G.K. Chesterton: Joy, Wonder, and Justice

I was recently asked by my boss in Kolkata to do a brief write-up about someone who had significantly influenced my thinking. When I get into a subject it tends to inflate, so two paragraphs got out of hand and turned into this blog post briefly outlining why an overweight, British, Catholic journalist with a magnificent mustache rides right towards the top of my list of people who have profoundly influenced both my faith and the groundwork my passion for seeking justice and pursuing beauty in a broken world.

G.K. Chesterton’s view of Christianity and the world, particularly as laid out in his work Orthodoxy, shatters any semblance of the mundane. It rekindles a spirit of adventure, of wonder, of unbridled joy and daring and mirth in a faith that is all too often perceived (or even lived out) as boring, grim, and joyless. His is a world where the ordinary is the most extraordinary thing of all – where splinters of the infinite burst through the cracks of a broken world in the beauty of nature and the mysteries and paradoxes of the universe. Joy and wonder are inevitable – and this extends to the story of Christianity.

Chesterton writes: “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.” This resonates, as a writer who already views the world as a series of overlapping stories. For Chesterton, Christianity involves our finding the place for our own stories in the larger metanarrative Christ has set out through his kingdom redemption of the world. We are characters in an epic adventure, and that’s exciting.

Perhaps most influential of all however, for me at least, is Chesterton’s defense of a ‘divine discontentment.’ That is, even with all the joy and wonder and adventure, the Christian does not rest satisfied, because he can see that things are not yet set right. The world is simultaneously a wondrous place that points beyond itself to God and a horrible place full of darkness, oppression, and suffering.

“For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution,” writes Chesterton, “what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent…. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?”

Here then is Chesterton’s defense of social justice. Life, the world, mankind, is beautiful and horrific – and that tension demands action. We know how the story ends, we see clearly what the wonders of the world point to beyond themselves, and that gives us hope and allows us to dare greatly as characters in our own chapters of that same grander story: dare greatly to set the wrongs right, to take our places shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and to cry out against the oppressor.

“[The Christian],” writes Chesterton: “must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” We must be simultaneously the most joyful and the most furiously thirsting and fighting for justice. Joy, wonder, and justice become inseparable.

Kolkata Blur

I can feel the pollution in the back of my throat and lungs when I breathe, stinging in my eyes, blackening my nostrils. The smog settles low and heavy over Kolkata, an ever-present smudge on the City of Joy that matches the rot and blurs the beauty.

I was juggling a soccer ball with her brother when a little Bengali girl in the railroad slum gave me a flower and a smile. I think that’s almost all she had in the world.  I have a lot to learn from the generosity of the poor.

It’s those images and memories that stick – floating fog in the Kolkata haze and the blend and blur of sounds and smells and faces.

Back during the time of the British Raj, Kolkata (then called Calcutta) was the capital of India – the City of Joy, the City of Palaces, a major trade center, port, political hub, and artistic mecca for the subcontinent. After Independence in 1947 the capital was moved to New Dehli. Kolkata was forgotten and left to rot. Garish Park, the area of the city nearby Sonagacchi in which justice groups like Freeset and Sari Bari work, looks like it was once a high class neighborhood. The buildings are fading shadows of former glory. Ornate columns and intricately constructed balconies decay, paint peels and facades crumble to reveal the cracking bricks beneath. Peek inside through the gratings and doorways and you’ll see marble floors in some buildings, an ancient piano crumbling in the hall, children playing cricket in the alleys.

Life is happening in the decay, around every corner. People scrub in suds and bathe in the water pipes pouring perpetual water onto the streets. A man with a ferocious beard and a massive blue turban sells cha in tiny ceramic cups the size of an espresso cup for the equivalent of 10 cents. Drink down that hot, sweet, milky glory and smash the cup on the cobblestones.

Down the stone steps at the far end of the bridge, bright orange and yellow flowers are piled high, sold by the bushel or handful or strung together to throw at the feet of the gods. Stalls are packed with baskets full of spices: turmeric and curries and masalas, black pepper and red chilis and ginger. Colors and aromas and sounds all crowd for attention.

The flower market ducks under the bridge. The bright colors gradually fade to dull greys and shadows, familiar piles of trash, decay. Look to the left, two rows, facing each other, of wire cages, raised on blocks. We’re near the railway line. Perhaps these are stock pens, abandoned by the British Raj. Material artifacts testify that people live in the pens – a few clothes, kettles, makeshift shelves and bedding. A family is gathered around a small cooking fire in a corner.

I watch the flames of the dead in the plaza of the riverside crematorium. A group of four men walks by carrying a heavy load between them in a square bit of cloth. Down the steps to the river bank, and they release the ashes into the current.

I stand crammed between walls in the inner section of the Temple of Kali in Kalighat. Mere feet in front of me a mob of Bengalis push and shove and scream and throw chaos and elbows and coins and flowers into the inner sanctum of the temple where Kali, the goddess of death and destruction, the goddess of Kolkata, stands in all her stony terror. In the outer area parents pin their infants to the trunk of gnarled sacred tree and splash red liquid on their foreheads. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago child sacrifices still happened on a daily basis in Kali’s temple. Some say it still happens in secret, dark corners of Kalighat today.

