1. Charles Dickens is still being read in high school and college literature classes, but he is hardly a writer of interest in our “modern times.” He was enormously popular in the 19th century, but either now or then he was and is very much under appreciated and underrated. Paradoxically, his talent as a storyteller may distract from the challenging vision at the core of those stories.
Dickens lived and wrote at the height of the Industrial Revolution that ushered in the modern industrial world. The social and economic effects of all this was very evident in Dickens’ world, and he was deeply troubled by it. It was a world of unfettered capitalism, one theorized by Adam Smith, considered the “father of modern capitalism.” It was a world of atomized individualism where every individual pursued their own self-interest in as unlimited a way as possible. The pursuit of wealth was the point of life, and of course the majority of people were doomed to misery in this scheme.
This is the backdrop of Dickens popular Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol.” It is generally presented as a sentimental, “good-feel” story told every Christmastime. It’s deeper social and religious implications are mostly ignored or overlooked. Recall the outlines of the story: Scrooge is the new businessman of the Victorian era, the total capitalist whose overriding focus is on making and keeping money. It is Christmas Eve and he expects his chief clerk to show up for work on Christmas Day—for him Christmas is just an excuse to shirk one’s duty in the acquisition of wealth. He considers the poor lazy and trying to deprive him of his wealth. When he goes to bed at night three spirits visit him in an attempt to convert his heart to something beyond this capitalist obsession: the Spirit of Christmas Past, showing him his own childhood, the pain which he experienced which led him on the road to this state of mind and heart (interestingly illustrating a Buddhist notion of how one bad act creates a whole wave of bad acts that resonate through time); then the Spirit of Christmas Present, showing him the pain and struggles of the people around him now; finally, the Spirit of Christmas Future, ultimately his own death, and the meaninglessness of his own life. He wakes up in terror but is relieved he can still change the trajectory of his life and so he begins. So Dickens was showing both the possibility and necessity of this transformation of vision which was dominant in his society. In this regard he is very similar to his contemporary, Dostoyevsky. Both point to a deep transformation of heart that is needed to confront the problems that modernity brings, rather than the structural changes that socialists would promote. Probably both are necessary, but truly the inner change is most essential if anything real and lasting is to take place. Gandhi understood that very well.
Now, for another, different view, we turn to that marvelous font of humor and satire, “The Onion.” Consider this headline recently appearing in The Onion:
“Report Finds Majority Of Business Leaders Visited By 3 Spirits Make No Changes To Lifestyle.” A funny and obvious reference to Dickens’ story, and it does raise some interesting questions. You have to wonder what it would take to change the vision of one of our billionaires, or the top 1%? Rockefeller and Carneige, in 19th century America, started massive philanthropy projects to make-up or cover up their deeds of ill-gotten gains. But they never once addressed the toxicity of this pursuit of wealth. In fact, then and now, this dynamic is defended as of benefit to all. It comes across in various ways. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece there is this:
“In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World
In the 1840s, Dickens didn’t see how businessmen like his hero were already lifting mankind from poverty.”
What a different view of things!! And some of this shows up in what is called “trickle-down economics,” championed by Republicans since the Reagan era. Supposedly when the rich thrive we all benefit. But a very recent article from the Business Insider (hardly a far Left organ!) reports:
“A huge study of 50 years of tax cuts for the wealthy suggests ‘trickle-down’ economics makes inequality worse.”
Regardless, the debate will continue. But you do have to wonder what would happen if the Spirits showed up at the doorstep of our politicians, if the three Spirits would show up to Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example? Would his hard, stony heart change? And what about Pres-elect Biden? Would his miserly attitude to student-debt forgiveness change? Or this crazy insistence on maintaining a for-profit healthcare system? (I read somewhere that hedge funds are buying into healthcare in anticipation of good profits in the next years.) Regardless…..one can dream.
2. This op-ed piece appeared in the NY Times:
“The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ
First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.”
For those studying the Gospels academically this would be standard stuff, but for the average Christian who has received only a domesticated vision of Jesus through his Church, it can be a bit of a shock. The article, however, did annoy me in that it seemed to limit Jesus’ radicalness to his “inclusivity” and left out both the theological and economic radicalness implicit in his words and practice.
3. Ok, now this has been VERY annoying: all these Christians (including Catholic bishops) fighting the CDC guidelines curtailing large gatherings as in churches or prayer groups, etc. Even fighting the mask mandate. Here’s a few examples:
Why You Can’t Meet God Over Zoom – The New York Times
“’Unconstitutional and illegal’: Dozens of maskless Bay Area Christmas carolers protest health order” from SF Gate
And from USA Today:
“About 100 people organized by former child star Kirk Cameron, many of them without masks or practicing social distancing, gathered in Southern California Tuesday night to sing Christmas carols.
