Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The real problem with Ebenezer Scrooge

A Christmas CarolHow can I even begin to review the book that, more than any other source, gave us the modern Christmas?!

I've read A Christmas Carol at least 6 times and I always find something new to enjoy about it with each read. The narration is absolutely entrancing, the dialogue beautiful, and the story - even to call it "gripping" is to underestimate it.

The story is too well known to repeat here, but I should point out that, as a result of over saturation with many film adaptations, we don't properly understand the story. All too often, we think of Scrooge as a greedy miser who simply does not want to be charitable. Though this is correct, it is trivial and even peripheral to the character. Scrooge's basic problem is a failure to relate.

Scrooge is first introduced to us as a man who was

a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?" No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, "No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!"

But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.

As if that were not enough to clarify that Scrooge's real problem is his refusal to relate to other people in any way other than through doing business, Scrooge tells us as much in his conversation with the "Portly Gentlemen" who come collecting funds for the poor

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge returned his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

Scrooge here comes off as an extreme libertarian who simply wishes to be left alone and to leave others alone; his affairs are no concern to them, nor should their affairs be any concern to him. He does not refuse to donate to the poor out of greed, so much as he simply thinks that he and the poor have nothing to do with each other, and he does no appreciate an attempt to get him to put himself in any kind of personal relation to them.

Most tellingly, Scrooge fails to even identify himself as a unique individual. He answers to the name of his firm, Scrooge or Marley! Scrooge has reduced all transactions, all relations with others, and even his own identity to matters of business transactions!

The story of his redemption is the story of reconnection. Scrooge remembers the relationships from his past, sees what relationships he fails to attain in the present, and, in the future, sees what life would be like if his wish to "be left alone" were granted ... he finally would be alone, "unwept, unkept, uncared for...." he finds that he cannot stand it.

So when you read A Christmas Carol read it with new eyes. Don't think of this as as story of a greedy jerk who learns to be kind and generous. Think of the novella rather as the tale of a man who thinks he wishes to be left to himself "warning all human sympathy to keep its distance" until he sees what that wish would really mean and what he misses out on by trying to live it.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Peace On Earth? A closer look

I just learned about a 1939 cartoon called "Peace on Earth." It is really a creative and remarkable twist on the fake good will and meaningless peace that too often adorned home decor and greeting cards this time of year!

Check out more about it here

You owe it to yourself to watch this short!

After you have played this video ask yourself, can we ever really have peace on earth without the scenario imagined here? Could peace on earth be obtained with human beings still here? Or is our species perpetually doomed to violence and warfare?

Sadly, I fear that in a real human being created apocalypse the we'd take the poor animals with us.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Peace on Earth: Justice and the meaning of Christmas

Each December I bring out my DVD of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The climatic scene occurs when an exasperated Charlie Brown yells out "isn't there anybody who can tell me what Christmas is all about?!!" Linus' famous soliloquy answers that question:

Whether Linus is right that Christmas is all about "Peace on Earth and good will to men" depends very much on how we understand those phrases.

All too often these are just empty words. "Peace on earth" and "good will toward men" are simply part of the seasonal decor, like Rudolph, and Frosty, and multi-colored light bulbs. Those who rail at Christmas as sheer commercialism frosted with empty sentimentalism and manufactured good will, are clearly correct about how much of Christmas is celebrated. But the Hallmark version of Christmas need not be the way we celebrate this holiday.

The Christmas stories in the gospels are about justice. Jesus is born a poor peasant child in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew this poor child is attacked by an oppressive ruler; King Herod. In Luke the message of Jesus' birth if first delivered to a group of highly despised and marginalized social outcasts; Shepards. To see how clearly the gospel message of Christmas it he message of justice, one need simply read the central lines of the Magnificant:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts
of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and
lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
sent the rich away empty.

The Christmas stories make it quite clear: Herod and Caesar (remember that story about the census) are cruel tyrants who oppress the people; but Jesus is a people's champion who fights against oppression and for inclusion, equality, and non-violent justice.

The most famous secular Christmas story is probably Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This book also is concerned with social justice and the plight of the poor. The story is too well known to repeat here, but seldom noticed is the fact that the tale is not so much about the reform of a man gone wrong, as it is about the need for a deep transformation away from selfish isolation and toward the good of the community, particularly its least well off members.

Dickens nicely sums up the message of peace on earth with his strange figure of the Ghost of Christmas present:

It was clothed in a a simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

The rusted and empty scabbard is particularly telling. Remember that the Ghost of Christmas present sits in a well lit room overflowing with good food, warmed by a blazing fire, and filled with joy. When all are fed, warm, and cared for, there will be peace on earth. The scabbard is rusted and empty because violence will never bring about peace, only good will and plenty can do that.

Dickens understood the social message of the gospels' Christmas stories.

Finally, even jolly Old Saint Nicholas (who has been sadly commercialized and turned into the coca cola Santa) is originally a figure of social justice. A protector of the poor, of sailors, of children, and other marginal figures, Saint Nicholas was originally a non-violent warrior for those who were left out.

In short, let us forget about the over-commercialization of Christmas. We should ignore that. Let us divorce the holiday from its sappy and falsely sentimental trappings. Christmas is - or least should be - about justice, about food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless, and inclusion and acceptance of the excluded and marginalized.

Let us have a just Christmas. Perhaps then we can, like the reformed Scrooge, know how to keep Christmas well.

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