In the Christian tradition that I grew up in, personal morality was often the primary focus of all teaching. It wasn’t until college that I began to learn about social justice issues and how they related to the Kingdom of God. In both the Old and New Testament, God reminds us that He cares for the poor and mistreated and wants us to do the same. In Isaiah 58:5-6 God says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them … ?" (TNIV).
In Matthew 25:34-36 Jesus teaches “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (TNIV). God calls us to do His will on earth as it is already being done in heaven. When we focus only on ourselves and our own private morality, we are in fact moral failures, no matter what else we think we may be doing to attain righteousness.
Poverty, racism, gender equality, immigration, genocide—if these issues don’t affect our lives, if we aren’t in the middle of communities where these issues are problems on a daily basis, it can be hard to bring ourselves to care, let alone to educate ourselves about them and to become active in changing them.
In my life, that’s where certain novels came in.
Reading Hard Times and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, my eyes were opened to what poverty does to people and why poverty and crime are sometimes linked. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair demonstrated how our political and financial systems can be set up in such a way that the poor cannot beat them, no matter how determined they are, or how hard they work. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and the recent novel by Dave Eggers, What Is the What, make genocide real and personal, magnifying its heartbreak. The novel Forgetfulness by Ward Just shows just how futile and poisonous that revenge, personal or corporate, can be. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee illustrates, through the eyes of two precocious children, the injustice and ugliness of racism.
I don’t only speak for myself or my own experience here. The popularity of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe has been given credit for opening thousands of people’s eyes to the horror of slavery, eventually helping to lead to the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation. One apocryphal story has it that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, “So this is the little lady that started such a big war.”
In any novel, the story should come first. There is always the danger that a novel whose plot involves some kind of social justice issue can feel a little … preachy. There are times in Oliver Twist that the narrative seems to only serve the message about the evils of poverty instead of letting the message serve Oliver’s story.
Art can, for moments and sometimes even hours at a time, transport us into the middle of other people’s lives. And when we know people and begin to care about them, we begin to care about the issues that overwhelm and cripple them. Reading a great book can sometimes help us take the first steps on the journey in which we become more like the God who desires us to loose the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share our food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.