George Orwell once wrote that “the real secret of class distinctions in the West” was to be summed up in “four frightful words”. These words were freely used in his childhood but are since merely thought, he suggests, never spoken: “The lower classes smell.”
I thought of Orwell's analysis of class snobbery recently when watching the opening scenes of the film, The Lady in the Van. Alan Bennett parses at some length the smell that lingers in his house after Miss Shepherd, the homeless woman whom he allowed (it is a true story) to live in her van in his driveway for 15 years, has used his bathroom:
“The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odour suggesting the inside of someone's ear. Dank clothes are there too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw … Miss Shepherd's multi-flavoured aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley's Lavender always a favourite … But as she goes the original theme returns, her own primary odour now triumphantly restated and left hanging in the house long after she has departed.”
The Lady in the Van is a brilliant but distinctly uncomfortable viewing experience. It probes our desire to think of ourselves as compassionate and generous people, and in effect unmasks the hostility most of us feel, deep down, to those among our fellow humans with the gracelessness not to wash, speak, or live as we do.
There is a telling moment in the film when Bennett goes to a local convent to ask if some of the nuns might be available to offer her practical help, such as doing some grocery shopping.
“We don't have shopping nuns,” the sister tells him, indignantly. “It's a strict order.”
Her disdain could not be further from the attitude displayed by the leader of her church today, Pope Francis. He imagines the church as “a field-hospital after battle”, healing people's wounds. In November 2013, images of him embracing Vinicio Riva, a man suffering from a genetic disease that has left him severely disfigured, captured the world's imagination.
Each Easter, the Pontiff goes down on his knees to wash the feet of prisoners or the elderly or disabled, those often forgotten or disregarded by the many.
In this, he simply follows the example of his master, Jesus, who touched (and healed) lepers without hesitation, and who washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper, on “Maundy Thursday”, and commanded them to do the same to others.
In fact, the term “Maundy” is thought to derive from “mandatum”, in the Latin translation of Jesus's words to his disciples on that night: “A new commandment (mandatum) I give you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”
This humility – this act of recognising and honouring the humanity of all – was mandated, mandatory, for those who would come after.
And many of them have taken this mandate with absolute seriousness, as the history of Western hospitals and healthcare right up to the present abundantly demonstrates.
A number of devastating plagues in the Roman Empire – such as the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) and the Plague of Cyprian (251-270 AD) – actually coincided with dramatic growth of the Christian church. This was partly because, while others (including physicians) fled the cities, Christians stayed and cared for the sick, regardless of their religion.
Followers of Jesus have by no means always lived up to his command to love the apparently unlovable. Yet the early church cared so consistently for the poor and vulnerable that, in the fourth century, the Emperor Julian was provoked into the beginnings of a welfare state. He wrote in frustration to one of his priests: “When the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
A similar response, funnily enough, was on show during the Ebola crisis in 2014. Atheist Brian Palmer, writing for Slate, expressed his discomfort with how many of those involved in efforts to fight Ebola in Africa were missionary doctors. He wrote: “Rather than parachuting in during crises, like some international medicine specialists a large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans.”
Human beings are worth (which is not to say worthy of) love, even in our most desperate states.
Yet he openly admits his instinctive “bias” against this “mingling of religion and health care”, and his preference for a secular healthcare solution for Africa – one that he acknowledges is not, at this point, forthcoming.
Palmer stops short of asking the question: is there a reason that these religious types are over-represented among those risking their lives to care for Ebola patients, or devoting their entire careers to the health of Africans? But scratch the surface of these missionary doctors' actions, and what you find is the compelling love of a God who, it's claimed, refused to separate himself from our suffering – who embraced the most visceral realities of human life, to the point of a violent and gruesome death.
No doubt those doctors who worked with Ebola victims – or the Roman Christians who cared long ago for plague victims, with next to no medical knowledge – had the same fear of contagion, the same horror of physical degradation and decay, as we all have. No doubt our revulsion towards the unwashed or deformed or pain-racked bodies of relative strangers is “natural”.
But the Easter story inaugurated a new “natural”, and Western history and sensibilities carry the imprint of Jesus's life and death, of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – as well as of Easter Sunday and the promise of resurrection and regeneration, of new life.
The novelist Marilynne Robinson writes of the Easter narrative that its main point “is that God is of a kind to love the world extravagantly, wondrously, and the world is of a kind to be worth, which is not to say worthy of, this pained and rapturous love”.
That is, human beings are worth (which is not to say worthy of) that love, even – perhaps especially – in our most desperate states. Our instinct to separate ourselves from suffering, to fence off, where we can, the importunate other from our otherwise pleasant lives, is unworthy of us.
Certainly it is unworthy of the God who, Christians are convinced, lowered himself to our infirmities and took up our burdens, that first Easter and ever since.
This article first appeared at The Drum.
Natasha Moore is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age.