My wife Jen loves Christmas. Our Christmas tree is usually setup well in advance of December 25th (no later than Thanksgiving), and a steady stream of Christmas movies are playing at any given time (Miracle on 34th Street, the new version, is on right now). Some years I'm into it, but most years I can be a real scrooge.
Most of the time, the hyper-capitalistic consumerism of the holidays steals my joy, and I find myself vehemently resisting the urge to escape into a fabricated winter wonderland of detachment from reality. Some years, this has looked like me boycotting Christmas, buying fair/free trade items, or making sure that I am tuned into the current events happening in the world. Jen loves to tell the story of the Christmas where I made everyone watch When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's documentary on Hurricane Katrina (all four acts) followed by The Ground Truth, a documentary detailing the horrors of the Iraq War (that was one of my favorite Christmases!).
This year I was feeling my usual ambivalence toward the Christmas holiday until Jen pointed out something I had not really noticed before in one of the most iconic Christmas stories. In the middle of one of our debates about the virtues of Christmas, she said,
"You know A Christmas Carol is all about reparations. Scrooge doesn't just apologize, he makes restitution for what he did. He gives Bob Cratchit back pay for his exploited labor and he covers the health costs for Tiny Tim.The story is really about reparations."
That moment allowed me to see Christmas in a different light. A Christmas Carol is more than a holiday makeover of an old miser - it's a salvation story and a case for reparations.
When we talk about being a "scrooge," we often refer to someone not being in the Christmas spirit, but "bah humbug," is more than an expression of disdain for the joyous raucous of Christmas time, it's the utterance of someone who refuses to feel any social responsibility or compassion toward other human beings. It's someone who has become so obsessed with profits they exploit the labor of their workers, charge exorbitant interest, and live an isolated existence cut off from human connection and community. Scrooge is capitalism personified.
The three visiting ghosts hold up a mirror to Scrooge to show the ways he has lost his soul by participating in an exploitative system. He sees how his lifestyle has not only perpetuated injustice, it has robbed him of true community with others. Maintaining an economic system that prioritizes profits over people caused him to dehumanize others and be dehumanized in the process. The salvation of Scrooge happens when he finally sees the humanity of people (which the system had blinded him to), recognizes his participation in an unjust system and its impacts on others, and leads him to a crisis of conscience where he ends up choosing the community over the system. In other words, Scrooge repents.
His repentance is more than a verbal acknowledgement of a change in his heart, it is a deliberate, intentional, and decisive turn in a new direction. It is re-formation, reconciliation, and reparations. It is a conversion of biblical proportions: Scrooge got saved.
Now, before I cause my conservative brothers and sisters to toss their holiday cookies, I should point out that the repentance of Scrooge follows the biblical formula set out in the gospel of Luke.
First by John the Baptist, in Luke 3:10-14, “'Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?' 'Don’t collect any more than you are required to,' he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' He replied, 'Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.'"
Then, in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, which mirrors the conversion of Scrooge in many ways. Luke 19:1-10, tells the salvation story of Zaccheus, a man participating in an exploitative system and isolated from community with those directly impacted by the system. When Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus' house, Jesus humanizes Zacchaeus in a way the exploitative system does not and Zacchaeus awakens to the fact that he wants to be part of community more than he wants to reap the unjust rewards of the system. Somehow he knows that to be reunited with the community requires he makes things right with those he exploited. It is AFTER Zacchaeus vows to make reparations that Jesus says, "salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham."
Picture of Jesus inviting Zacchaeus to leave his isolated perch and join the community. Notice his red, white, and blue robe in this depiction! Photo credit: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
In both stories, reparations is a sign to the community that salvation has happened in the individual. Reparations is more than giving out Christmas presents to people we have ignored or wronged. It is more than having a cheerful spirit or showing compassion for the less fortunate. Reparations involves recognizing how we have been blind to the humanity of others and ourselves, acknowledging the ways we have participated in and benefited from unjust systems, and making decisive commitments to put community over the system over and over again. This will naturally require creative forms of economic and social redistribution both personally and structurally, putting in protections and provisions for the most economically vulnerable, and ensuring the on-going welfare of workers, families, and communities. We are only left to wonder what this type of conversion would look like throughout an entire economy or nation (that is, if a nation were interested in its salvation).
The real danger of Christmas is to sentimentalize it, to make it about holiday cheer, rather than an examination of our souls and systems.If we aren't careful, Christmas can keep us blinded to human suffering and bind us deeper into a consumeristic, exploitative culture. But Christmas can also be a means of our salvation by opening our eyes and hearts, and moving us toward community.
The Salvation of Scrooge: A Christmas Case for Reparations