George Orwell (1903-1950)
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
For many decades Karl Marx was looked up to and admired as the champion, even the ‘savior,’ of the working man. He saw all the problems in society as the result of a class struggle between the rich and the poor; between those who owned the companies and those who worked for them. He believed that the working people would be better served if everything was collectively owned and managed by the government, and, if there was no such thing as private property. In Karl Marx’s perfect society, everyone would work equally and everyone would share equally in the benefits of that work. He knew that the powerful and the wealthy would not give up their control willingly or peacefully, so he advocated a violent overthrow of the present system and those who ruled it. His battle cry was, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
His vision led to what we now know of as the failed system of communism. It was tried first in Russia, where the existing system was indeed overthrown in a violent revolution. But then the violence continued on long after the communists were in control, and the killing did not end with the wealthy and the powerful. In fact, the brutal dictatorships of Lenin and then Stalin killed workers by the tens of millions– workers, for whom the revolution was supposedly waged and who was supposed to benefit. And then, even after all that, the new society did not bring wealth and equality to all, as Karl Marx had promised, but despair and poverty and decline to every nation where it was ever tried.
Some of this might have been avoided if Karl Marx, this champion of the worker, had ever tried getting to know any working people in person. But this he did not care to do. He knew very few actual workers. Those he did know, he despised, and he made no effort to get to know any others. When groups of radicals came together to talk about his plans for society and ways to begin the revolution, he was extremely irritated with any thoughts or comments made by any ‘mere worker’ that might call into question his own perfectly worked out system. Marx wrote much about the conditions in factories, but would not visit them. He had much to say about how farming should be done by the state, but he spent no time learning about farming from actual farmers. In fact, this man who was the champion of the workers, never worked at a regular job. Not only that, but this man who wanted to teach the whole world how to manage its money, was a terrible manager of his own personal finances. He never provided a steady income for his family, was always in debt, and seldom paid back his loans. If you are a famous social activist with lots of friends and have the freedom to move all over Europe to escape those to whom you owe money, you can get by with that. But most working people cannot. (See Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson)
George Orwell also was concerned about the working man. Orwell was a talented writer, and he wanted to write articles and essays and novels that might make those who were in power aware of the plight of the poor working people. In doing so, they might be inspired to make some changes for the benefit of the working poor. But unlike Karl Marx, George Orwell made an incredible effort to get to know those of the poor working class. He was a great writer, and could have had a comfortable life. But for years at a time, he chose to live among the poor. He would enter their world without a penny in his pocket, try to find the work they had to find, and live in the rat-infested apartments in which they lived. And when he was out of work and out of money, he would not call his friends to come and get him, but would go hungry, staying alive by getting an occasional bowl of soup and piece of bread at the Salvation Army. Orwell willingly entered the world of the poorest and most desperate, and when he got done, his health was ruined. He died in 1950 at the age of forty-six.
When George Orwell wrote about his experiences he knew what he was talking about, and people listened. His book Down and Out in Paris and London is fascinating and powerful. All the while I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Okay, surely he has seen enough. Surely he is surely going to end this little experiment now and go back to a life of comfort.” But he did not end it for a very long time. Orwell was a great writer– a couple of weeks of it would have given him plenty to go on. But he stayed on with the poorest of the poor, not only to get a taste of the life, but to get to know the people, become their friends, and share their lives. In the end, it cost him his life.
One more story. Once upon a time, all the angels were gathered around the heavenly throne of God for a discussion. Things were in a mess down on earth, they all agreed, but, said one, “What else is new?” As always, the Heavenly Father was very concerned about the state of his creation. There were wars, fighting, famine, poverty, bloodshed, and hate everywhere; and lives filled with sadness and despair and hopelessness.
“I’ve tried everything,” God said, “I have spoken to them some of the most beautiful and hopeful words they could ever hear: the glorious Psalms, the poetic passages of Isaiah, the powerful words of Moses. They love to read about peace and goodwill, but they aren’t able to live that way.”
God continued, “I have sent prophets to give them my word. They like when I promise them relief from their suffering, but then they ignore what I say about justice and righteousness, and they continue to mess up everything.”
There was widespread discussion about the sad state of affairs on the earth. Many of the angels, like Gabriel and Michael, had been to the earth on many occasions. They had seen for themselves all the troubles and the reasons for God’s sadness, and they shared God’s concern.
“Therefore,” said God, “The only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with these rebellious people, not just for a moment, but every day. Become one of them and get to know them. Let them get to know you, and earn their confidence and trust. Then maybe my ways can be truly communicated to them. Maybe then they will take notice of the great gap between how they are living, and how good life could be if they obeyed my word.” God then asked the heavenly host, “Which one of you is willing to go?”
All were quiet. The angels stood around in awkward silence. God could not be serious, they thought. Most had been to earth at one time or another for a brief mission; to deliver a message or to rescue someone. But even a short time was enough to see what it was like on earth. It was unpleasant and it was dangerous. Anyone could see that, and they weren’t about to volunteer for long term duty in such a sad and difficult place.
No one said anything for a very long time. God himself then broke the silence. Quietly, with great determination, and without any anger or bitterness, God said, “Well, then I will go.” And he turned to the angel Gabriel and said, “I want you to go down to earth, to a little village in Israel called Nazareth, and there appear to a young woman named Mary. Tell Mary that she is going to have a baby, and she should name that baby, Jesus.”
“That,” continued God, “is how I will begin my visit. I will arrive as a baby, and will live a life on earth, just like everyone else. And then, I will tell them all that I love them, and that I want them to be with me forever.” (continued…)
John 1:1-3 — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
John 1:14 — The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:11-12 — He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life. Enable us to receive him always with thanksgiving, and to conform our lives to his; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, #243
Jesus Christ Preaching, by Rembrandt