Martin Warner turns to literature for inspiration
Charles Dickens has a sharp eye for detail and an ear for the sound of life in the criminal backstreets of 19th century London. He relishes the drama of its small triumphs, idiosyncrasies and twists of fate, and many aspects of modern urban life and custom are, in fact, the product of his time.
The established Church, and religion in general, is given little space or sympathy. But this does not mean that Dickens failed to understand the moral nature of Christian faith, or its influence on human behaviour and relationships as a theological statement about the dignity of the human person. He seems, rather, to imply that we should expect to find the quality of goodness, something utterly transcendent – holy, even – in the shockingly dark places he describes without flinching.
In Bleak House, Dickens leads us down city lanes into courtyards of unbelievable squalor and misery. Poverty is the bond that unites the people who live in the shadow of the privileged practitioners of the law.
This is where we meet Jo, the crossing sweeper, a homeless boy, bereft of family, hounded by police, and whose only friend is a man fallen on hard times and into a destructive drug habit. At the inquest into his death, Jo states simply, “He was wery good to me, he wos!”.
At the end of the chapter, entitled “Our dear brother”, Dickens the narrator speaks directly to Jo, a character he has conjured up before us, assuring Jo that he is not quite in outer darkness. A ray of light shines out from Jo in his public recognition of acts of kindness done to him. And Dickens lets us eavesdrop on the question that recognition and repayment of kindness poses: “Who can say what will be done to Jo in greater hands than men’s?”.
In the early 1850s this was a pressing question, emerging from the popular novelist at the same time as a contemporary artist, G F Watts, was shaping public opinion by a new turn in his work.
His more than life-size painting of the Good Samaritan placed the demands of kindness at the centre of intellectual life in Britain, and it was accompanied by a series of other paintings that reinforced the moral question about kindness and its absence in the society of that time.
So Found Drowned, his painting of a young woman, lying cruciform on the river bank, addressed the issue of suicide; The Irish Famine depicted a young Irish family, refugees from Ireland, and modelled on classic depictions of Mary and Joseph with the Christ child fleeing from Bethlehem, while The Seamstress is a meditation on sweatshop labour – a topic that still surfaces in Britain today.
Like G F Watts, Charles Dickens was skilful in using the media of his day to present the issues of poverty, disease, exploitation and despair. The circulation by popular instalment of his novels brought these issues into the orbit of the new class of industrialist and wealthy readership.
Dickens built a bridge between desperate poverty and the benefits of education, wealth, family and friends. Just as Oliver Twist takes into a wealthy adult life the childhood experience of the workhouse, so respectable society is asked to believe that the people who exist precariously on the streets and in substandard accommodation and work are people “like us”, from families like ours, often lost to us, but with needs like ours.
The man who befriended Jo went by the name of Nemo, the Latin word for nobody. When he says to Jo, “I am as poor as you today” and was “wery good” to Jo, Dickens is taking us directly to the mystery of the incarnation that we have just celebrated at Christmas.
As St Paul describes it, Jesus being rich becomes “as poor as we are today” in order that we might share his riches – life in all its abundant glory, in heaven. This is kindness; it is built upon the conviction that we are kith and kin – we are human-kind, and out of compassion for us who live in the shadow of death, the Son of God has become as poor as we are, one of our kind, in order to comprehend the evil of death and to overpower it by love.
Dickens is not sentimental about this. He is a stern realist who shows us ourselves, and skilfully invites us to accept that we shall be accountable to the God himself for the gift of life that has been given to us “by greater hands than men’s”.
Against the harsh reality of poverty and disease, kindness is not a mood or a feeling of mild concern. It is the moral foundation of society and the theological foundation of our belief about the human person made by God and redeemed by God in our humanity.
I hope 2021 will be a year in which the stark reality of the God who becomes as poor as we are today will emerge with grace and radiance. For we are poor, diseased, afraid and without the freedom to be with those we love.
In the gloom of this social – and global – reality, the fragility of the Christ child demands one thing of us: that we respond to his kindness by kindness to others and, in right measure, to ourselves.
Kindness, whether it be hidden or heroic, is the practical definition of the shaft of light that startled shepherds, that guided Magi in search of wisdom, and that shines out from the Bethlehem stable as the Virgin Mother offers us her divine child who has taken human-kindness from her flesh and blood. As a vaccine against the contagion of our consumerism and waste, it is also the source of hope and joy.
I leave it to the 16th century English wordsmith, Robert Southwell, to describe that light of kindness which Dickens spotted in the squalid haunts of 19th century Holborn: it is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh:
O dying souls, behold your living spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.
The Rt Revd Martin Warner SSC is the Bishop of Chichester