Monday, October 25, 2010

Charles Dickens, Liberation Theologian

I suspect we'll be coming back to this perhaps epochal article again and again. Thomas B. Edsall argues that the United States is going through a period unlike any that its citizens, except for the very old, have experienced before. If economic growth remains anemic, tax revenues will as well, and deficits will continue to balloon. At the federal and especially state and local levels in an "age of austerity" and of rediscovered fiscal probity, Edsall argues, competition for scarce government largess will increase. Those with special influence and leverage (such as unions and large corporations) will have an even greater advantage than usual over constituencies, such as illegal immigrants and the poor, who can be easily scapegoated for gobbling up precious taxpayer resources (no matter how small a piece of the budget pie may actually have been set at the table for them).

We can hope that the mighty engine of U.S. productivity and growth (the last best hope of the material world, at least) will reignite and put the lie, as they say, to the doom-and-gloomers. Whether it does or not, it's important for everyone, from the humblest voter to the most exalted legislator, judge, pundit, and policy maker, to remember what the Hebrew prophets and Jesus Christ proclaimed and the liberation theologians reaffirmed beginning in the 1960s: That God has a special place in his heart for the poor.

So I gave thanks when this passage from Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop came up on my iPod this morning as I drove between pastoral appointments. Those who were amazed a half-century ago to find such powerful faith burning in the darkest slums of Santiago said it no more powerfully. Nor has anyone ever written more beautifully about the roots of true patriotism:
[I]f ever household affections and loves are graceful things, they are graceful in the poor. The ties that bind the wealthy and the proud to home may be forged on earth, but those which link the poor man to his humble hearth are of the truer metal and bear the stamp of Heaven. The man of high descent may love the halls and lands of his inheritance as part of himself: as trophies of his birth and power; his associations with them are associations of pride and wealth and triumph; the poor man's attachment to the tenements he holds, which strangers have held before, and may to-morrow occupy again, has a worthier root, struck deep into a purer soil. His household gods are of flesh and blood, with no alloy of silver, gold, or precious stone; he has no property but in the affections of his own heart; and when they endear bare floors and walls, despite of rags and toil and scanty fare, that man has his love of home from God, and his rude hut becomes a solemn place.

Oh! if those who rule the destinies of nations would but remember this -- if they would but think how hard it is for the very poor to have engendered in their hearts, that love of home from which all domestic virtues spring, when they live in dense and squalid masses where social decency is lost, or rather never found -- if they would but turn aside from the wide thoroughfares and great houses, and strive to improve the wretched dwellings in bye-ways where only Poverty may walk -- many low roofs would point more truly to the sky, than the loftiest steeple that now rears proudly up from the midst of guilt, and crime, and horrible disease, to mock them by its contrast. In hollow voices from Workhouse, Hospital, and jail, this truth is preached from day to day, and has been proclaimed for years. It is no light matter -- no outcry from the working vulgar -- no mere question of the people's health and comforts that may be whistled down on Wednesday nights. In love of home, the love of country has its rise; and who are the truer patriots or the better in time of need -- those who venerate the land, owning its wood, and stream, and earth, and all that they produce? or those who love their country, boasting not a foot of ground in all its wide domain!

I'm listening to the novel. You can read it on-line here thanks to the University of Virginia.

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