Contemporaries Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) were concerned about the social question: Why in an industrial economy that promises upward mobility is there so much misery?
By the mid-1800s prosperity was arriving for “factory and mill and transportation interests,” writes Les Standiford in his intriguing biography of Dickens, The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2008). In addition to business owners, “a growing number of managerial workers were beginning to enjoy the relative ease of a middle class. But most of those who made the factories run were laborers, and they and their families lived in squalor.”
In his early 20s Engels was in Manchester, working and researching. Appalled by child labor, pollution and slum housing there, he began writing about the evils of capitalism. Standiford says that Manchester in 1843 set the stage for Engels. Had he “come of age in some more pleasant surroundings such as London, The Communist Manifesto might not have been written the way it was.”
Dickens gave a talk in Manchester in fall 1843. He too was appalled. He returned to London and in a fury wrote his anti-capitalist manifesto, A Christmas Carol. Dickens “had no use for revolt or violence as suggested by supporters of Mark and Engels,” Standiford writes. His novels are about the working poor, but they dwell on character not on macro-economics. The stories hinge on the tension between bad people and bad institutions, on one hand, and the possibility of redemption on the other.
The good guys (the poor) in Dickens’ stories are complex. He does not romanticize them. Poverty in itself does not make a person noble or worthy of pity. A poor person might drink, carouse, cheat and make bad decisions at times. Dickens’ premise, however, is that being poor is not a sin; the system is at fault.
The holy season of Advent is designed to convey this lesson: Charity is not romantic; it is a duty. Poor individuals are often not charming. They do, however, deserve help with no heavy moral judgment attached.
St. Luke wrote an inspired story about the social question (poverty). Like A Christmas Carol, it is popular at this time of year. The creator of the whole universe, the story goes, comes to visit his created planet. His holy family cannot get a room at Trump Tower and so they go to a barn. The creator is greeted there by poor shepherds. He eventually spends his life among the poor, all of whom St. Luke says have defects in their character but are open to redemption.
These weeks are the best time to read St. Luke (his first two chapters) and also Dickens’ tale. Get a decorative copy of A Christmas Carol from Acta (www.actapublications.com). Acta’s chief executive Grinch sits all day near the building’s front window, looking forlornly down Clark St., waiting until April 9, 2018 when he can take his seat in Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs (92-70 in 2017). Meanwhile, the joyous elves in Acta’s cramped warehouse can for $14.95 get A Christmas Carol into your mailbox, as quickly as any mega-supplier.
Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box