Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christian Charity

I haven't heard much lately, here in the United States of Amnesia, about the Syrian refugees that so exercised good American Christians only a month or two ago.  Today, though, I was reading a novel* set partly during World War I, in a Scottish town.  The narrator, who was ten years old at the time, remembers:
It was through eavesdropping on my mother and [our neighbor] Miss Miller that I discovered that the people who had come to the Paddies were called Belgian refugees and now another of these curious incomprehensible attitudes of the adult world made itself manifest.  I had often heard my mother and Miss Miller and many other people, including my schoolteacher, talk about poor little Belgium and gallant little Belgium, and Miss Miller was the one who told most of the blood-curdling stories, which her brother had heard at first hand from soldiers, about the terrible things that the Germans did to the Belgian women and children.  But now that the Belgians had come to the Paddies, there was no more about poor little Belgium and gallant little Belgium.

'Disgraceful,' Miss Miller said, 'letting them live down in that place.  They've no business in Lochfoot at all.  They are very dirty people, the Belgians, I've always heard.  They live next door to the French and eat frogs and snails and everything.'

'They seem to be a queer vulgar lot right enough,' my mother agreed, and she told me that if I went near those dirty foreign Belgian brats, I would suffer for it.
This is a novel, of course, but the situation described is so familiar that I feel sure it's accurate.  Remember that the Belgians were not swarthy Muslims but white Christians, and that only a few Belgians, perhaps a few dozen, had come to live in Lochfoot, paying their own way.  They spoke little or no English, but even if they had, even if they were simply from another part of Britain, would it have made a difference?  Their English would have been different from the local dialect, and that would be reason enough to render them Other in the eyes of decent Christian folk.

The right-wing Christians I observe are happy to denounce the brutality of the dirty Islamic State, beheading people and burning them alive (though both of these are time-honored Christian practices), but letting foreigners escape that brutality is another, wholly unacceptable matter.  The excuses they make (security, they're Mooslims) are transparently bogus; even if the refugees were white Christians they'd never be white or Christian enough, and their whiteness and Christianity would be reflexively and dishonestly denied.

Reading this novel, with its richly observed and described depiction of children's "tribal" culture and its adult counterparts, I was reminded of Ruth Moore's Maine villagers and fishermen, and of April Sinclair's South-Side Chicago African-Americans.  Time goes on, the world turns, but little changes.

*Janet Sandison, Jean in the Morning, Pan Books, 1969, pp. 106-107.