It might seem strange to be examining in October the life of Ebenezer Scrooge from the classic tale, A Christmas Carol by Unitarian Charles Dickens. Some context to the story itself, Dickens lived in mid-19th century England. His father was sent to debtor’s prison when he was twelve years old, and as was the custom then, the family joined him in prison and worked in factories for a few shillings. Many of his stories such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield reflect on Dickens’ childhood poverty.
His fictional stories as well as his detailed non-fiction articles about child labor, debtor prison conditions, and public capital punishment used as a tourist attraction helped spawn a movement of massive social changes in Britain. The story A Christmas Carol was the first of a series of stories Dickens wrote about the Christmas season. In a brief biography online, I read: “He was eventually so associated with Christmas that when Dickens died in 1870, a London costermonger’s girl is said to have exclaimed, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?[i]” A costermonger is a street vendor of the 19th century who would sing chants to sell their wares.
The story A Christmas Carol has gained increased popularity in recent years. There are over 200 [ii]adaptations of Dickens story for Screen, Television, Radio, and theatre[iii]. In addition, this story has been animated and made into operas. I have this theory about such stories. When a story line can be easily retold multiple times in multiple ways that story is reflecting a truth about the culture. Now a popular story line might be a metaphor that is hard to decipher—our current fascination with the story lines of Zombies for example has multiple metaphors layered within them. The story line of Romeo and Juliet also remade and retold various times, perhaps the most famous recasting of this is West Side Story, is a tale more easily to discern. Both of these story lines resonate with our culture. So there is also something about the story of A Christmas Carol that resonates with contemporary society.
I do not think it is simply that it jives with the current paranormal ghost stories that have become ubiquitous on almost every cable station that exists. These too are resonating with a very core aspect of our current society but A Christmas Carol strikes at another chord of our psyche.
Our society for better or worse is firmly grounded on individualism and this notion of personal freedom versus communal responsibility. This is manifested in a false illusion that the American Dream is attainable by all, if we do as Ebenezer Scrooge did and put our nose to the grindstone and grind away.
What our contemporary society fails to see is that our capitalist mindset is a spirituality that is detrimental to living a full and abundant life. I think the fact that we have produced over 200 variations of this story is proof that we are not fully grasping this point so just as a dog will gnaw at a wound, we need to see, read, or hear this story told yet again in a slightly different voice. This story is ultimately not about the 1%, while it may apply to them as well, it is about the 99% who have bought into supporting this false notion that career, hard work, material gains is what yields a successful meaningful life. To be clear careers, hard work, and material gains are only a few of the myriad tools at our disposal to supplement a successful meaningful life. They are not the meaningful life itself.
Shortly after the towers fell in Manhattan, the nation was in deep grieving, so deep a grief that we stopped purchasing manufactured goods. We needed to grieve. We needed to mourn our dead. It was a moment when we needed to hear a pastoral message from our President. In response to this grief, President Bush gave a speech stating that we should continue our participation in the American economy. Buy. Spend money. Indulge our pain by layering on material goods and vacations to Disney that at best could only numb our grief. And because we did not want to appear defeated by the terrorist attack on our soil that is what we did and our economy steered its continuing frenzy towards the crash of 2008. A crash we have yet to fully recover and now we have a government shutdown with consequences still to be fully realized. But mark my words this shutdown will have profound negative consequences.
The people leading us in congress, I suggest have emulated well the spirituality of Ebenezer Scrooge. In the story there is a scene where two portly gentlemen visit Scrooge at his office to solicit a donation for the annual Christmas fund for the poor. Listen to this quote first written in 1843. There have been similar sentiments like Scrooge’s made by today’s leaders.
“‘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,
‘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 endeavouring 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!’ ”
Rabbi Abraham Heschel stated: “There are two primary ways in which man relates himself to the world that surround him: manipulation and appreciation. In the first way he sees in what surrounds him things to be handled, forces to be managed, objects to be put to use. In the second way he sees in what surrounds him things to be acknowledged, understood, valued or admired.[iv]”
The first way is the spiritual path of Ebenezer Scrooge. The following steps could be taken in order to emulate Ebenezer Scrooge:
- Hold a belief that it’s all about me.
- Self-interests trump all other interests
- Treat everything that hinders my self-interests as personal—if it doesn’t it is not important and should be ignored.
- Preservation of privilege is vital
- Objectify all others to be tools towards achieving self-interests
- Protect self from pain and heartache.
- Act as if there is never enough for me.
- Take a firm stance of ‘If I can do it so can you.’
Ebenezer Scrooge took on a belief that everything was about him. Whatever happened within his realm was directed towards him. His childhood friends’ having different interests than he did was a deliberate shunning of his presence. Their behaviors were about him. The actions of others were always suspected to be aimed at hindering his progress towards meeting his self-interests. When his partner Marley died, death was viewed as an advantage for it meant all the more for him.
What was best for him and his interests trumped anyone else’s interest. His fiancée telling him he changed after meeting some success at business did not bring about a recognition of what he was about to lose. His financial success was more important than having a relationship with someone who loved him. He was willing to forfeit love for financial prosperity.
Ebenezer saw the demands of society as being personal against his ability for success. His employee Bob Cratchit was but a necessary evil in order to succeed. He paid him sub wages, gave him minimal access to heat and expected him to work every day of the year except one, Christmas Day. This one day off with pay was considered a severe sacrifice to Scrooge.
