At Christmas time, one of my holiday customs is to read Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. I may be a little obsessed with the story — I have three different audio versions on my phone, including one produced by members of my home ward. As a result of reading it and re-reading it, for me this story has passed from mere entertainment to something much more1. First, in this post, lets look at what A Christmas Carol says about charity and relationships. In a second post I will address what it says about sin and burdens and relationships.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the story. Dickens introduces us to Ebenezer Scrooge and his attitude to Christmas. When he is approached by fellow businessmen raising funds for charity, Scrooge rejects them saying,
“Are there no prisons?”
“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.”
Scrooge concludes, “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.
While these statements seem incredibly harsh, they aren’t an invention of Dicken’s mind.
Less than 50 years before Dickens penned A Christmas Carol, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his famous treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, which suggested a general economic model incorporating population growth. He claimed that a population could only grow when it had enough resources, and that populations could grow beyond what their resources supplied.
Malthus’ critics, like Dickens, believed that his followers sought to reduce the “surplus” population beyond what current resources could support. Dickens, in particular, thought that Malthusian thinking was unjust and inhumane.
Despite Dickens’ criticism, and that of many others, Malthusian ideas are still a part of human thinking today. China’s infamous “one child” policy addresses this view, as did the “zero population growth” movement of the late 1960s. It is still an underlying tenant of the environmental movement today. And on a practical level both international organizations and most national governments look at population data for planning what resources will be needed in the future—sometimes leading to the realization that a particular area has too much population for its resources, like Malthus predicted.
Of course, the Malthusian lens for examining life doesn’t necessarily require the inhumane solution Scrooge suggests. To get to that solution, Scrooge has to take an extreme understanding of personal responsibility and individual liberty.
Scrooge claims that he “can’t afford to make idle people merry”—in other words the poor are lazy and if they would just work they could take care of themselves (sound familiar today?). So he seems to believe that their personal responsibility would solve their problems.
He also says, “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough…” His objection is that he is already doing what he should, so requiring more violates his individual liberty. Today the argument would be “I pay taxes, and those taxes pay for welfare. The poor should go get a job…” I find echoes of this thinking in the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the libertarian views common in today’s politics. I think these ideas usually masque a desire to excuse oneself from helping by blaming the poor for their situation. I can’t see how that could possibly be part of the gospel of Christ.
In A Christmas Carol Dickens clearly rejects this thinking. The critical point of the story is the visit of the Spirit of Christmas Future, which includes two briefly mentioned characters that are often ignored in the story:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
Today we might add: “are there no homeless shelters? Are there no government programs? No welfare? Are there no churches? No charities?”
Without performing any investigation, we assume these programs take care of the problem, that they are enough! That the rest of our system doesn’t need to be changed. That the institutions for dealing with poverty have enough funding, that they somehow take care of the whole person. And perhaps worst of all, we use these assumptions to justify the monstrous lie that those who are getting help don’t deserve it, or that somehow it is their own fault. We blame the victims of poverty.
- “They did it to themselves.”
- “They need to be self-reliant.”
- “They’ll just waste the donation if they don’t earn it.”
- “95% of poor people are poor because they want to be.”
- “poverty is a state of mind.”
- “I followed the rules and pulled myself up by my bootstraps, they should too.”
- “They’re getting stuff handed to them.”
- “Free rent, and they’re driving better vehicles than I’m driving and everything else.”
These statements are all uncharitable. They assume things we don’t and can’t possibly know about the poor. They also paint the poor as “others”, as objects instead of people. As Martin Buber suggests, we don’t see the poor as “thou”, as beings with whom we should have a relationship. Instead they are an “it,” no different from rocks or trees or tools or resources.
These statements also assume that somehow if we were in a similar situation we wouldn’t stay poor. These statements assume that the poor are somehow different than we are, less willing to work, less wise, less motivated, less, less, less…
The truth is, there but for the grace of God go all of us….
Hidden in the descriptions of the two children are statements that should delight and terrify members of our Church, if not everyone. First, Dickens describes them saying “Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.” I like that he sees angels (perhaps even divinity) enthroned in children. But these children’s circumstances have transformed them into hosts for devils.
Second, the children are described as future dangers,
“Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Dickens is warning of the dangers of continual Ignorance and Want, of the misunderstanding of the regular message that money and displays of wealth are the measure of life, of the resentment that builds in the poor because of inequality and of wealth and privilege always being ground in their faces. When A Christmas Carol was written the revolution in France because of these factors was a recent memory, and much of Europe was on the cusp of a new upheaval.
In A Christmas Carol the culminating scene is, then, a statement on poverty, on inequality, on Ignorance and Want, on our responsibility to address them. And, I think, Dickens is also saying something about us. He is saying that we are all Scrooge.
Think about it. Scrooge doesn’t actually commit any act that we would violate anyone. He doesn’t attack or hurt anyone. He is rude, but not unusually so, for someone who just wants to be left alone. Yes, he doesn’t give when asked—but who of us has never turned anyone down when they asked for money? Can you really say that, in terms of actions, you haven’t done essentially the same things that Scrooge has done?
Of course, the real problem with Scrooge is where his heart is. He is focused on money. Or, to say the same things in other words, he is focused on himself.
But here again I have to suggest that we are somewhat like Scrooge. Our culture emphasizes money. We measure social position by money. When I asked our smart speaker the other day for the age of an actor, it added “would you also like to know the actor’s net worth?” Like Scrouge, our money is often more important than the needs of others.
If we truly belief what our religion teaches about the purpose of life, I think Dickens’ criticism has to ring true. If we are really here in this life to learn to be like our Heavenly Parents, can we afford to focus on money? Should we limit what we learn to only our desires? Can we reduce others to objects instead of people we should be in relationship with? Must our lens for seeing scarce resources, which Malthus pointed out, be focused on personal gain or on equitable sharing? Does the gospel really teach that we must be responsible only for ourselves and not others also?
A Christmas Carol may not be gospel in the way our scriptures are, or in the way that the teachings of our living prophets are. But, it does carry an important view of what the gospel teaches. Let’s take it seriously and examine how we treat others and how we address poverty.
- I say “Gospel According to A Christmas Carol” not because I think A Christmas Carol is scripture, but because it is a view of what the gospel teaches — like each of the four gospels in the New Testament are a view of the meaning of Christ’s life. I’m NOT suggesting that A Christmas Carol is scripture. But I am suggesting that, like reading any good literature, looking through its lens may help us understand truth. ↩