Civil Religion and the False Virtue of Niceness in Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"

I can think of no better work of literature that describes the hypocrisy of civil religion and the implicit evil underlying the virtue of niceness than Stephen Crane's novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Maggie is not a laugh riot, but funny more in a dark comedy kind of way, not because its filled with overt jokes, but as an early representative of dark humor and satire that reflects civil religion's substitution of false superficial virtues for real moral energies. It is a displacement so overwhelming in our culture that it had fully corrupted institutional religion in Crane's day. Today the virtue of niceness is entrenched to the point where many people deny the existence of anything else pertaining to religion.

As a tragicomedy borrowing from the melodrama of the time, rather than a purely naturalist tract, Maggie eloquently and deftly sets up scenes to highlight human foibles in the context of a capitalist society where sentimentality and pietism have replaced virtue, and the clerics of the resultant civil religion, a religion that is by the way based on force and exploitation, are those who most deeply internalize its ethos to become both its victims and their own victimizers.

Certainly, when one encounters the text the immediate purpose doesn't appear to be to make us laugh, nor to lighten the intensity of the tragic events that are on display. Comedy may rather be seen in the text as a subtle force that assists in driving home the numerous inconsistencies and contradictions that are pivotal in the presentation of Crane's theme.

The theme in Maggie intersect my point here. It is a critique of sentimental, pietistic ethics borrowed from the religious pretensions of the middle-class, and how they produce an environment that leads to the destruction of civility.

A close reading of Maggie is more likely to summon almost cartoonish images in the mind of the modern reader, rather than realistic ones, albeit images that are dark and disturbing, akin to the graphic novel, while the plot and themes might re-materialize in the modern imagination along the lines of what has been termed "dramedy."

Caricatures of both extremely violent and hypocritical people as well as of the city itself are strong and present throughout the text, but seem to build upon common prejudices as well, such as can be seen in descriptions of infants literally overflowing from tenements and buildings. Crane writes, "a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and gutter...In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles."

So here we find an exaggeration, coupled with the prejudiced trope which purports that the poor have nothing to do but procreate, and their offspring further complicate their poverty while their promiscuity implicates them for it.

The infant Tommie (Maggie's baby brother), ever in a state of perplexity, fear, incapacity and struggling to stand up, doesn't make it, and it is no surprise to the reader when at the beginning of Chapter III, which is only a few pages into the book, the narrator frankly and without any affect announces that he has died.

There is hardly a passage throughout the novel where strong caricature and exaggeration are not present, including the bravado of Jimmie, Maggie's older brother, whose comic identity is summed up in his fearlessness in driving through the streets, willing to run over anything that gets in his way until the police stop him. Yet, like a child, he reacts strongly and with cowardly fear to the presence of an imposing fire engine, which motivates him to swerve to the sidewalk regardless of who might be in the way.

This is an obvious joke, something you might see in an old silent film. The irony is difficult to resist.

The basis for irony in the novel is the overarching conflict between the ideological civil moralism and piety which informs the lives of the lower class inhabitants of the Bowery, and their actual lives. This dynamic is skillfully illustrated in the opening scenes, particularly when Mary, Maggie's mother, beats Jimmie and behaves violently towards him...for being violent.

In response to her violence towards him, Jimmie curses another kid whom he regards as an enemy and vows revenge. But the irony regarding violence is better summed up in the description of the old woman who shares the tenement with the family. She is known to "don...an expression of virtue," we are told, but when caught stealing she curses vehemently and is also violent.

Such a description sums up the virtue of the nice perfectly.

Jimmie almost confronts his own hypocrisy twice when he considers the fact that the girls he consorts with, uses and it is implied, abuses, may also have brothers, and therefore Maggie may be identified as being like one of his own girlfriends, thoughts he quickly spurns. The narration becomes untrustworthy when describing Maggie's admiration of a new consort, Pete, as well:

"He was extremely gracious and attentive. He displayed the consideration of a cultured gentleman who knew what was due.
'Say, what deh hell? Bring deh lady a big glass! What deh hell use is dat pony?'
'Don't be fresh now,' said the waiter, with some warmth as he departed.
'Ah, git off deh cart!' said Pete, after the other's retreating form.
Maggie perceived that Pete brought forth all his elegance and all his knowledge of high class customs for her benefit. Her heart warmed as she reflected on the condescension."

