Has it ever happened that we miss the implications of the songs we sing?
A song that has intrigued me for some time is the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” The carol has a medieval European setting and has some basis in history. Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia, a popular ruler who was murdered in 936 AD. This was partly because Wenceslas’s encouragement of the Christian faith, which had newly come to his territory, angered some of his pagan subjects. He was struck down by his brother at the door of a church while on his way to mass. Wenceslas was later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as the patron saint of Czechoslovakia.
The carol begins: “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” What did he see? Not “the Feast of Stephen.” That was just the date, December 26—although it is significant that this was a feast day commemorating Stephen, one of the first seven deacons in the church responsible for distributing food to widows (Acts 6) and also a martyr, a man killed because of his faith in Jesus.
What Wenceslas saw was something that many rich people don’t see when they look out their windows. He saw the poor: “A poor man came in sight gathering winter fuel.”
Wenceslas went even farther. He asked his servant who the poor man was: “Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
The servant knew the man and provided detailed directions to the man’s house: “Sire, he lives a good league hence underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by St. Agnes’ fountain.”
Wenceslas took the next step and decided to do something to help the poor man. He ordered his servant: “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither; thou and I will see him dine when we bear them thither.” So the king and his servant brought food and drink and fuel to the poor man.
When so many rich people keep their wealth to themselves, Wenceslas’s charity is rightly celebrated. He didn’t just send a check. He went personally to the home of the poor man to help. His example is certainly worth copying. And that is the point of the carol, to encourage those with “wealth or rank” to “bless the poor.”
However, a deeper question arises when we consider all the aspects of the relationship between Wenceslas and the poor man.
The servant said that the poor man “lives a good league hence…right against the forest fence.” A “league” is about three miles, five kilometers. So, this poor man had wandered three miles through the snow looking for sticks for his fire. Why would he do that when he lived right next to “the forest”?
The reason is that the forest had a “fence” or boundary. By law, forests were reserved for the use of kings and nobles. Wenceslas, as a noble and a king, had an abundance of pine logs and food. The pine logs came from the forest. The food came from hunting expeditions in the forest and from taxes (in kind) on the agricultural production of the peasants.
Wenceslas’s charity takes on a different aspect when seen in this light. No doubt his motivation was good. His wealth was justified on legal grounds and social conventions. He could have kept it all. Instead, he chose to share it. However, one can’t help but ask whether a more just socio-economic system (giving the peasant equal access to the forest) would have removed the need for charity in the first place.
Looked at this way, Wenceslas’s charity can be seen as a reward to an “Uncle Tom,” a poor man who accepted the oppression of an unjust social system without questioning it.
There is no need to be unduly critical of Wenceslas. Within the limitations of the existing social system, he was a man who was trying his best to do what was right. As a ruler, he knew it was necessary to maintain the rule of law, property rights, and the integrity of the social order (which everyone at the time considered God-ordained). He couldn’t just democratize control of the nation’s wealth without angering the other nobles, losing the authority to govern, and risking civil war. In an age without an adequate police force, the possibility of social chaos was always a legitimate and immediate concern. Laws based on centuries-old understandings of the social order could not simply be abolished overnight without risking serious problems. And surely wilderness areas needed to be preserved for the sake of the environment. Wenceslas couldn’t just let the peasants burn the forests down for fuel.
The issues Wenceslas struggled with are the issues we struggle with today. Our charity is good, but in many cases necessitated by larger scale social inequities which society seems unable to resolve. We don’t want to let the homeless just camp in the woods because we need to preserve property rights and the social order, not to mention the environment. Simply throwing open the gates and letting anything happen won’t necessarily make things better—as has been proven in places such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Wenceslas was not an evil man. Within the limitations of the feudal system of his time, he was a good man. But it is perhaps stretching the point to call him a saint in medieval terms, a man of such superfluous holiness that his footsteps melted the snow. More likely, Wenceslas, like us, was a sinful man, redeemed by the grace of God, trying to do the right thing in an evil world.