Christianity, Schmistianity

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Christianity, Schmistianity

Marie Sager

"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."- Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe's famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, chronicles the daily horrors of life in the time of slavery. Written in hope of ending this brutal practice, Stowe appeals to people's inner morality through the personal narratives of her characters and religious sentiments. For me, the novel "worked" and elicited a great emotional response, but based on class discussions, I do not think this holds true for everyone; many branded the book as too "Christian and simplistic." I find this labeling very upsetting, not on the basis of agreement, but because I view it as a flawed perspective. As a result, I seek to discover just how "Christian" the book truly is and to dismiss the notion that Stowe believes Christianness automatically implies goodness. I also hope to overturn the religious simplicity assigned to her characters. Overall, keeping in mind Stowe's ultimate goal of action, I argue that it is not necessarily through Christianity that she tries to move the reader, but through acting upon basic human morality inherent in us all.

In a statement posted online, Emily wrote, "I feel like it's too black and white, with little or no gray area. You're either Christian and kind, or a nonbeliever and basically evil." I disagree with this comment, and do not think Stowe perpetrates this sentiment in her novel. In looking at Simon Legree, we see one of the most evil men in literary history-more specifically, one of the most evil Christian men. Writes Stowe,

Hard and reprobate as the godless man seemed now, there had been a time when he had been...cradled with prayers and pious hymns, -his now seared brow bedewed with the waters of holy baptism. In childhood, a fair-haired woman had led him, at the sound of the Sabbath bell, to worship and pray (322).

Despite his Christian upbringing, Legree is a man of cruelty and vileness. Marie St. Clare presents a similar example, for though a woman of the Christian faith, she treats her slaves and her family poorly, and thinks of only herself. Though neither character embodies the true spirit of Christianity, or even morality, it is not the aspects of their religion that qualify them as "bad," but rather their actions towards others.
Augustine St. Clare presents a different kind of example. Like Legree, St. Clare is both a Christian and a slaveholder. However unlike Legree, St. Clare acted compassionately and humanely towards his slaves. Still, the real difference between the two men lies not in their actions towards the slaves, but rather St. Clare's inaction. States St. Clare, "Being myself one of the laziest mortals...there was a time in my life when I had plans...of doing something in this world, more than to float and drift. I had vague, indistinct yearnings to be a sort of emancipator" (201). He goes one to say that he believes many people hold similar feelings, but do not act upon them. Thus, Stowe stresses the importance of action, without regard for religion. It is easy to go to church every Sunday, to read the Bible and to preach it's lessons, but it is another thing entirely to actually put its words of morality into practice. Consequently, despite St. Clare's good intentions, Protestant upbringing, and recognition of the evils inherent in slavery, his inability to act causes further continuance of the brutal practice, and restricts a portrayal of real "good." Chris agrees and posted, "Once people take their arms up and accept that they need to act to do what is right, the evil institution will end and the true spirit of equality and morality will reign." Thus, throughout the novel, Stowe refutes the notion of goodness as synonymous with Christianness and instead stresses action as the ultimate "good."

Labeled as symbols of Jesus Christ, the characters of Tom and Eva are yet another illustration of goodness in the novel. Yet, many students made comments denoting the simplicity of these characters. For instance, Catherine posted, "The character of Uncle Tom is basically a one way street...also, using Eva is a cop out." But Eva and Tom are not simplistic, and by assigning one of the most religiously significant people in history to her characters, Stowe takes a major risk. In presenting a girl and a black man as representations of Jesus, Stowe crosses the boundaries of race and gender, and again stresses the importance of action. Jesus' basic efforts of humanity, apparent through his treatment of others, that made him a good person and likewise, Eva is good because of her constant compassion to both her slaves and her family. Similarly, Tom is good because, despite his tragic circumstances, he treats everyone with respect and kindness. They both help the unfortunate, and within each of them exists great moral strength. Indeed, though these may seem like generalizations, they are not simplistic at all, for to exemplify these traits is not easily accomplished and in fact, rarely realized. Whatever your religion, living one's life like Tom, Eva, and even Jesus is no "simple" task and requires true character and ethical strength. Again, Stowe speaks of a higher morality possessed by all human beings and surpasses the boundaries of religion.

Somewhat outside of the characters of the novel, Stowe makes her own statement on religion and goodness. In a very important passage she writes,

Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother-man and brother-Christian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows up the soul! And yet, oh my country! These things are done under the shadow of thy laws! O, Christ! the church sees them, almost in silence!

In this quote, Stowe presents a critique against the church, which, though an essential institution for all Christian faiths, is liable for blame as it does not speak or act against slavery. Thus, Stowe illustrates the need for people, when confronted by inaction in the face of an obvious evil, especially on behalf of the trademark establishment of the Christian religion, to look beyond it, and transcend to the level of human morality. Furthermore, by breaking away from strictly religious ties, one finds a more valuable and universal ethic standard. This is apparent also through her use of the terms "brother-man and brother-Christian," for she though she mentions Christianity, she also mentions man, which one can then relate to humanity, and, more specifically, to a common thread found in us all.

Some may continue to read Uncle Tom's Cabin through a religious context, for it does stress the importance of the Christian notions of charity, forgiveness, and love. Furthermore, as Emily wrote, "Every argument made against slavery is based on Christianity." However, in reality these are not solely Christian values, and the effort against slavery is not solely a Christian issue- instead, and much more significantly, they are moral issues. Accordingly, viewing the novel as Christian is a choice made by readers, but not demanded by Stowe. When the reader looks past the Christianness, and
considers what truly makes a person good, they find not memorization of the scripture or weekly church attendance, but rather one's choices and actions. Again, the books real concern is one of moral goodness, not Christian goodness. Still, seeing that so many people in America were Christian and religion supposed stress on morality, Stowe was clever to include the numerous biblical references and the portrayal of Jesus-like characters. However, this technique of relativity worked only because it appealed to their morality within their religion. Consequently, I think that in a contemporary reading of the novel, a person of any religious affiliation or even no religious affiliation, can still read the text and see it through terms of universal morality and not as an inflexible Christian work.

Through often considered a fervently Christian piece of literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin speaks to all people, regardless of religion. The determinant factors of good and evil found within the characters are not based on their Christianness, but rather the morality of their actions. Throughout the text, Stowe moves away from the Puritanical aspects of religion and perpetuates the belief that Christianity does not save people-actions that save people. Keeping in mind the existence of slavery less than one hundred and fifty years ago, we cannot underestimate the importance of reading a novel that emphasizes a call for action in correcting the evils of society, and rallies for the triumph of morality, whether religious or not.

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