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“A Harsh World”

By January 24, 2013 One Comment

I’ve come rather late to this whole Downton Abbey phenomena, only recently having seen any of the show. At the urging of one of my parishioners (and her sharing of the first two seasons on DVD) I’ve plunged right into the third season and have become surprisingly and pleasantly addicted. Although set as a period drama I’ve been impressed with how contemporary it is. I suppose the current of change, class, reaction to it, holding on to traditions, and general evolution of culture is relevant to any and every generation—but to see Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine verbally joust about it… Well, here, here! And while I know that they are speaking of the world in the 1920’s, they are just as much commentating upon our own world in our present time.


If you’ve not seen the show then I do apologize for going on about it. Forgive me, please; but it is quite entertaining and I highly recommend.


A particular conversation from this past week’s episode (episode 3, season 3, for we audience in the US are delayed from that of the UK) involved the Crawley household reacting to the unexpected arrival of Tom Branson, his entanglement with some activist and/or possibly terrorist actions and the subsequent plot introduction of the rise of what will become the Irish Free State. For background—as I myself am still catching up—what is pertinent here is that the Crawleys are a British aristocratic family lead by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham and that Tom Branson is from a “lower class” (from the Crawley perspective), Irish, former staff, who has married the Earl’s youngest daughter and thus is now part of the family. Involved in actions back in Ireland, Tom as well as his wife have had to escape, albeit separately, and return to Downton for a spell. Lord Grantham is irate at the position that Tom’s involvement in activities that he does not agree with and ideas he does not support has put his daughter in, while also being honour-bound and obligated to his daughter and thus, Tom, to look out for their well-being.


In an exchange, exasperated, Lord Grantham states, “What a harsh world you live in.”

To which Tom Branson immediately retorts, “We all live in a harsh world. But at least I know I do.”


Pow! Along with the romance and intrigue that drives the drama of Downton, it seems this line so captures the change and struggle that is always present undergirding issues of class and gender and power. Lord Grantham is indeed standing on a particular side of history and that history is changing. Branson gets that in a way that Crawley cannot. Or doesn’t want to.


As such, it was interesting after an evening in the Abbey, to wake the following day and watch the revel of the Presidential Inauguration. Now, President Barak Obama may not be on the same level of say a writer for Downton Abbey, but he does have a certain panache with words. In one part of his address in particular he delivered a “Pow!” kind of line that immediately rung with the same resonance as Tom Branson’s, but more explicitly,

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. (emphasis mine)


Pow! And it was inspiring. The beauty of the alliteration aside, the President is onto something. To see the arc of justice moving from suffrage to civil rights and equality not only gave me great hope, but was also demonstrable of seeing the world and change a certain way. That just perhaps we don’t need to ignore the harsh realities but involve ourselves in changing them.


Many have already expounded upon the beauty of the Presidential Inauguration and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday coinciding. It was hard to not hear the echo of Rev. Dr. King’s words gathered once again as we were in the nation’s capital. But it wasn’t his words about a dream that I heard. It was those from a jail cell in Alabama that resonated most strongly:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.


“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail


Sometimes, it’s easy to be entertained by history. The drama and the romance and even the glamour of a different time, to wistfully look back… To cheer on Maggie Smith, or Shirley MacLaine. We certainly cheer on Dr. King, I hope. (And I’m not confused with fiction and non-fiction.) But do we see ourselves as making history? As part of it?

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Right Tom. I noted that pow line in Season 3, Episode 3, and I noted that pow line in Inauguration 2, and my conscience is stricken by those lines in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and I have wrestled with these issues as I wrestled with the gospel text this week, and the sermon that I came with I am not at all certain of. I'm unsure about the rightness of where I came out. Was this really the Word of God for Old First this week? I wonder if the answer is No. But I wonder also, a la Karl Barth, if that No is also the Yes. Anyway, thanks for this post. I just wanna say that Matthew and Mary have developed a crabby marriage out of poignant romance. And I love Anna but I don't like Bates. And it's not fair that the nasty guy is gay. Speaking of which, Oscar Wilde is supposed have said that the only British can do the miracle of turning wine into water.

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