Any law that was passed to benefit others was equally an imposition against his ability to succeed. He paid his taxes but they cost him his ability to be even more successful. We see this aspect of Scrooge’s spirituality in today’s businesses refusal to offer health insurance to their employees.
You may recall the stance that Wal-Mart took towards offering their employees’ health benefits. They resorted to hiring temporary part time workers who had to re-apply for a position every 180 days to avoid offering full time employees health care. Such a move, however, backfired on Wal-Mart. A recent article in Forbes Magazine stated, “Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to pay most of their workers a livable wage, while avoiding enough full-time employees to properly run a retail outlet, has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index—a position that should now be all too familiar to the nation’s largest retailer given that Wal-Mart has either held or shared the bottom spot on the index for six years running.[v]” On September 25th, Wal-Mart announced that they will be converting 35K part time positions to full time status entitling these employees to full healthcare under the affordable care act.
This wasn’t a change of heart but rather an example of self-interests trumps all other interests and objectifying others as tools to promote those self-interests. It is no longer in Wal-Mart’s self-interest as a business to refuse full time employment status.
But individuals also have taken on this belief of being personally affronted by programs and taxation meant to benefit the welfare of all. We hear the uproar in our local papers regarding the taxes supporting public education and state taxes that support the social welfare of a community—such as police and fire departments and safety nets for the underemployed.
Ebenezer fought hard to preserve his place of privilege. Any attempts of others rising up are threats to his privileged placed in society. So his underpaying his employee, Bob Cratchit is an attempt to hold his place of privilege and power over Mr. Cratchit and others like him. It was Bob Cratchit’s own fault that he decided to have so many children that he could not afford to have on his wages. It is in Ebenezer’s self-interest to keep Bob Cratchit beneath him. Cratchit is not a human being to Scrooge, but an object to be used. If he cannot fulfill his duties, someone else will fill those shoes or as in the case of his partner’s death, simply continue on and reap larger profits.
All other people are viewed in this same manner, as objects to meet Ebenezer Scrooge’s self-interests. If they do not serve these interests then they are invisible—he hears nothing about them and they do not have any relationship to his life. They are in Ebenezer’s words “…not my business…” So to emulate Scrooge, ignore anything that might cause your heart to sway from your self-interest.
If the needs of others do break through to your consciousness, then to place distance between you and them, you must condemn them as different from you. These people must have done something to deserve the treatment they are getting. They are criminals, the lot of them. They are moochers and takers; the lot of them. If they are targeted by the police it is only because of the way they dress or talk. They are a threat to your self-interests and therefore they must be kept in their place. Tell yourself and others, if this were not true, then they would be successful.
Declare loudly that everything you have; you earned from the sweat of your own brow. No-one. Ever. Gave you a helping hand. Keep declaring this aloud to everyone over and over again until you believe it. If you can do it, so can they, the lazy moochers.
But if they do begin to succeed then you must act as if there is not enough to go around. You must get your share first before anyone else does and you must hoard it away. Influence the laws to slap them back down a few rungs. Seek to abolish affirmative action laws by saying they were so successful they are no longer needed. Pat yourself on the back for allowing a few tokens to rise to the top 1%. Use them as examples of what hard work and ingenuity can do towards fulfilling the American Dream. If you phrase this right, people will not see through your veil of acting on your self-interest. Remember, self-interest trumps all other actions.
Just as Scrooge did early in his life, you have to hide your love away. No personal relationship is more important than what is your self-interest. Any personal relationship is only a stepping stone for your advancement to a more privileged place in the scheme of things. So do not get swayed by the interests of another, unless their interests are aligned with yours. And then only for as long as their interests are so aligned, at the first sign of deviance from your self-interests, cut them off and coldly move on to the next stepping stone.
Only surround yourself with people who agree with you. Nothing is stronger than support from likeminded individuals who do not challenge your thinking on matters of moral or ethical behavior. If someone in your circle of associates does challenge your thinking, warn them to toe the line or be cut off from your good graces. One must not tolerate oppositional viewpoints. When you cut them off tell yourself that they were holding you back from your best interests and you are better off without them. Then move on towards fulfilling your interests.
So this is the blue print for developing a spirit akin to Ebenezer Scrooge’s. If you are successful at mastering this spirituality the fruits of such a path will be to inhabit a body that is old, crotchety, and down right mean. You will be like the person who yells at children for playing too close to their yard or as unfortunately has happened not just once but twice in the last 18 months, shoots the neighbor for playing music too loud[i], then claim a stand your ground defense[ii].
You will take small comfort in interjecting your meanness into every conversation where joy and happiness are expressed. A strong emphasis of Bah Humbug with a few other strongly worded epithets thrown in for good measure should suffice to bring others back to your level of misery. Make sure to inflict your dour self on others because they have not suffered like you have suffered. Their happiness is after all a personal assault on your self-interests.
If this is not the form of spiritual life that you desire, there is hope for a different path.
Again words by Abraham Heschel: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.[iii]”
The spiritual life that moves us towards maturity in our relationship with others and the world begins with the question, “how to be and how not to be?” It is an awareness that we are ultimately in relation with one another. The realization that what begins as a shout becomes a deed, is it a shout of love that becomes a deed of justice or a shout of fear that becomes a deed of dominance? How are we to be in the world? Blessed be.
This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 6 October 2013(c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.