The critic, James Nagel, points out the implicit sardonic irony:

"The pervasive cynicism of narrative voice throughout Maggie is virtually unknown in the somber presentation of deterministic agents leading to tragedy in standard naturalistic works...Irony reinforces the extent to which the characters misinterpret themselves and their society, attributing codes of honor, valor, and chivalry to a world devoid of any of these values."

We see this discrepancy throughout the text, especially in relation to the church, which on the one hand is outright rejected, but on the other hand which appears to have been replaced with civil religion, but not just as if it is dropped from the sky.

In Maggie, civil religion is born of capitalism that expresses its ethic in sentimental ideology rooted in a Puritan ethos.

Jimmie, for instance, embraces a Puritan-Calvinist anthropology of total depravity through his "study of human nature in the gutter." He has never been disillusioned, because he has never had ideals that have been smashed by experience. His approximation of human depravity is not theological, but a value inherited from daily experience; in fact, when the Church preaches the theology of degradation, Jimmie notes that no one listens. The response to the warning of damnation is, "Where's our soup?"

Crane is exposing the transference of religious ideas into the civic realm, which makes the piety paramount but the theology irrelevant. The implicit tension of the ironic here should not be overlooked because Jimmie actually adheres to an ethical appreciation of human degradation, but rejects its source, and this is what is being satirized.

Further, Jimmie eloquently expresses the Puritan work ethic to his sister when he says, "Yeh've edder got teh go teh hell or go teh work!"

At this juncture, there is no escape from the satirical critique, as the text gives itself over to a multiplication of ironic developments. Maggie responds due to her "feminine aversion to hell" and then enters into a standard approximation of it in a job where she experiences Marxist alienation: "She perched on the stool and treadled at her machine all day, turning out collars, the name of whose brand could be noted for its irrelevancy to anything in connection to collars."

And finally, the interpellation of an irrational patriotism, implicit in the transference of Puritanism into national identity, is introduced when Pete and Maggie attend a melodrama, and the Star Spangled Banner is sung to a robust reception from the audience.

The text shows religious authority as respected but irrelevant, subservient to civil religion as well, which is one of the central ironies of the entire novel. The displacement of Christianity with civil religion has been made complete, encouraged by overgrown capitalism, individualism and the Puritan work ethic. In fact, Crane begins to describe his characters using terminology borrowed from the church, even if the characters adhere to values that contradict a more substantial religious understanding.

Once Maggie has left and gone to the streets, her mother, Mary (which is also, of course, the name of a significant religious figure, the mother of Jesus) and Jimmie discuss the parable of the prodigal son. But her mother will not receive her because of the disgrace she has brought to her own name. Being a prostitute is definitely not nice.

We see Maggie, despondent and rejected by all, even by a man of the cloth who is afraid to touch her, as she moves in despair towards the darkness of the river. A fat man materializes from the shadows and follows her. Whatever fate lies before her is shrouded in the certainty of death. The next time we hear anything about Maggie, Jimmie is bringing the news to her mother that her dead body has been found.

The irony of sentimental, civil religion encompassing a distorted ideology is further alluded to as the novel comes to a final climax. Pete, Maggie's one-time lover in whom she places all her misspent hope, is in dissolution and drunkenness, spending his money haphazardly, surrounded by women, his fingers as he throws money on the table "like those of an offering priest."

The world has become the church and the church has become the world, so that all that remains are the iconic images in both the world and the church, with little substance behind them. Once Pete passes out, for example, and the women leave him in disgust, the disregarded elements of a church service remain: lamps, incense, oil and wine:

"The smoke from the lamps settled heavily down in the little compartment, obscuring the way out. The smell of oil, stifling in its intensity, pervaded the air. The wine from an overturned glass dripped softly down upon the blotches on the man's neck."

The theme of civic virtue and civil religion, the sentimental religion of Protestant capitalism, continues to closure as news of Maggie's death, which is a direct consequence of her mother's rejection of her, comes home, and the irony remains thick.

There is a churchly call and response between Mary and the mourners who have entered her house, including numerous echoes of a religious service: the woman in black, the liturgical repetition, and the final utterance of forgiveness from her own mother, who has completely overlooked her own complicity in the matter, justified by the ordered niceties, or by what we might call in other contexts the values that are implied by the social constructs of civil religion.