Cameron, 50, a devout Christian, promoted the event, which took place in a mall parking lot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in advance on social media, just as he did with a previous one on Dec. 13 touted as a “Christmas caroling peaceful protest.”
Cameron, who famously starred in the ‘Growing Pains TV sitcom, organized the event apparently to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order.
“Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight at a time where your state governor has prohibited you from doing that in America?” Kirk said in an Instagram video posted Dec. 11. ‘If you love God, if you love Christmas and you love liberty, you’re not gonna want to miss this.’
Though his Dec. 13 protest stoked controversy, Cameron told Fox News that people are “clamoring” for community this holiday season.
‘This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are thousands and thousands of people in our community who would rather not suffer in isolation and come out to sing and express their gratitude,’ Cameron told Fox News host Shannon Bream in a clip shared to his Instagram Dec. 18. ‘We believe that there is immunity in community, but there is desolation in isolation, and I want to give people hope.’’
And there are a lot more similar examples, and my only comment is that I feel sorry for their impoverished understanding of God, community, freedom, civic responsibility, etc.
4. Ah, last but not the least annoyance: the major media, like NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, in their reporting on Biden’s new cabinet. They (and we) are so relieved that the insanity of Trump has been ousted that they seem unable to say anything critical toward Biden (there are the occasional op-ed pieces pointing to a mild worry about this or that). Particularly I am astonished how Biden’s picks for the cabinet have passed such low level scrutiny, as if nobody wanted to find any problems with any of them. You have to go to the less-read, more Leftist websites to get a better picture of what is going on, places like Common Dreams, Democracy Now, and Truthout.
One especially good and historic choice was Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior. She is a Native American of the Pueblo Tribe, and the Washington Post caught the significance of this choice in a very good story:
However, so many of all the other choices leave so much to be desired it is really sad—another opportunity for change blown. Biden almost never ventured outside the Clinton-Obama crowd, and in some cases clearly rejected a more Left approach…like in rejecting AOC a seat on the Energy Committee in the House because of her vigorous advocacy of the Green New Deal. All you can do is hope, but that may be another delusion. Here is the sad catalog of appointees as narrated by Chris Hedges in Common Dreams:
“The list of new administration officials includes retired General Lloyd J. Austin III who is being nominated to be secretary of defense. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies and a partner at Pine Island Capital, a firm that invests in defense industries and also includes Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state. Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel. He was one of the architects of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a proponent of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, resulting in yet another failed state in the Middle East.
Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chair under Barack Obama, is slated to be Treasury Secretary. Yellen as the chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and later as a member of the board of the Federal Reserve, backed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which led to the banking crisis of 2008. She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also lobbied for a new statistical metric intended to lower payments to senior citizens on Social Security. Yellen backed “quantitative easing” that provided trillions in virtually no-interest loans to Wall Street, loans used to bail out banks and corporations and engage in massive stock buy-backs while the victims of financial fraud were abandoned.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry is to become a special envoy for climate. Kerry championed the massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production, largely through fracking, and, according to Obama’s memoir, worked doggedly to convince those concerned about the climate crisis to “offer up concessions on subsidies for the nuclear power industry and the opening of additional U.S. coastlines to offshore oil drilling.”
Avril Haines, a former Obama deputy CIA chief, is to become Biden’s director of national intelligence. Haines oversaw Obama’s expanded and murderous drone program overseas and backed Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the head of the CIA, despite Haspels’ direct involvement in the CIA torture program carried out in black sites around the globe. Haines called Haspel “intelligent, compassionate, and fair.” Brian Deese, the executive who was in charge of the “climate portfolio” at BlackRock, which invests heavily in fossil fuels, including coal, and who served as a former Obama economic adviser who advocated austerity measures, has been chosen to run the White House’s economic policy.
Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, has been picked to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, as the head of the Democratic Party’s thinktank, the Center for American Progress, raised millions in dark money from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Her donors include Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart and the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, also gave the thinktank between $1.5 million and $3 million. She relentlessly ridicules Sanders and his supporters on cable news and social media. She also proposed a plank in the Democratic platform calling for the bombing Iran. “
There’s more, but enough is enough.
Not to end on a note of annoyance during this Christmas season, let me end with something unusual ( for Christmas, that is): a favorite quote from that marvelous Sufi, Rumi:
“There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, ‘Who is there?’
The lover replied, ‘It is I.’
‘Go hence,’ returned the voice;
‘there is no room within for thee and me.’
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
‘Who is there?’
He answered, ‘It is thou.’
‘Enter,’ said the voice, ‘for I am within.”
And this is a REAL Christmas message if you know how to read it!