Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore and Paris: A Tale of Two Cities

My 9th grade Bible class prayed for Baltimore yesterday morning. But I hadn't anticipated Baltimore coming up later in English when we discussed A Tale of Two Cities. The comparison was quite appropriate, however.

ToTC takes place during the French Revolution, and Dickens gives us powerful descriptions of the corruption of the French aristocracy and its oppression of the French people. Communities are taxed to the point of starvation. A child is run over and killed without even an apology. Hungry families are told to eat grass. The "Monseigneur" and his class were abominable.

But the uprising of the people becomes even more of an abomination. Thousands beheaded. Their tribunals a travesty of justice. Innocents sent to the guillotine themselves for merely expressing grief over the execution of a loved one. People coming to watch the daily beheadings as entertainment, reveling in the blood running in their streets. Women bringing their knitting to the daily show. A man hopes for a young girl to be named among those to die, because her pretty blond curls will look so nice on the Barber's blade.


By the point where we are in the novel right now, the evils of the aristocracy, unjust as they were, are almost forgotten. The evils done in answer are their equal, if not worse. Yet the Citizens of France claim them to be justified in answer to the injustice done to them.

Just as I heard a black commentator on CNN Monday night tell us that what was happening in Baltimore was not a riot -- this was an uprising, and one perfectly justified in light of the injustices done on the black community.

One good French aristocrat gave up his rights and inheritance, refusing to be a part of the corruption he was born into. He returned to France later during the Revolution, expecting to be accepted as one of the people and hoping to be a force for peace. Instead, he was jailed and sentenced to execution. Once a Marquis, always a Marquis.

I wonder how many of those injured police officers in Baltimore actually participated in the injustice their department is accused of. And if any of them might have tried to stop it. Yet they got a rock to the skull as well.

To me, the most fascinating character of the novel is Dr. Manette. A Bastille prisoner himself, falsely accused and almost destroyed by the evils of the French aristocracy. But he was saved by the love of his daughter, and he is now appalled by the evils of this Revolution. He is loved and admired by the French Citizenry, yet he can not stop the flood of hatred. He can only walk in the midst of it, speaking truth, saving a person here, a person there.

And I recall images of black ministers in suits walking the streets of Baltimore Monday night. Victims themselves, most likely. Saved by love. Speaking truth. Stopping one crime here, another there.

An exact analogy it is not, yet the comparison is valid. Unfortunately, Dickens offers no instructive solution for us. His novel ends with the good guys escaping Paris as it continues to self-destruct. This is not an option for Baltimore. I do find it interesting, however, that even Dickens, who was not a believer, instinctively seemed to understand something about the only real answer to such injustice and hatred. The hero at the end of his novel is a man who voluntarily steps in to be executed in place of another.

There is a reason why the Classics have become Classics. They speak timelessly to the condition of humanity's soul.

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