To Charles Dickens: We Are Running Out

19 12 2015

 

scrooge

Dear Dickens,

I am a bishop, and I have accepted the curious assignment of writing each month for the Messenger of Saint Anthony a letter to some illustrious figure.

Pressed for time, with the Christmas season upon us, I really didn’t know whom to choose. But then, in a newspaper, I came across an advertisement for an edition of your famous Christmas Books. I promptly said to myself: I read them as a boy, and I enjoyed them immensely because they are filled with love for the poor and a sense of social regeneration; they are warm with imagination and humanity: I shall write to him. And so here I am, taking the liberty of disturbing you.

 

***

 

I mentioned earlier your love for the poor. You felt it and expressed it magnificently, because as a boy you also lived among the poor. At the age of twelve, when your father was put into debtors’ prison, you went to work in a blacking warehouse, to help support your mother and your brothers and sisters. From morning till night, your little hands prepared pots of blacking, under the gaze of a merciless employer. At night you slept in an attic. On Sunday, to keep your father company, you and your whole family spent the day in prison, where your childish eyes were wide with amazement, alert and moved, at the sight of dozens and dozens of pathetic cases.

This is why all your novels are populated by the poor, by people who live in distressing poverty: women and children pressed into labor in factories or in shops, without any choice, even under the age of six. There is no union to defend them, no protection against sickness or accidents, starvation wages, work continuing up to fifteen hours a day, as with depressing monotony these delicate creatures are bound to the powerful noisy machine, to the physically and morally unhealthy environment, and driven often to seek oblivion in alcohol or to attempt an escape through prostitution.

These are the oppressed, and all of your compassion is poured out on them. On the other side there are the oppressors, whom you stigmatize, your pen driven by the genius of wrath and of irony, capable of shaping typical characters as if in bronze.

 

***

 

One of these figures is the usurer Scrooge, protagonist of your Christmas Carol.

Two gentlemen turn up in his office, books and papers in their hands, to address him: “It is Christmas. At this festive season of the year . . . many thousands are in want of common necessaries, sir!”

Scrooge’s answer: “Are the workhouses not in operation? Are there no prisons?”

 

Scrooge’s answer: “Are the workhouses not in operation? Are there no prisons?”

There are plenty of prisons, Scrooge is assured, and the workhouses are functioning, but “they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body” on the occasion of Christmas. The gentlemen are collecting funds “to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. . . . What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing. … I wish to be left alone. … 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, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides . . . it’s not my business.”

This is how you described Scrooge, the usurer: concerned only with money and business. But when he speaks of business to his “kindred spirit,” his late partner in money-lending, Marley, the latter complains mournfully: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. . . . Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light could have conducted me!”

 

***

 

Since you wrote these words, in 1843, over one hundred and thirty years have gone by. You must be curious to know if and how some remedy has been found for the situations of poverty and injustice that you reported.

I will tell you at once. In your own England, and in industrialized Europe, the workers have greatly improved their position. The only power they could command was their numerical strength. They exploited it.

The old socialist orators used to say: “The camel was crossing the desert; his hooves pounded the grains of sand, and he said, in proud triumph: ‘I am crushing you! I am crushing you!’

“The little grains allowed themselves to be crushed, but the wind rose, the terrible simoon. ‘Come, you grains of sand,’ it said, ‘unite, join with me. Together we will lash the animal and will bury him under mountains of sand!’ ”

The workers, at first separate and scattered grains of sand, have become a compact cloud, in their unions and in the various forms of socialism, which have the undeniable merit of having been, almost everywhere, the chief cause of the workers’ upward rise.

Since your day, they have advanced and achieved much in the areas of economy, social security, culture. And today, through the unions, they often manage to make their voice heard still higher, in the upper ranks of the government where, actually, their fate is decided. All of this cost great sacrifices; opposition and obstacles had to be overcome.

 

opposition and obstacles had to be overcome.

The union of workers in defense of their own rights was, in fact, first declared illegal, then it was tolerated, and finally it was recognized by law. The State at first was a “policeman-state,” declaring labor contracts a completely private matter, forbidding collective bargaining; the boss had the upper hand; laissez-faire reigned without control. “Are two bosses after the same worker? Then the worker’s wages will rise. Are two workers pleading with a boss for a job? Then wages will drop.” This is the law, people said, and it leads automatically to a balance of power! But, on the contrary, it led to the abuses of a capitalism that was, and in some instances still is, a “wicked system.”

 

***

 

And what now? Alas! In your time social injustices were all in one direction: against workers, who could point their fingers at the boss. Today, a vast array of people are pointing their fingers: farm workers complain that they are much worse off than workers in industry; here in Italy, the South is against the North; in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, the nations of the Third World are against the well-to-do nations.

But even in these privileged countries there are many pockets of poverty and insecurity. Many workers are unemployed or fear for their jobs. They are not always sufficiently protected against accidents, and often they feel treated as mere tools of production and not as human protagonists.

Moreover, the frantic race for creature comforts, the exaggerated, mad use of unnecessary things, has compromised the indispensable things: pure air and pure water, silence, inner peace, rest.

It was believed that oil wells were like the well of Saint Patrick, bottomless; suddenly we realize that we are almost running out of oil. We were confident that when oil was exhausted, at some remote time, we could count on nuclear energy; but now they tell us that its production involves the risk of radioactive wastes, dangerous to man and to his environment.

Fear and concern are great. For many the desert animal to be attacked and buried is no longer only capitalism, but also the present “system,” to be overturned with a total revolution. For others the process of overturning the system has already begun.

The poor Third World of today — they say — will soon be rich, thanks to its oil wells, which it will exploit for itself alone. The comfortable world of consumers, having only a thin trickle of oil, will have to limit its industries, its consumption, and will have to undergo a recession.

In this growing tangle of problems, worries, and tensions, the principles — broadened and adapted — that you, my dear Dickens, supported warmly, if a bit sentimentally, are still valid. Love for the poor, and not so much for the individual poor person as for the poor in general, who, rejected both as individuals and as whole nations, consider themselves a class and feel solidarity with one another. To them, unhesitatingly, the sincere, open preference of Christians must be given, following Christ’s example.

Solidarity: We are all in the same boat, filled with peoples now brought closer together both in space and in behavior; but the boat is on a very rough sea. If we would avoid grave mishaps, the rule must be this: all for one and one for all. Insist on what unites us and forget what divides us.

Trust in God: With the voice of your Marley, you wished that the Star of the Wise Men might illuminate the houses of the poor.

Today the whole world, which has such need of God, is a poor abode!

 

February 1971

Albino Luciani

This article is an excerpt from the book, Illustrissimmi by Albino Luciani


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