Mary feels no remorse, only sorrow for her own loss. But in the end she claims justified in punishing her daughter and only forgiving her in word after the irreparable damage has been done. To forgive her as the prodigal daughter, we are led to believe, would bring too much disgrace to the mother and defile the whole home. But to forgive her now that she is dead is the nice thing to do. So the novel ends with her words, repeated, "I'll forgive her, I'll forgive her," as if it is not she herself who is in need of forgiveness.

Crane's book deftly illustrates how the institutional church and civil religion in the United States have given birth to social constructs to benefit privileged cultures. The term "social construct" refers to values, beliefs and other mechanisms that are derived from the dynamics that rise up from groups and institutions and their relationships, including power relationships. In stratified populations, values usually wind up justifying the powerful, including their continued possession and use of power, and marginalizing those who are not privileged. They are also taken for granted, and usually not questioned.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets decry such constructs as immoral and evil.

One need not look any further than the prophet Amos to discover that this is the case. Amos strongly suggests that the moral thermometer for entire nations, including Samaria, is to take a look at how the weakest people fare. In other words, God judges the health of a nation based on how well the abject are doing.

If scales are unjust, if the weak are oppressed, if lenders charge interest, and if the rich are taking a cut of the money earned from the labor of the poor, God is going to take all of that seriously and give an answer. (The issue of wealth inequality, unlike many of the moral "issues" that the church takes up to identify with today, is a theme that recurs often in the Bible.) In numerous texts God rejects pietistic worship and the niceness of religion, and demands justice instead, but justice defined as leading people and society to wholeness and healing - which in the Biblical purview has nothing, or at least very little to do with punishment. In the Bible justice is all about making paths straight, unbending the crooked, and addressing unfair situations that take advantage of the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the stigmatized and the oppressed.

In other words, God challenges the constructs that lead to unethical systems of repression, usually in terms that are understandable to the cultural expressions, values, norms, idioms, customs and people with which and with whom the Holy Spirit interacts.

Some might suggest, of course, that the character of God in the Scriptures seems a bit selective in his moral concern. He addresses the bad treatment of the poor, for instance, the intrinsic dignity and value of the widow and orphan, but does not challenge the institution of slavery on its own merits or lack thereof. Why? Slavery is an economic institution that destroys its abject victims, because the assumption of slavery, the power relationships in which the constructs abide, is so entrenched in culture that either:

a) if God is a substitute for other social phenomena to either reify the very power relationships in which slavery exists, it would be contrary to his cultural investment as a concept for the arbiters of revelatory values to redress evil institutions, but not to challenge their pragmatic consequences; or,

b) if God is a living being above our conception or understanding of being itself who interacts with the world, the long-term responsibility for institutional purity belongs to the sphere of human progress, while the suffering victim, the personal and individual soul who suffers should be emphasized as the object of immediate moral concern.

It could even be that because the wholeness of the human person and even of creation is at stake, not an appeal to so-called "moral law," or "natural law," or to universal, abstract morality, all of which reify the apparatuses of cultural institutions, the former is emphasized and the latter apparently neglected. God's agenda might be to heal, rather than to punish or engage in social critical theory. The emphasis of the appeal is in other words more personal and pragmatic and urgent when the prophet addresses the needs of the poor than it is when one addresses a universal dictate of how things ought to be, or a natural law that in its distracted abstraction presumes an absolute standard from which one ought not deviate.

It's pretty easy to see how the former might be more likely to be motivated by compassion, and the latter by other factors.

Consider for example the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of Jesus's greatest hits right after the parable of the prodigal son topped the charts: the man who loved his neighbor put salve in his wounds, took him to an inn, and met his needs. If he had been motivated by some concept of "justice" defined by natural law, it could well be argued he wasn't so good after all, since he didn't chase after the robbers, conduct an investigation, have them arrested and put in prison, or even set up a committee to make the roads safer. The abstraction of the robbers ostensibly "getting away with it" remains a slander against the ideal, and the Samaritan has done absolutely nothing to redress the problem.

He loved his neighbor in need on a personal level, and according to Jesus, that reflects justice and renders him as just. And this rendering of being just (or being righteous, which is the same word, is attributed to an abject member of society, by the way, a guy from Samaria, aka a Samaritan, somewhat the equivalent of an illegal alien or Syrian refugee in current U.S. parlance.

