Tom's Turn - Ode to a Justice Giant
We don't always do a lot about remembering birthdays in this space. You can look online almost any day and find it's the birthday of someone extraordinary. Today, Tuesday, the day I'm writing this, happens to be the 200th birthday of one Charles Dickens. Many of us first became acquainted with Mr. Dickens in grade school or junior high, in a reading assignment from a teacher who was trying to stretch us beyond our literary comfort zones. But in that teacher's efforts to move us beyond The Life and Times of Dick and Jane, that teacher was also—I'm sure not unintentionally—opening us to a conversation about how literature in general and fiction in particular is social commentary and can facilitate social change.
Charles Dickens, you see, was a humanitarian first, a change agent second, and a literary icon only third—regardless of what even his own intentions may have been. For through his writings Victorian England was awakened to the social squalor at its core, to the systems that created it, to the blindness that allowed it, and, perhaps most important, to the willful ignorance that tolerated it. Dickens was lauded as one of the greatest storytellers ever to use the English language. But with those stories he was removing the pleasant curtain that separated English society from its rancid underbelly. He was acclaimed for his memorable characters. But he created those characters in such a way that his readers could no longer ignore their real life counterparts living in the dirty and smelly places just across town, who produced the very goods that made the life of his readers so, well, different. He uncovered the unpleasantness at the heart of their pleasantness.
The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations – each of these was, and I would argue remains more than a story. Each awakened nineteenth century England to the needs of so many of its citizens and to the injustice and dispassion that both created and sustained those needs, that degradation. And they worked! They moved people to improve things. Dickens's novels worked much like Jesus's parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19ff). They taught us that one cannot ignore the want in a land of plenty. They moved people not simply to change their own ways but also to reform the structures of society that keep some of our brothers and sisters in awful circumstances. With an Oliver or a Tiny Tim or a Pip seared into their minds, readers of Dickens could no longer be dismissive of and antagonistic toward the poor among them.
My only point in bringing up Charles Dickens here on his 200th birthday is to hope that his compassion and his sense of justice might help some of us renew our commitment to improve the lot of those with great needs at our own doorsteps, on the other sides of our walls and hedgerows, and in the prejudicial caricatures in our minds.
I'll see you and your guests next Sunday. Remember to share a ride when possible, to wash your hands often, and to share God's Good News daily, even if it's only with a smile. To prepare for Sunday, please read Mk. 1.40-45.