Here, yet again, is a bit from one of my favorite essays, George Orwell’s appreciation of Charles Dickens:
Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He “believed,” undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts. Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so. He loathes the Catholic Church, for instance, but as soon as the Catholics are persecuted (Barnaby Rudge) he is on their side. He loathes the aristocratic class even more, but as soon as they are really overthrown (the revolutionary chapters in A Tale of Two Cities) his sympathies swing round. Whenever he departs from this emotional attitude he goes astray. A well-known example is at the ending of David Copperfield, in which everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong. What is wrong is that the closing chapters are pervaded, faintly but not noticeably, by the cult of success. It is the gospel according to Smiles, instead of the gospel according to Dickens.
I was reminded of that yesterday when reading Andrew Brown’s column in The Guardian on the Anglican bishops and their challenge to government cuts affecting the poor. Referring to recent forceful statements by the new archbishop of Canterbury and by 43 bishops from the Church of England condemning their government’s kick-the-poor “austerity” measures, Brown writes:
The Anglican bishops’ attack on government cuts this weekend is entirely serious. It offers a programme around which almost the entire church can unite, which appears to transcend party politics and even the familiar divisions of church politics.
The Church of England is certainly the only organisation represented in the House of Lords that has wide and deep experience of the poorest areas of the country. There may have been a time when the Labour party was like that, but how many Labour MPs have worked and lived in inner-city areas? More, at a guess, than Labour peers have. But bishops with experience as parish priests will almost all have worked among the poor and homeless and many will have lived in parts of the city where there are no other middle-class professionals.
This is also true of the two archbishops. The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby comes from a background of privilege at the heart of the establishment, while John Sentamu, the archbishop of York was born in rural Uganda and came to England as a refugee. But Welby, as a romantic young man, dreamed of working in the inner cities, and in his work at Coventry, Liverpool and Durham came into contact with the parts of England that Etonians like to pretend do not exist, while Sentamu worked for 17 years as a priest in a scruffy part of south London.
Welby’s commitment to ending the evils of loan sharking is one of his most consistent policy lines …
Brown is not a Christian, but he’s a close and keen observer of the church. He is, like Orwell was before him, a sharp-eyed, sometimes-admiring critic of us Christians whose outsiders’ perspective reads like that of an honest friend.
I suppose that supporters of Britain’s conservative austerity regime might want to dismiss Brown’s praise of the bishops’ advocacy for the poor as mere partisan politics. But there’s far more than that going on here. This is not a question of liberal vs. conservative politics, but of the same conviction that Orwell expressed, that we Christians — whether Anglican, Catholic or “Bible-Christian” — are at our best when we adhere to a “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors … on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.”
But for both Brown and Orwell this praise comes with a warning: “Whenever he departs from this … he goes astray.”
Brown’s columns are often harshly critical of church leaders — not along partisan political lines, but for straying from that which is most admirable about them, for betraying their impulse to be “on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.” Consider the church’s exclusion of LGBT people, or its refusal to accept women as fully equal — instances where “everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong.”
There are other echoes of Orwell’s essay in Brown’s discussion. Here again is Orwell on Dickens:
His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, “Behave decently,” which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, “an expression on the human face.”
And here again is Brown on Welby:
This looks like a return to the ’80s, when the Church of England was a bastion of resistance to Thatcherism. Certainly, the counter-briefing from the government is redolent of that. The rightwing press today has all the patronising cliches traditional to these occasions: Welby, says the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, is “a nice man doing what he thinks is his duty as a Christian.” Why we should prefer the policies of nasty men is not explained.
This suggests that the bishops have actually caused the government some pain, which should cheer them up. But it also suggests the difficulties ahead. There are some subjects, like the treatment of asylum seekers and prisoners, where the Church of England is almost entirely out of step with the rest of society, because of its insistence that these people are human beings just like us. Certainly no one would run for election on the church’s policies.
This is very much the same point Micah Bournes is making in the video we looked at last week. The struggle for justice is always worth it, Bournes said, because once you identify with those experiencing injustice, “you never stop fighting for your own.”
Once “your own” comes to include those Orwell calls “the underdog,” then their problems become your problems, and it becomes, as Bournes said, “ridiculous” and “offensive” to suggest that you could ever consider anything other than fighting on behalf of poor children being punished by austerity or sequestration, or on behalf of asylum seekers and prisoners.
And when we stray from that everyone can see that something has gone wrong.