Might it be that it is through encountering or even just being concerned from a distance about the personal suffering of the victims of corrupt institutions, giving attention to the abject and marginalized, is the divine route to redressing institutional evils rather than more conventional political posturing that risks ignoring or abstracting the personhood of the suffering people in question?

The biblical writers seem to key it down into precise solutions: meet the needs of the widow and orphan, love your neighbor as if you are loving yourself, and even love your enemy. Could it be that through personal identification and interaction the evil cultural construct and the institution it upholds is most directly challenged and even overwhelmed?

Consider again Jesus, now temporarily on his own having sent his disciples off to run some errands, and getting into trouble with the woman at the well. She's marginalized already and abject not only because she is a Samaritan, but because she is a woman. And not only because she is a woman, but she is stigmatized because she has committed adultery on multiple occasions. This is the person whom Jesus calls to service (he asks her to draw water for him from the well), the person he therefore honors, and the person whom he knows (he tells her, according to her, everything she had ever done). The constructs that would denounce her in terms of nationality and gender, as well as sexuality and human behavior, are redressed, broken and discarded by Christ.

To my mind, the moral impetus that motivates us to a personal confrontation with the human suffering caused by unjust institutions is the beginning of the story, but not the whole arc.

At some point Moses does confront Pharaoh, Joshua brings down the walls of Jericho, Jesus is resurrected, and hundreds of years of Christian martyrdom and persecution from Rome is overturned.

The prophets do speak out against corrupt institutional constructs, such as the immorality of usury, which we accept now as a norm whenever interest is charged on credit. Rather than the sin, rooted in greed, that charging interest was considered to be by the Hebrew prophets, in our culture it is regarded as a right, a virtue, and a no-brainer. Who would not want to make a profit on a loan? Only a fool. The wise man profits financially in everything he does, and the holy spirit of industry bears the fruit of profit for his prudent financial decision-making.

Such ideas are so thought of as natural in our culture, many Christians consider it problematic and strange that the prophets, ostensibly speaking for God, consider usury to be evil. It seems odd that the language has changed so that now usury does not mean what it does in the Hebrew Scriptures, where it simply means interest. Our culture prefers to think of it as just charging high interest (which is usually ironically offered to those who have less). Charging interest itself, contrary to the Hebrew prophets, is seen as value neutral.

So confrontation of the corrupt constructs of our age, whatever they may be, is not always personal, though it is always immediate and existential. Both Jesus, and later his brother, James, pronounce woe against the rich and powerful, and both are speaking in the context of persecution. Jesus is facing impending crucifixion, and James is writing to the dispersed Christians who are suffering "many trials and tribulations."

The personal not only implies the political in the immediate act, but embodies political standing, usually because the ramifications of the personal act indicts the structural constructs and the power relationships implied thereby; and power always has a way of fighting back through oppression and coercion, but also through subversion and reifying appeals to what seems obvious when the institutional social constructs are denied.

Taking apart and exposing systems built on bad faith, or corrupt social constructs that serve to privilege the powerful and marginalize the weak, requires courage because the act itself may appear to deny the natural order of things, and consequently, such actions may seem to represent rebellion against God. Common sense during the height of slavery in the United States, for instance, was justified by the church, whose sermons tilted towards civic virtue and the divinization of racism as doctrinal, religious truth. There were no few sermons substantiating the natural order of the superiority of whites, often including a discourse on the existence and need for a pious hierarchy in which each race plays a special, unique, and sacred role - similar to the discourse in which men and women play unequal, but distinct and special roles in the institution of marriage.

The public stance of moving from the personal to the overtly political is quite different than seeking to rationalize the existence of a construct, an inequality or corrupt system thought of as "normal" due to specious appeals to natural law, and taking an abstract political stand on that basis. Taking a political stand on the basis of abstract moral codes, or absolute values, both of which hinge on natural law, describes the typical conservative position of defending privilege, upholding the constructs as they have purportedly always existed, and even refusing to see such ideas, practices or ethical determinants as the products of culture that they really are.

The dichotomy between the two approaches to political and moral value lies precisely in the object of each appeal.

The personal approach, even if it moves quickly to a political stand without direct involvement with other people, appeals to the experience of the abject, and seeks to make straight lines from those that have become crooked or corrupt. The end game is wholeness rooted in an experience of fragmentation as its compassionate response.

