During the recent shameful spectacle of our Washington Elites unable to do the job any family or business does—that is, keep things running and stay on budget—something has gotten lost that we need to explore.
You will recall the iconic character Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” One of his most memorable (pre-metanoia) utterances is in this scene:
This lunatic, in letting Scrooge’s nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.
“Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list.
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.
It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
Dickens’ keen wit is speaking about the battle then raging over social reform in Britain and elsewhere.
With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1760s, and soon after in Western Europe and North America, the
relationship among social and economic classes altered radically. The situation was quite complex, but one of its least savory aspects was that workers, including children, began to be treated as just another part of the machines they served. Social conditions were often deplorable for the “working class.”
Visionary writers such as William Blake decried this situation over and over, as in his reference to “Dark Satanic Mills” in the now famous “Jerusalem,” and called for reform:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— From the frontispiece to Milton: a Poem (1808).
That call was heeded, in both the secular and religious worlds. The English Reform Movement, beginning around the 1830s worked for and brought about a wide range of reforms, and this was taken up in the United States and elsewhere.
Sources of Reform
The ideals of the reformers were those of the Enlightenment, and in particular, the progressive ideals of the Rosicrucians and Free Masons, who had sparked the wave of Independence movements, commencing with the American Revolution of 1776. In some sense, this was part-two of The New World Order of equality, freedom and justice. We have discussed this in previous Blogs. Many reformers also were inspired by their religious beliefs.
On the religious side, the Roman Catholic Church took a clear stand on the side of the workers and the poor, and this was signaled with Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, Rerum Novarum in 1891. This tradition of progressive social and economic teaching has continued unbroken to today:
|Pope Pius XI
Quadragesimo AnnoPope Pius XII
Social teachingsPope John XXIII
Mater et Magistra
Pacem in TerrisVatican II
Gaudium et Spes
In Lumen fidei, Pope Francis completed an encyclical drafted by Benedict XVI, and continued this progressive teaching:
“Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and
to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment. Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. From a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity.” (Lumen fidei, 55)
In Eastern Christianity, during the early reform movement, most Churches were under either very controlling governments (e.g. Russia) or hostile regimes (e.g. Greece, Constantinople and the Middle East) so that their social teaching was muted. Once freedom was regained, however, the same progressive social and economic Patristic tradition that we spoke of two weeks ago with St. Basil and the Cappadocians was restored to the fore.
Some outstanding examples of this may be found in Theology and the Church by Dumitru Staniloae (Eastern Orthodox), and the writings of Paulos Mar Gregorios (Oriental Orthodox). Staniloae was the outstanding theologian of the Romanian Orthodox revival, and arguably one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century. Mar Gregorios was a Metropolitan in the Orthodox Church of India (Malankar). For a fascinating beginning in learning about the riches of Indian Christianity (which dates from St. Thomas the Apostle), see the Orthodox Wiki article.
We must, in fairness, acknowledge that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches are officially conservative on certain gender and reproductive issues. In addition, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy has erred horrendously in their cover-up of the molestation scandals of the last decades. Pope Francis is attempting to temper the obsessive focus on a few issues, and, inspired by his Ignatian theology and patronage of St. Francis of Assisi, is moving his Church back into the middle.
While being generally socially and economically progressive, Eastern Christian Churches generally tend to avoid partisan politics on official level, leaving this to the realm of Good Works (Philantropia) by the Faithful. This wise policy was explained and backed by one of my former students, Ron Dudum of San Francisco in an insightful essay. This can temper things, understanding the difference between what civil society can do, and what happens within the Church.
Conservatives in the American Roman Catholic Church have long demonstrated their propensity to “Cafeteria Catholicism,” an epithet they self-servingly throw at the Progressives in their Church, meaning one who does not subscribe to all of the Church’s
That this is a clear example of “the pot calling the kettle black,” was William F. Buckley’s National Review publishing the concept of “Mater, sí, Magistra, no” (Mother, yes, Teacher, no), first coined in a phone conversation between Buckley and Gary Wills. It is a play on the then current Cuban exile motto: “Cuba, sí, Castro, no,” and the title of Pope John XXIII’s Encyclical Mater et Magistra.
I never thought that Mr. Buckley was a non-Catholic because he rejected the Church’s social teaching, when he came to Mass with his son Christopher at St. Thomas More House at Yale where I served and sang as a student, I hope he would have felt the same about me!
So what about Congressman Scrooge and Senator Marley?
Having put social reform in context: Why are the current GOP elected officials, and the Tea Party in particular, so hostile to the concept of universal health care for all Americans? (Remember that the Tea Party is an Astro-Turf Organization, artificially created by the infamous Koch Brothers and their ilk.)
Today, they claim that they object to certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, but let’s face it: the conservatives have been fighting universal health care for decades, and doing everything they could to dismantle FDR’s New Deal and its descendent, LBJ’s The Great Society.
