Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The children of want and the children of ignorance: Have Mr. Dickens's chickens come home to roost? (A Christmas reflection for 2016)

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a particularly dramatic moment occurs at the end of the section when Scrooge is shown various Christmas celebrations in diverse contexts by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  These contexts included both the genteel poverty of Scrooge's clerk and his family and the comfortable middle-class circumstances of Scrooge's nephew and his wife.

After all this, the Ghost reveals two children hiding under the folds of his robe:  "... wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable ... meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish....  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing."

Scrooge was appalled at the sight and asked (with a rather nerdish helplessness), "Spirit, are they yours?"

"They are Man's,*" replied the Ghost, "... This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, ... but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. ..."

As Dickens intended A Christmas Carol to be "an appeal on behalf of the poor man's child", one could say that this passage is, morally, the "business end" of Dickens' book.  What does it say to us at the end of 2016, particularly to those of us in countries that speak in the language of Dickens?

I believe that, in 2016, all of us in the English-speaking world have reaped the whirlwind of our long-standing neglect of Miss Want and Master Ignorance.  Perhaps we can say that, in this past year, Mr. Dickens' chickens have come home to roost.

Looking at such events as the Brexit referendum in the UK, the revival of the One Nation party in Australia, and the presidential election in the US, a common theme has emerged.  Voters who feel alienated from, and abused by, the economic, political, and cultural "system" have used the ballot box to express their rage.  And the results are frightening.

People have looked for someone to blame for their economic and cultural malaise, and they have found their scapegoats.  For many people, they've decided that the culprit is anyone whom they're not.  They've found their scapegoats.  They've found someone to blame.  They've found their Other.  Overwhelmingly, their culprit is someone who is Other:  ... someone black, ... someone Hispanic, ... someone Muslim, ... someone Jewish, ... someone feminist, ... someone gay, ... someone "foreign", ... someone "politically correct", ... someone in a suit, ... any someone you wish, provide that it's someone who is Other.

Some commentators compare the rise of Trump and the Brexiteers, and the resurgence of One Nation, to the rise of Nazism and the beginning of the Holocaust.  I actually believe that a better historical parallel is that of the French Revolution.  Following a reasonably long period that saw itself as an "Age of Reason", the unaddressed economic woes of a large underclass erupts into an episode of incoherent rage.  

Are Miss Want and Master Ignorance saying they've been neglected for far too long?  Have Mr. Dickens' chickens come home to roost?

And what happens in a few years' time when Mr. Trump and the Brexiteers have proven themselves unable to deliver on their extravagant promises?  What then?

Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, we still celebrate Christmas.  At the heart of this celebration, there is a birth.  A child is born to a teenage mother and her fiancĂ©.
  • Luke's gospel tells us this child is born in a stable because the Emperor decided a mass census was a good idea.
  • Matthew's gospel tells us this child and his parents are forced to become refugees because of the paranoia of the local ruler.
The small family is caught up in political machinations beyond their control.

John's gospel tells us that this child came into the midst of our world to be a living demonstration of the affirmation that - at the dynamic centre of our universe - we find a heart of love ... a heart of love that beats for us.

And this child lives in our midst today.
  • This child outlived the emperor who ordered the census and the local king who ordering the ethnic cleansing of babies.
  • This child outlived the governor who ordered his execution, and the various emperors who persecuted his followers.
  • This child outlived the people who organised the Reign of Terror in the 18th century, and the Final Solution in the 20th.
And, not only that, but ...
  • This child will outlive Nigel Farage.
  • This child will outlive Pauline Hanson.
  • This child will outlive Donald Trump.
  • This child will outlive Vladimir Putin.
And, in this hope, we also can live.

And so to all who read this, may I wish you your choice of
  • a Blessed Christ-Mass,
  • a Merry Christmas,
  • Chag Hanukkah Sameach,
  • Happy Holidays, and
  • the classically Australian "Have a good one!"
And, giving the last word to my favourite 19th century British theologian, Dickens' Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!

*   Dickens wrote over a century before Germaine Greer and co. helped raise our awareness over gender-related issues.  Please pardon Dickens' use of what we today would regard as inappropriate gender-related language.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.