Other approaches tend to appeal instead to abstract logical or theological reasons why things should be different in an almost platonic move. The ideal, upheld by the constructs of the privileged and powerful, cannot be threatened. The whole idea of abnormality or perversion arises, which in turn further depersonalizes, demoralizes and marginalizes those who have been objectified by it. The further marginalization of those who begin as abject due to social constraints outside their power or control (such as being black, for instance, in terms of the construction of race, which has no biological, scientific ground) is was occurs during the process of stigmatization. Those who suffer from social stigma also often internalize toxic shame as a result, since identity is largely formed through interaction in social spheres.

But zoom back in to the point at hand, which is that if these kinds of constructs are conflated with what it means to be religious in the church in whatever way that is understood (i.e., to be the elect, saved, born again, or, simply, a Christian, or in my case, an Orthodox Christian) it is very possible to meet the criteria by simply subscribing to the civic virtue of niceness. And if that happens, what does the church have to offer to anyone that cannot be found outside its parameters?

There are plenty of nice people in a society inundated with the values of civil religion, who do not consider themselves to be religious and do not go to church. The focus becomes more important when dealing with tougher ethical problems than whether or not one is nice on a personal, immediate level, but the dynamic remains the same.

This is the point of Maggie. Society has borrowed from religion the tools to make inequality and injustice normal to such a degree that those in squalor, those who are subjugated (usually and presently the vast majority of the population), internalize and accept their own lifelong damnation. Through the same movement that makes religion civil, the authority and message of the church is completely lost and becomes irrelevant, and the church, conflating civil religion, and often politicized civil religion, with its own heritage, becomes toothless.

What is the result?

The result typifies and symbolizes the state of affairs we are in today, and presents us with a symbol of the church in the twenty-first century, and I mean by this any church - but as an Orthodox Christian I mean specifically and with personal urgency the Orthodox Church - the image representing the state of the church today is Maggie's corpse, the stiff, used and discarded body of a hooker, not a prostitute by her own choice or due to the demonic lusts of the flesh (in contrast to St. Mary of Egypt, the famous Orthodox holy woman who slept with as many men as she possibly could for the pleasure and degradation of the perverse), but one who has become the victim of social piety gone awry, religion growing mold, the church a hollow chamber filled with stagnating platitudes, moral postures and the principled knives and bullets of niceness.

The irony is that St. Mary of Egypt would be a far more compelling and powerful icon of the church, even as she identifies with the decadence she practiced and the lusts she could not satisfy. The church as an institution built up around the potential for healing and wholeness might be summed up in her life precisely because the point of her narrative is not that she was sexually promiscuous but then overcame it in the desert. While that is definitely true and the exoteric frame of her story, it is not the point. The point is that she was dissolute, that she had hungers she could not satisfy, that she was fragmented, abject and as a willing prostitute, stigmatized. She had no value and her only purpose was to count how many men she could seduce. We see in her echoes of the Samaritan woman, Photini, whom Jesus honors and addresses personally at the well. She moves from extreme marginalization to margins of her own choosing, a life of asceticism that leads to healing, wholeness and unity with the cosmos (animals such as lions take up her cause and serve her according to the hagiography).

Maggie moves in the opposite direction. Her body, which she uses as an act of survival when the piety of society, or even her own righteousness (which social constructs misconstrue to be summed up in submission to an oppressive environment and an impersonal slave work ethic), cannot save her, her body becomes so abhorrent and grotesque that we are not even offered an image of it in its final condition from the narrator, who is more than willing to show us in vivid imagery a multitude of other stark social evils, such as children being run over in the street and killed, for instance.

Insofar as the church, which remains in biblical terminology the "bride of Christ" has abdicated its original mission to bring healing to those who are responsive to its call, and ultimately to the whole world, in favor of the dictates and constructs of civil religion, its repose is as final and ugly and unspeakable as that of Maggie's as a fully stigmatized figure.

This is not an original idea in the relevant literature referent to the people of God. The Hebrew prophets also accused Israel of having figuratively become a prostitute, even one who lusts after the grotesque equine penises of the heathen (cf. Jeremiah), worshiping other gods and setting up idols, all to its own detriment and judgment.

But the objective of the prophet is not to promote hatred towards Israel or the church, and certainly Crane is not unsympathetic to Maggie. If Crane's character is a symbol of the church today, she is a symbol of potential, purity and life - even divine life satisfied by the living water Jesus promises the woman at the well - which makes the tragedy of her death even more dreadful.