The savagery of man isn’t a relic of the past. It’s here now. I’ve seen it. Women lined up to be sold like cattle, withered men with foam on their lips left to die on the street, the suffering and the sheer unfairness of poverty, caste, injustice.

The City crumbles, decays, breaks hearts and souls.  Sonagacchi is a totem declaring man’s indifference to man, an edifice of human suffering built brick by brick with the broken souls of 10,000 women and children. The city is like the buildings of Garish Park. The façade is peeling, and beneath the cracking mask one can see the rot that lies beneath.

The city dazzles, shines, sings,  bursts with flavors and smells and laughter. Vines and flowers climb and spring through the cracks in the skeletons of the Raj. Between the cracks the joy and the beauty and courage can’t help but spring up and demand life. Little girls give flowers and smiles and colors burst the barricades of the dark and oppression that looms over the city like a hangman.

Kolkata, that maze of alleyways and chipping paint and Tandori Chicken and muddy rivers and piles of garbage and color and wonder, breaks my heart, and fascinates me, and can’t be erased from my mind or soul or heart.

There’s a Factory in the Heart of Kolkata

There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata – one more building in a city of fifteen million souls, one more wall in the unending labyrinth of twists and turns.

The main drag of Sonagacchi, the biggest red light district in Kolkata, the City of Joy, is just a few streets away. Within the space of a few square miles, 10,000 women and girls, daughters and grandmothers, sell their bodies on a daily basis to men with evil in their eyes – strung out, high, drunk, lurching from the central bar and into the all-enveloping darkness of the doorways. Out of the maze and into the belly of the beast.

Many of the women are trapped, enslaved in an oppressive system and shunned by their society. Women trafficked over borders from Nepal or Thailand, impoverished girls sold into slavery by their starving families in the villages of India, they form lines and crowd the doorways of Sonagacchi and call out to their customers, wear smiles pasted on for their oppressors.

But there is a factory in the heart of Kolkata where the sound of hope sings faint amid the humming of the sewing machines and the clacking of gears and generators, and where justice is not a cliché, but an ever present reality.

The factory is owned and operated by Freeset, a business that exists with the sole purpose of offering an employment alternative to women and vulnerable girls in the Sonagacchi brothels. They live incarnationally amongst the women, live in their neighborhoods, work down the street, and offer them training in sewing and jobs making t-shirts and bags out of jute (think burlap) and used saris.

Steve, a burly Kiwi who bears a faint resemblance to Patrick Swayze, has been working for Freeset for years. Before this job, he had a gig taking New Zealanders on short term mission trips around the world, at one point doing a series of visits on multiple continents to different anti-human trafficking efforts.

“Freeset was the best and most effective model I saw,” he says. “So I came back, and here I am.”

I step inside the building in Garish Park towards the end of the morning devotions; they’re optional, but most of the women seemed to have turned up. A man stands and speaks Bengali to over a hundred women, the factory workers, those who have managed to leave the lines. They smile and laugh and hold their heads high. Here, they earn twice the rate they would earn at a comparable job elsewhere in Kolkata. Here they have worth. Here they have dignity.

The building is arranged in an open square: rooms, staircases and open balconies on the sides, and an open space to the roof in the middle. Jute is bound in rolls against the basement floor wall, used saris hang to dry from the railings three stories up. They flap in the wind and the colors explode.

The factory floors buzz with activity. Steep, narrow staircases wind up from the corners and we move from floor to floor, peeking our heads through the doorways of the rooms where colorfully dressed Bengali women bend over their sewing machines, men cut fabric into patterns, boxes are carefully packed and stacked and moved for shipment, supplies placed in baskets and lowered three floors down with a makeshift “sari dumbwaiter.”

On the top floor machines print trendy designs with Indian patterns onto bags and T-shirts. Cogs and wheels spin and whir, a heating mechanism that appears to operate in the same manner as a giant easy-bake oven carries material through to quickly dry the paint. In one corner, up on a raised ledge, a group of women performs the final checks: snipping loose threads, attaching tags, hammering buttons. These are the women who have been unable to learn to sew, typically prevented by age, disease, or mental disability.

“We operate with the belief that ‘every woman has a job,’” says our Kiwi guide. “This work gives these women dignity.”

There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata, where hearts are mended with the stitching of bags, where hope is manufactured and distributed in the streets and the brothels of the City of Joy, where freedom fighters stand tall shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and stare down the darkness.

The chains are real. But so is the hope.

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…”

– Isaiah 58:6


Hello world,

   this blog will chronicle the adventures, writings, thoughts, arguments, ramblings, photographs, wanderings, joys, sorrows, anger, wonder, confusion, thirst for justice and love of truth of a writer caught between continents and latitude lines. After a year of writing and working in Africa, I am now stateside, in the process of raising financial support to work with an organization fighting human trafficking in Kolkata, India. Here’s some thoughts and stories picked up along the way. Read. Enjoy. Think. Comment.