By Corey Fields
I love Charles Dickens’ 1843 story A Christmas Carol. A few people in my congregation like to tease me because I can’t get through an Advent season without using it as a sermon illustration.
It was a Christmas Eve tradition in my family to come home after services and watch the 1984 movie starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Some years we switched it up and watched the 1951 version with Alastair Sim or the very distinguished 1992 Muppet version. Since a few years ago I’ve made a point of reading the book every December.
Growing up, I was fascinated by this story of a stingy, ruthless money lender who is transformed into a loving and giving man by way of spirits who open his eyes to his past, present and future.
When I was young, I saw Scrooge more or less as someone who was grumpy about Christmas and was made to see what a happy time of year it was. With a few more years I saw the layer of stinginess versus generosity and that Scrooge learned to give.
The character and journey of Scrooge runs much deeper, however. Charles Dickens himself grew up in poverty, and was particularly wounded by the humiliation it brought him. What’s most poignant in his story is not the mere fact that Scrooge changed but the means by which he did it. Scrooge’s transformation came about because he came into direct contact with poverty, and learned who the poor really are.
It’s not that Scrooge didn’t know the poor existed. He even would have acknowledged that they needed help. He just didn’t think they deserved help. Near the beginning of the story, Scrooge is approached by two men collecting charitable donations for the poor. Scrooge scoffs, saying he has no desire to “make idle people merry.” He believed poverty is necessarily a result of laziness.
This largely unfair characterization still persists today, kept alive by wealthy think tanks and politicians. The world has been divided into “makers and takers” — those who rely on the government vs. those who are self-sufficient. It’s a false dichotomy, one that Professor Ananya Roy of UC Berkeley dismisses in a brilliant video.
Several years ago, I called foul on this bullying of the powerless and brought together some statistics. More than two-thirds of those in poverty cannot accurately be called lazy: children, the elderly, single mothers, the genuinely disabled, and most importantly, the people who work — sometimes at two or three jobs — but still can’t make ends meet. Add to this the complex barriers the poor face to getting an education or securing and keeping a job. It requires not only time and money but also good social and environmental conditions that the rest of us may take for granted.
Statistics don’t really do the trick, however. Scrooge had to come face to face with poverty — poverty that he himself was exacerbating.
In one of my favorite parts of the story, he and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit the home of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk whom he paid 15 shillings a week (roughly $4 a week in 1843, $80 a week in 2014). Scrooge sees Bob’s family for the first time. It includes Tiny Tim, Bob’s youngest child with an unidentified disease. Scrooge quickly feels pity for him and repeatedly pleads with the spirit that the boy would live. The spirit, to teach Scrooge a lesson, takes on Scrooge’s own attitude and uses his earlier words against him: “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
“The poor” had just gained a face. Poverty had just become personal. The narrator says that Scrooge was “overcome with penitence and grief.” In the 1984 movie, the spirit makes his point clear: “Perhaps in the future you will hold your tongue until you have discovered what the surplus population is.”
It is as Shane Claiborne once said: “The problem is not that rich folks don’t help poor folks. It’s that rich folks don’t know poor folks.”
In the 1984 movie, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a dark alley where the homeless live. They witness a man talking to his wife about how desperately he wants to be able to work and provide for his children, who sit by a fire eating food scraps. Scrooge says to the spirit, “Why do you show me this? What has it to do with me?” The exasperated spirit shouts, “Are they not of the human race?”
Scrooge’s entire journey was characterized by these encounters. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge images of himself when he was among the working poor. The dark, voiceless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come forces Scrooge to see that “death is the destiny of every man” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) as he witnesses his riches being sold by peddlers and later stands over his own grave.
A ministry colleague once told me a story of a man who had callously suggested that the best way to deal with poor, crime-ridden communities is to bomb them out of existence. That same man, after meeting the people in these neighborhoods, wrote a $10,000 check to my colleague’s ministry. Things change when we see people for who they are instead of what they lack.
The Christmas story itself calls us to know the poor — those to whom God came near that first Christmas. May we never feel self-vindicated so long as we continue to live in separate neighborhoods and lead separate lives. May we also become aware of the ways our society perpetuates poverty, like wages that don’t keep pace with the cost of living and wishful-thinking tax breaks for businesses. One of the first things Scrooge did for Bob Cratchit after his transformation was double his salary. But don’t worry, he still won’t be taking a dream vacation or anything.