A few years ago, my wife and I were in a very good choir, Canti Con Brio. And for our Christmas concert one year, we did a song none of us had ever heard of before–I think it was called Room at the Inn. Anyway, I remember one verse in particular:
The Master of the inn refused
A more commodious place
Ungenerous soul, of savage mold
And destitute of grace
Terribly unfair, of course, as a judgment on that Innkeeper, about whom the Gospel of Luke says absolutely nothing, including whether he (or she) existed. But a story of redemption and love and atonement requires opposition in all those things, and at the heart of most great Christmas stories is an ungenerous soul, of savage mold, destitute of grace. Who, sometimes at least, is redeemed.
The list of souls redeemed by pop culture’s version of Christmas includes Buddy the Elf’s biological father (James Caan) in Elf, Billybob Thornton’s deliciously Bad Santa, and, of course, the Grinch. But Christmas stories are also full of mean-spirited adults who go ahead and stay unredeemed. That’s including, of course, A Christmas Story, my all-time personal fave-rave. The adults in Ralphie’s world aren’t so much hard-hearted as indifferent. He wants one thing for Christmas; a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and he wants it for eminently sensible kid reasons–it would be awesome, plus also cool, plus you never know when your home will be invaded by bad guys. And the grown-ups in his life keep telling him that it’s fool’s gold, a Godot, a cheaply made object that he thinks will bring meaning and joy to his life, but which will, in fact, put his eye out. Sadly, they’re right. The world of A Christmas Story is a world of disappointment, of consumer goods that promise a happiness they can never hope to deliver. But in the end, Ralphie gets the gun. His father’s hard heart has softened, maybe, kinda. Probably because of the leg lamp.
Dreams are rewarded at Christmas. At the end of Rudolph, Hermey the Elf does get to open a dentist’s office, and even the Abominable Snowman moves from the naughty to the nice list, while of course Rudolph gets to lead the sleigh team. Mr. Potter remains incorrigible, but at least Jimmy Stewart doesn’t got to jail, and Kris Kringle passes his psych test and reconciles Macy and Gimbel, while the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye team’s Big Show saves the Vermont Inn.
But any talk of pop culture Christmas stories starts, of course, when pop culture itself started, in the 19th century. Dickens and Scrooge. Even the name says it: Scrooge. Dickens piles on the descriptors: he’s “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Sinner, yes, but what exactly is his sin? He underpays his assistant. He won’t pay for coal to warm his offices, and is indifferent to the health-care needs of his employee’s family. He is, in other words, a Republican.
Kidding! Scrooge also refuses to attend family parties, nor give to charity for the poor, neither of which would be true of the many Republicans of my acquaintance, all of whom are very big on family values and personal charity. And of course, we like real-life Christmas stories involving acts of charity. My favorite this season, Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, buying toys for every kid in Houston in child protective services. Give those kids, in tough circumstances, in ‘the system,’ at least a few nice Christmas toys.
I love hearing about acts of private charity, about the bell ringer finding thousands of dollars in his Salvation Army kettle, or about the Baptist church in Oklahoma City who decided to turn a Sunday School annex building they owned into another homeless shelter, since the city shelters were overcrowded and turning people away. Good for them.
But there are still hungry people in America. And we’re the richest country in the history of the world. And all over the world, children starve, and parents can’t find work, and housing’s inadequate.
But suppose we just keep it here; in America. There are three rather unpalatable facts that we need to acknowledge and account for. The first is, there are an awful lot of poor people in America. There is still no room in the inn. Read this extraordinary story in the New York Times, about this twelve year old girl named Dasani. Named that after the bottled water brand, by her mother, who thought the name was aspirational, that it stood for wealth. An exceptionally bright little girl, an A student, a fine dancer and athlete, who essentially serves as Mom to her younger siblings, sleeping on a tattered mattress, one of 280 children living in a single shelter. This young woman exhibits more courage every day than most of us are called upon to show in a year. But her teachers wonder what hope there might be for her. ABC News did a story about her recently. Asked in school to describe an ideal parent, Dasani responded, “drunk.” Asked why, she said, “’cause when they’re drunk, they don’t say no, and you can get things you need.”
Second unpalatable fact: private charity does a remarkable job sewing up the tears in our social safety net. But private charitable organizations, great as they are, important as they are, don’t have anywhere near the resources that the federal government has. Right now, the House of Representatives is talking about reducing the amount the federal government spends on food stamps. We spend about 80 billion right now. Okay, if right now, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘well, that’s too much,’ think again. Think instead: ‘that’s the baseline for need.’ Last year, private charities raised about 5 billion for food kitchens and food provided in other private efforts. There’s simply no precedent suggesting that if we cut 80 billion intended to feed the poor, that it would be replaced with equal funding from private sources. In fact, that’s a preposterous notion; that some kind of magical spell will suddenly conjure up 40 times the amount in private donations that’s coming in now.
Third unpalatable fact: the only possible way to alleviate poverty is to take money from rich people and give it to poor people. Call it ‘socialism’ all you want to; some people have more than they need and others have nothing. It would be very nice if a wealthy population full of Scrooges and Grinches would suddenly have massive changes of heart. But in the real world, ghosts of Past, Present and Future don’t show up to scare rich elderly misers out of their gold. Taxation is NOT theft; it’s how We the People pay our bills. And King Benjamin suggests it’s a bill we owe.
(A fourth unpalatable fact, if you can stomach it–really super-rich people didn’t get that way through virtuous hard work and rugged self-discipline. Some did, but most inherited it–the richest people in America are Sam Walton’s kids. Hard work and risk-taking and frugality and clean-living may help you make your first million, but in time economies of scale add up to very very large incremental revenues, and even inheritors of really huge fortunes can spend a few generations just drifting. I have a friend who made his considerable fortune in Wall Street; he managed a hedge fund. He’s writing a book about it. The secret to his (massive) success? He’ll tell you: pure dumb luck. Accident and happenstance.)
The House just passed a budget, and it gives the unemployed a very nice Christmas present: unemployment benefits for over a million Americans run out Dec. 28. You can at least burn a lump of coal. The theory is that unemployment benefits cause unemployment. And hospitals cause disease. But that’s how the Right defends it; unemployment benefits provide a disincentive for people to get jobs. Except there’s no evidence supporting that idea.
Anyway, that’s what I’m hoping for this Christmas. For Past, Present and Future to haunt the House of Representatives. For the Grinch-y hearts of conservative policy-makers to grow three sizes some day.
Because we want charity to make a difference. We want it to be effective and effectual. And that requires resources beyond those of private organizations or individuals. It requires government. Always has. When there’s no room at the inn, you can let people eke out their lives in freezing, uncomfortable mangers. Or do what Utah just did. Give poor people apartments.