of statesmanship, social leadership, discipleship, whatever the term, we sign up for the burden described above. We understand that our responsibility is profound and hard. We don’t cast blame on others for the problems of society; we accept them whole-heartedly as our own and understand that only through our actions can these “children of Mankind”, Want and Ignorance, be transformed by lovingly nourishing each other and sowing knowledge and truth.
Action Step: Seek out those opportunities this year that will allow you to take responsibility for your true business. Remember: “Mankind [is our] business. The common welfare [is our] business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence [are all our] business. The dealings of [our trades are] but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of [our] business!”