MARCH / APRIL 2016: BY CHARITY BISHOP
Jenny Lee stares in horror. One bed, two nightstands… for a brother and sister. She makes a snap judgment. But looking to Sister Julienne for similar condemnation, the nun’s answer shocks her—who are they to judge? The siblings have only ever had each other, in a life full of terrible abuse. Sister Julienne loves them regardless… and goes on to not condemn one of the pair for committing suicide after the other’s death. It devastates her, that anyone could make that choice, but she refuses to stand in judgment.
Like all the other characters and nuns on Call the Midwife, Sister Julienne is no saint, and is not always right—but she and her sisters are one of the more Christ-like representations of what true Christianity is like on television. Furthermore, the show tackles controversial topics with grace, sensitivity, and intellectualism, showcasing the poverty, abuse, and poor living conditions of 1950’s London, including rigid “ideas” of morality, by showing the consequences of choices. It is never preachy, but hits us with difficult, thought-provoking moral issues and questions, without easy answers.
Early seasons unfortunately do not fully explore the nuances of the memoir on which it is based in terms of Jenny Lee’s journey from agnosticism to faith, but all of them depict a Christian ethical approach forced to deal with real life hardships. It explores the social and moral dynamics of the period, through a variety of opinions and backgrounds.
While all the seasons have truly powerful episodes, the most recent one hit emotions, hearts, and issues each week—raising moral debates on the pill, mercy killings, abortion, gay rights, and victim-blaming. Never content to linger on one side of an issue, it presents situations to encourage us toward emotional investment, forcing us to confront prejudice or preconceptions along the way.
Two episodes, however, stand out in my memory—in one, Sister Julienne witnesses the birth of a severely deformed child in the local hospital, who is then left by the nurse to die as a “mercy.” It is limbless, and they cannot even tell its sex—sending her into a state of emotional turmoil. She invites Sister Monica Joan to tell her what to do—tell a hurtful truth to the infant’s mother, or lie to lessen the pain. The truth is the child was neglected, cold, and abandoned before Julienne found it—the lie is that it did not suffer, and died quickly.
In the other, an unwed mother’s pregnancy is hidden by her mother from society, and she nearly dies as a result. Her fear of social judgment led the mother to be “cruel.” She had to learn to love, in spite of society’s shaming of her daughter. This plays out against a slew of attacks against women in Poplar—first, a prostitute is brutalized, then a woman with a pram, and finally, one of the women of Nonnatus House—a beloved character is left to deal with the emotional aftermath. The show does not use rape, but parallels it. She enters a crisis of faith—she was brutally attacked when she felt closest to God, but it was not “Him at my shoulder.” She had stopped to pray, to “thank Him for Trixie’s skill,” to “lift my voice in song with my sisters.” Her anguish echoes every person ever assaulted.
Here, there is no contrived response, no easy fix, no Sunday School answer; she reaches a conclusion on her own that her strength is a gift from God and it is her moral responsibility to “speak, where others must remain silent.” No one will blame her—because she has nothing to hide, and prejudice stands against the others. They will victim-blame the rest, but not her. First, she rejects everyone’s attempts to comfort her. She rebukes Sister Julienne for inviting her to pray. She will let no one touch her. She shouts that she does not want people to speak “gently to me, because I am angry.” Her assault hits the audience hard, because we love her; she was innocent. She was not dressed “wrong,” or in an unsafe area; she had every right to be out on her own. Even Sister Julienne’s initial victim-blaming statement (“What were you thinking cycling alone?”) falls silent, when she sees what has happened. It explores what happens, why victims feel ashamed, the wrong done to them, and how society reacts (why were you out alone / in that area / wearing that?), but never in a preachy or judgmental way.
Other ethical arguments come into play in subsequent episodes—Sister Julienne is concerned “the pill” will invite more rampant premarital sex, while the series also explores the terrible consequences of those choosing to have unprotected premarital sex, through botched abortions, young people forced into marriages they do not want, near-suicides, and women forced out of the workforce due to “shaming.”
Life confronts believers with hard questions with no easy answers; there is never a single solution to any problem. Call the Midwife understands that… and hints at how much better the world would be if Christians were as Christ-like as the sisters of Nonnatus. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!