Gaskell, the Gospel, and Social Justice

  So Cranford is funny.  Really funny.  If you don't find the picture of a bunch of Victorian middle age women mistaking a hoop skirt for a bird cage and fixing it up with buttons and ribbons to display their cockatoo amusing, well, I'm not sure what else to say on that front.
  And it isn't that Cranford isn't also complex and full of fascinating themes.  The mere idea of women having friendships without men was revolutionary.  Shoot.  The idea is still sometimes revolutionary.  The foibles of human nature mixed with its nobility is a fascinating idea to me.  The contrast of different kinds of poverty could supply several essays with theses.
  But then I began North and South.  The miniseries is what introduced me to Gaskell. If you haven't seen it and you enjoy BBC miniseries, I highly recommend it.
  The first thing you might notice upon watching the miniseries or reading the book is the comparisons to Pride and Prejudice.  She dislikes him immediately, misunderstanding his character.  He is attracted to her, though he feels he must hide his emotions.  He proposes.  She rejects him.
   The comparisons continue.  But while I would never call Austen simple (her books our full of issues of class distinction and fascinating analysis of human character), Gaskell's novel immediately goes into area after area of complex social issues.
   Consider why Margaret Hale's position in society changes in the beginning of the novel.  Her farther is a rector in the church, but he comes to wrestle with issues of doctrine.  He decides he must leave the church as a matter of conscience.  While never stated, considering Gaskell's own religious affiliation, it might be save to assume the issue was the doctrine of the trinity.  Dickens, her editor, wanted her to leave this part of the story out.
   Then their is the labor issues.  I honestly feel that Ayn Rand and Upton Sinclair could both read this novel and find their own views expressed.  I certainly want to come back to this in another post.
   The issues of gender stereotypes is another fascinating theme.  What makes a gentleman a gentleman?  In Victorian England, it was rather or not he had to have a job.  John Thornton prefers to think of himself as a "true man".  But his nature changes after Margaret, portraying more "feminine" characteristics.
   But the issue I'd like to first discuss is the contrast between Nicholas Higgins and Bessy Higgins.
In the miniseries, they portray Bessy is much more witty.  Here she is meeting Margaret in the miniseries when Margaret offers her charity.  She quickly puts Margaret in her place:
In the book, her failing health, brought on by working in the cotton mills, has caused her to early in life to cling to idea of heaven.  When Margaret tries to speak to her about spring, Bessy replies, "I shall have a spring where I'm boun to, and flowers, and amaranths, and shining robes besides" She clings to it so much that she seems to not care for any sense of justice on this earth.
   In contrast, her father is so focused on the strike and the idea that it represents that he has denied the existence of God. He states, "I believe what I see, and no more."
  Margaret is in the middle.  She believes in God.  She hurts for the injustice and poverty around her.  Perhaps her character would best be described as one of charity.  The distinction between social justice and charity are contrasted in between Margaret and Nicholas.  (And perhaps would be an important discussion between our current political parties)
This graphic portrays them as equally important.  Charity and justice are two feet, but you need both feet to walk. Charity removes the immediate problem, but without justice, the problem will continue.
    But as a Christian, the issue is deeper.  This world is not our home.  I believe that.  I try to live that.  Does that idea prevent me from not seeing the needs of those around me and wanting to help them?  It didn't for Jesus.  Jesus focused completely on the Father, and yet He healed the sick.  He had no ties to this world, no family, no home.  And yet He wept at the death of His friend.

    The characters of Nicolas and Bessy Higgins are two responses to the extremity of the problems of life, an extreme heaven-view and an extreme-earth view.
    But I believe he question is not an earth-focus versus a heaven-focus. The questions should be are we man-focused versus God-focused. Bessy, for all her focus on heaven and Scripture, is still focused on herself and her relief (though certainly understandable).  Nicholas is focused on finding justice on this earth, justice for him and his fellow-workers.  But as a Christian, our focus is on Christ.  Christ did not find a difficulty in finding this balance.  He lived in the paradox of being completely man and completely God. 
     Charity and Justice are part of a Christ-focus because they are part of Christ's character.  To paraphrase George MacDonald in Malcolm
"'What do you think of heaven and hell?' 
'I don't.  I think of Christ.'"