The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

The poor do not deserve to be poor and the rich do not deserve to be rich, this is something I firmly believe in. An individual’s economic situation owes more to chance than to hard work or intelligence. My own middle-class status is because I had middle-class parents. However, those who are wealthy justify the fact that they have more money than others by arguing that they deserve it, which implies that the poor deserve to be poor.

This applies to any oppressed group in society; those who are discriminated against due to race, gender, religion, etc. They do not deserve it, your race or gender is decided by chance, and so no one deserves to be oppressed. However, powerful social groups justify oppression through any means of excuses from pregnancy being a “life style choice” so women can be paid less than men, to it being natural for one ethnicity to dominate another - this comes up with depressingly regularity throughout history.

There are many novels which explore the idea of the undeserving oppressed: for example, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, or Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman. A novel that I recently read which handles this expertly is The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig. Haig’s book makes the point that the disadvantaged are disadvantaged by chance and not their own actions in a powerful, captivating and accessible way.

The Fire Sermon takes place in a dystopian future, after society has been destroyed by “the Blast”. The surviving humans eek out a quasi-medieval life, and – as in medieval times – this life is often brutal and short. One side effect of the Blast is that all pregnancies result in twins: one Alpha twin, strong and healthy, and one Omega twin, weaker and different. Omegas are missing limbs, or have extra limbs, or occasionally possess strange predictive abilities. The difference between Alpha and Omega twins forms the basis of the class division in The Fire Sermon.

Once the Omega twins are a few years old, the Alpha communities who birthed them reject them. Omegas cannot have children so they are forced to leave Alpha society and live on the edge of the Alpha world. Occasionally, Omegas band together into supportive communities, which are frequently oppressed by the Alphas. Omegas are driven to the infertile lands where their medieval subsistence-farming existence is made more brutal and even shorter. The Fire Sermon makes the point that the Omegas in society are not to blame for the situations that they find themselves in, but the Alphas blame the Omegas for their poor quality of life, when in reality they are to blame.

What is most powerful about The Fire Sermon is that the twins are forever linked. If one dies then the other dies at the same time (this is what keeps the Alphas from exterminating the Omegas), if one suffers a great amount of pain then other twin feels it too. This shows that humanity is linked together by a common bond that cannot be broken, however the politically powerful ignore this bond by taking every opportunity enrich themselves at the expense of others.

The Fire Sermon shows how the powerful blame the powerless for being powerless, when it is really the fault of the powerful. A particularly graphic example of this is a section in the novel where an Omega is whipped and the narrator (an Omega) talks about how the Alpha twin will feel the pain of the whip. The narrator comments that rather than blaming a society that whips Omegas with little cause, the Alpha twin will blame the Omega for the pain that they feel by proxy. This shows how social structures direct people’s rage towards oppressed groups instead of the system of oppression. We see this with how the wealthy turn the working poor against the non-working poor, or how rich whites turn poor whites against ethnic minorities.

Another well observed event in The Fire Sermon, frighteningly similar to real life, is when the narrator sees how even those who do not benefit from the social structure, namely poor Alphas, are in favour of it because they can look down on Omegas. The poor Alphas are oppressed by the same social structures and scarcity of resources which oppress the Omegas, but rather than fighting to change the system in solidarity with Omegas, the poor Alphas cling to their small amount of superiority of being Alphas, and look down on the Omegas even more. We see this with race and class a lot in our world. The poor should be natural allies, but they are turned against each other by the social structures that oppress them.

As you can probably tell from this article, I find The Fire Sermon most interesting from a political point of view. The Alphas are the rich and Omegas are the poor; this is both materially true in the novel, and in an allegorical sense. Alphas pretend their greater material wealth is just, when it is obviously not. They claim the Omegas bring their poverty on themselves, when it is clearly because of Alphas excluding Omegas from good jobs and lands from which wealth can be extracted. Despite the Alphas’ policies to impoverish the Omegas, the Omegas are still blamed for being poor. We see this in our world when programs to help the poor, such as state-funded education or Sure Start Centres, are cut and then the poor are blamed for being uncompetitive. How the poor are supposed to be competitive when starting from a position of disadvantage without help is never explained.

What makes the allegory of The Fire Sermon so lasting and powerful is Haig’s knowledge of real life instances of oppression. Before publishing this book, she was an academic studying the Holocaust and has cited Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces as a major influence. Haig has pointed out in talks that the word Holocaust means burnt offering, which is appropriate to The Fire Sermon.

Haig has weaved a sense of sadness and hopelessness throughout The Fire Sermon, which is emblematic of how a lot of people think about the Holocaust. Her knowledge of how the social structures can turn from prejudice into bare-faced oppression shows in how painfully real the social structures of The Fire Sermon are. We see many examples of oppression in The Fire Sermon echoed in our world, and these details bring the book to life and make it believable.

That the poor do not deserve to be poor and the rich do not deserve to be rich is powerful in its simplicity, as is the allegory of The Fire Sermon. The nature of the oppression of the Omegas is similar to events in our world, which gives the novel a painful resonance and makes it a powerful argument for human compassion across social divisions. It is also a stark warning about how dangerous the belief that the oppressed deserve to be oppressed can be.