Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Charles Dickens Made Me A Democrat

I don't watch much T.V., but I do enjoy watching Masterpiece on PBS when I get the chance.  Lately my local PBS station has been airing the works of Charles Dickens--David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and the one I watched a few nights ago, Little Dorrit.

I consider David Copperfield to be one of my favorite books of all time.  I like the book for many reasons; the obvious ones of course-- a colorful cast of characters and a remarkable story-- but also because it had a profound impact on my thinking.  Reading Dickens, one can't help but notice the stark poverty that existed in 19th century England.  Even though England was one of the most developed nations on earth, with an empire that stretched around the globe, its streets were still filled with beggars and orphans, and its debtors' prisons were full of families with little hope of paying their debts.  Reading David Copperfield for the first time, I wondered how people in such a wealthy nation could be so poor.  How did it happen?  Why didn't anyone help them?  I know there was a lot of factors contributing to the landscape of 19th century England, but Dickens turned my radar on to the plight of the poor in this day and age, in my own country, and in my own town.

Growing up, I had the mindset that you are what you make yourself.  Hard work would be rewarded, and laziness would lead you to financial ruin.  (Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and all that.)  Those who looked to government handouts were simply people who didn't want to work, and inefficient bureaucratic government rewarded their slothfulness.  As I always like to say, I grew up watching my father read his Bible with a Wall Street Journal in his other hand and Rush Limbaugh on the radio.  Thus, I equated a Republican, "conservative" view of government with the most Christian view of government.  A person's welfare was their own responsibility, and government had no business addressing what people should obviously be able to fix themselves.  If a person was really in need, they could go to a church for help.  Or so I thought.

Then I encountered poverty, not just in the pages of a book, but in real life.  I encountered my own experience with financial hardship and the need to rely on government services.  I realized that these things are never as simple as political stump speeches like to make them.  And I realized that many churches in the U.S., either through ignorance or choice, are not equipped to help those in need in their own communities.

I've seen churches go above and beyond to help those in need, and I've seen churches completely drop the ball in helping the people literally outside their front door.  I've seen government inefficiency at its bureaucratic worse, and I've seen government programs help people in tremendous ways, saving them from financial ruin.  I'm not naive enough to think government can or should fix everyone's problems, nor is it the best vehicle for meeting the needs of people in poverty.  But I look at the world of Charles Dickens-- a world with few government services, a world where the church (and indeed, being the Church of England, a very structured one) was responsible for caring for the poor-- and I wonder what made things finally improve.  Many things changed--economically, politically, socially, and religiously-- so it's hard to point to what brought the most relief to a desperate situation.  While government wasn't the sole source, it certainly played a part.  I then imagine what our country today would look like if we had no government services-- no welfare, no medicaid, no WIC, no state child health insurance, no laws protecting workers, no unemployment aid, and so forth.  Where could people go for help?  Surely the church would help, but could the church help everyone, in every town, in every village?  Without a safety net that covered the entire country in an organized way, how many people would fall through the cracks?  

For this reason (and a few others), I came to the conclusion that government can play a positive role in people's lives, and until our churches get their acts together to address the needs of their communities, then government will have to continue to meet this need.  

As a Christian, I'm not entirely happy with this conclusion, as I'm still convinced churches have the potential to do a better job of addressing poverty than the government. I get frustrated when I hear Christians bad mouth government services and the people who use them and yet don't do anything in their local church to help those people.  Maybe we need to venture out of our comfortable church buildings and into our communities to see where the needs are--because the needs are there.  

Or maybe we just need to read more Dickens.


Anonymous said...

What I see is that bigger and bigger churches are being built on every street corner of every town or city, while the more and more people are suffering and homeless. As you say, some churches do help the poor, but many don't. The ministers are more interested in themselves buying big homes, cars, etc. They do not look outside their churches to see the suffering. Instead, they criticize the poor as being lazy. I have argued with a lot of fellow Christians about this and tell them that most poor people work very hard to make ends meet and most of them are exploited by the rich business owners. I think that it is very difficult for the poor to get out of their situation. Sometimes some do succeed in rising above their station, but it is the exception rather than the rule. I know this from what I see beyond my nose. I empathize with all my fellowmen. You never can judge another until you have walked in their shoes.

Anonymous said...

Hi, very nice post.

I don't have a sense of your exact age, but I can say that it was during the Reagan years that people in churches really began finding it fashionable to detest the poor. It really got started with the "welfare mothers" rant, which sadly broke up a lot of families when they got their wish - or what's a single mom to do, let the state raise her children in front of a television set in day care? But that's what happened. Now we see those effectually abandoned welfare kids and the way their adulthoods are resounding through society, and I can't say it changed anything for the better.

What few people among the very industrialized nations realize is that for all they are touted as the richest nations on earth, that wealth does not trickle down to the bottom. Some 300 families now control around 90% of the wealth in the US. Meanwhile cities are abandoned, turned en masse into lawless ghettoes (some examples:,,

I think in England too there is a lie that the poverty was ever overcome, when in fact there are vast ghettoes there too.

It's related to greed. The wealthiest ruling families of countries tend to become more hateful of the lower classes for all their wealth, rather than increasing in charity. Thus in the US we're seeing the government devoured alive in the name of "bank welfare" while people are thrown into the streets, sometimes without warning when their landlords foreclose on properties. As you point out, these people don't "have it coming." But the only entities offered significant protection are the banks who ruined the people with their casino capitalism.

I wish you success at reaching out among Christians. I'm sorry to say it but I don't think your well-informed and nuanced point of view is very common out there.

E. A. Harvey said...

Thanks for the comments.

I was born in 1980, so the Reagan years were my childhood. What's interesting to me as I look back is that my Dad was very conservative and truly believed hard work would lift a person out of poverty. Funny thing is, though, he worked his tail off day and night and never got ahead. I don't know what my parents' income was, but the first nine years of my life were spent in a run-down trailer house (literally held together by duct tape in some places!) out in the country. Rural poverty and urban poverty look different, but they are both realities in this country.

One thing I've also noticed among churches is that often they have no trouble caring about the poor in other countries. They will gladly send money to feed starving children in Africa-- and they certainly should. And I readily admit that the poor in our nation are quite rich compared to the poor in the rest of the world. But helping the poor on the other side of the world doesn't excuse us from helping those in need in our own neighborhoods. It's easier to put the problem "out there" and much harder to see it where we are.

I don't know much about economics, I'll readily admit. Capitalism has raised the standard of living in our country, and so I hate to badmouth it too much, but I do recognize that built into it is the continuous desire for more and more at the expense of others. There is no economic system that rewards generosity and compassion; thus, we as Christians, who are "not of this world," have to fight against the thinking that puts self and the bottom line first.