A couple years ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up on the pretense that the affluent 1% was hording the wealth for themselves and using it in corrupt ways. The best way to rectify this, according to the movement, was to spread their money around to the 99% so we could all be rich and happy. Since that time, culture views the wealthy like boogymen in the closets, people we should fear and hate.
This sentiment isn’t all that far from the reasoning behind the French Revolution, which touted “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and swept the rich from their lofted perch. The difference is that the poor of the French Revolution unleashed their hate with murderous results beneath the dreaded guillotine. Today’s generation, thankfully, didn’t share the same fervor.
From this class struggle during the late 1700s a myriad of literature has been born examining its issues from all angles. One of the more popular takes is The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy, which views the results of the Revolution negatively.
I was only vaguely familiar with the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel (I’d seen a movie adaptation in high school) and when I decided to read the novel, I was intrigued by the idea of a wealthy English gentleman risking his head to save wealthy French families from murder at the hands of the Revolution, especially given our current climate regarding the rich.
Many today would espouse the ideal of equality and assume it means we’re all on an even playing field. But Orczy’s novel shows us that attempting to achieve that utopia is a dangerous path. Her work is a contrast between a country wracked in Revolution and a nation at peace with itself. On the British side, the wealthy are ladies and gentlemen in the classic sense of the word. Their servants are kind and content, their banquet halls and pubs places of warmth and friendship. Orczy portrays the villain Chauvelin as enacting “outrage” on British soil by spoiling its inherent serenity. On French shores, however, are grimy inns and villages and fearful citizens in constant dread of being accused of something and executed. Every moment we spend there is tense and uncertain, while in Britain we have some tension but are relatively at ease. Clearly the Revolution for equality wasn’t as clean and liberating as imagined.
The Pimpernel’s work in saving French aristocrats is seen as humane and the right thing to do. In fact, Oczy contantly uses the phrase “in the year of grace, 1792” on the British side as a year of literal grace extended to the rich and toward the French as a sarcastic indictment on the supposed virtues they uphold.
Though the rich aren’t perfect or perfectly innocent (we hear a story of a wealthy man’s servants beating up a young peasant for liking the aristocrat’s daughter), Orczy affirms they don’t deserve to be slaughtered like cattle. They need grace and salvation as well. Where is liberty for them? Where is equality? Fraternity?
Our modern angsty generation can learn from this classic adventure story. While fear of the rich is strong again today, we must remember that the wealthy are also human and in need of salvation. A Bible passage I’ve found helpful is Psalm 49. In it the psalmist wrestles with the power the rich have and how he should respond to it. Ultimately, his conclusion is, “Man in his pomp will not remain.” In other words, every human being already shares equally a nature of sin that condemns us to hell. While a mysterious figure may save us from death at human hands, we all need the Savior who died for us and rose again so that we would not perish.
Inequality will always be with us while sin remains. For now, our comfort is that the powerful and wealthy need the same salvation as us. The challenge is whether or not we accept that grace for ourselves.