In most of the “Industrialized World,” meaning roughly our peer nations, some form of universal health care is common. The systems are not perfect, but they work, and people do not have to choose to eat or get medical care. This is more or less a result of the Social Reform movements we have discussed. In Britain, after World War II, the government told its people that the same solidarity that had brought them victoriously through the war, was now needed to bring them to health.
Why not here? There may be several reasons.
Naturally, Big Pharma and the Health Care Industry do not want regulation that will diminish their profits (if it really would). And they wield a lot of power (=money).
But there are deeper reasons.
First, Americans have long embraced, or at least flirted with “American Exceptionalism:”
“We’re special. It is not useful to compare us to other nations because we are the ‘City set on a Hill’ (Mt. 5:14). We are a qualitatively different (and—hint, hint, wink, wink—superior) society.” William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation preached this “City set on a Hill” clearly and unambiguously. The Pilgrim settlement was to be the pattern of all for the future.
This concept is seen as early as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s and 1840s, and has become common political currency since about 1980 in the United States, especially among conservatives, but liberals use it when it suits them. Needless to say, post-national thought rejects this.
It is fascinating that the exact phrase “American Exceptionalism” came from the American Communist Party in the 1920s. American Communist leader Jay Lovestone enunciated the belief that America was exempt from the Marxist Laws of History “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions.” Stalin himself condemned this as heresy!
The phrase was picked up in the 1980s by the press to express America’s uniqueness, and it was a contention in the Obama-McCain campaign.
Our Puritan Heritage
Second, it also has something to do with the Puritans.
Following just weeks after the ancient feast of Samhuinn (modern Hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls), in the United States we will gather around tables laden with Turkey, dressing, Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish (at least in NPR households) and the rest, and commemorate what started off somewhat well, between Europeans and Natives. Linus van Pelt, in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving sums it up beautifully:
“In the year 1621, the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving feast. They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought ninety of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food. Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish were honored guests. Elder William Brewster, who was a minister, said a prayer that went something like this: ‘We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.”
My ancestors were standing in the Southwest, waving “Hello, and welcome to the Continent” to these British immigrants!
As we know, the relationship between the Europeans and the Native peoples deteriorated tragically, as it had ever since Columbus landed on Hispañola, beginning the destruction of the thriving and sophisticated Native civilizations of South, Central and North America. The vitality of the civilizations of the Americas has recently been demonstrated in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
Many of the later Pilgrims were Puritans (beginning in 1630), that is, Protestant Christian dissenters from the Church of England (Anglican). Some of these, and perhaps the most influential, were Arminians (not Armenians!). This branch of Protestanism stems from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius and his followers:
- Election (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the rational faith ornonfaith of man;
- The Atonement, while qualitatively adequate for all men, is efficacious only for the man of faith;
- Unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
- Grace is resistible; and
- Believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.
This tempered the strict teaching of Reformer John Calvin. The French theologian Calvin was one of the chief reformers of the Protestant Reformation, and seen as the inspiration for the Reformed, Congregational and Presbyterian Churches.
Calvin taught Double Predestination. God has already chosen whom he favors, and they will be saved. He has also chosen those he hates, and they will be damned. Hmmm!
Some branches of his followers, including those in New England, construed his thought this way: how can we tell whom God loves and whom God hates? Wealth and success are signs of God’s favor, and poverty and failure are signs of God’s wrath.
This is a kind of Social Darwinism, preached by Ebenezer Scrooge: Let the poor die. Decrease the surplus population. Why should we provide health care for them? If God loved them, they’d be able to pay for it for themselves!
This is directly opposed to the mainstream of Christianity, and of all world religions and spiritual traditions. Yet it subtly underlies the national debate on health care, and fuels the opposition to it:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…” — Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741.
As my Parish’s former Deacon, Fr. Dn. Gerry Sondergaard would say, “Which New Testament is he reading?”
Charting our Course
Knowing the context and background of issues is paramount to navigating through these dangerous shoals. This argument isn’t really about Affordable Health Care. It’s about the nature of American Society, and one’s implied theological stance. Mainstream Christianity, in concert with most all world spiritualities clearly teaches that God is on the side of the poor. It’s not that God doesn’t love the wealthy, they just don’t need any help. The poor do, and the rich should provide that to image God.
With regard to health care, we saw in our post two weeks ago that the Christian Roman Empire had a fully developed free healthcare system. Those against universal health care in the US, and who claim to be Christian, need to learn what their religion actually stands for.
OK, that’s my word for today. Thank you for reading!
Some may wonder what my model for style is. I like to think of myself as that rambling old professor who is supposed to be teaching the various uses of the genitive case in Classical Greek, but spends the first 20 minutes of the class waxing eloquent on something, and then eventually gets to the genitive absolute.
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant