It is Christmas, and that means it’s time for all sorts of sentimental stories that mostly don’t do much for me. Call me scroogy, but I’m just not one for being manipulated into a specific “holiday spirit.” For example, “A Christmas Story” is the tale of wanting to get this one fabulous thing (a gun!) that will make everything right. Oddly, and predictably, this movie is the subject of a 24-hour marathon each year.
I don’t usually blog about religious stuff because that is a personal thing for me (even though I’m obviously kind of interested in the subject) and I believe in showing rather than telling how it is changing my life. But today is a special occasion.
The usual Hollywood Christmas story has a happy ending of possession. It is a form of idolatry, really, a simple material obsession that actually goes straight against the core of Jesus’s teachings of selflessness and community (for example, Mark 10: 17-30), not to mention the second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40). I know these movies have some redeeming characteristics, but I’m just saying that they don’t remind me much of Jesus.
There is one exception, which I ignored for years because of its syrupy title. Finally, a year or two ago, my family dragged me to see it and my first question afterward was “why didn’t anyone tell me?” I found myself agreeing with the American Film Institute’s labeling this as the most inspiring American movie ever.
It is a fabulous story in which George Bailey, a really nice guy, becomes suicidal after his tireless best-faith efforts to help his community result in his personal ruin. For maximum tear-jerkage, he prepares to throw himself into an icy river on Christmas Eve, only to be saved by his (trainee) guardian angel, Carence. The kicker is that Clarence shows George what his town would have been if George had gotten his wish and never been born.
Bedord Falls is transformed into its own evil twin, named after the town’s robber-baron and George’s nemesis, Mr. Potter. Pottersville was outlandish and nightmarish back in the day that Capra made the film, but over the past 62 years it has become a reality. Maybe the sleaze is overdone, but the rest of it should be familiar to us all. In any case, booze and sex was a pretty small part of what Jesus came to challenge.
Indeed, the first “display of his glory” was the equivalent of a miraculous run to the liquor store (John 2:1-11) and he hung out with the wrong kind of women (Luke 7:36-50). Meanwhile, the only time he lost his temper was with the moneychangers in the temple (Matt 21:12-17). After his departure (which we’ll address around Pentecost if I’m in the mood) the believers shared what they had so, there were “no needy persons among them.” (Acts 4:34-5)
The real issue in the movie is clear from George’s missing contribution and the bad town’s name: Pottersville.
Potter was not into drugs or women – he wanted money and power. Without George’s leadership, the forces of darkness had won and greed ruled the town. This movie wasn’t about individual prosperity bringing a strange sort of worldly escape from our sisters and brothers. It was about little people sticking it to the Man. George was generally helpful and selfless, but his real accomplishment was holding together Bailey Building and Loan through a bank run, and providing an organizational form through which people could escape from Potter’s tenements and build dignified homes together. Seeing Pottersville predictably changed George’s mind and sent him home, where the adoring community repaid his lifetime of generosity.
George ran a privately-owned building and loan society, but the movie recalls the true story of millions of people who organized under the 1932 Federal Home Loan Bank Act. Building and Loan is another name for a Savings and Loan, which were often mutual forms (although sometimes publicly traded).
“Bailey’s” Building and Loan seems to be a distortion of some sort to escape the growing anti-communist sentiment that was building after the end of WWII, or perhaps because it just made a better story if it was George’s family business that he was stuck running. Indeed, if it had been a cooperative he could have gone on his honeymoon as planned rather than being stuck fixing a bank run.
In any case, the cooperative nature of the enterprise is clear throughout the film, and is rather reminiscent of the economic behavior associated with the original Way of Jesus.
On the other hand, anyone who remembers the 1980s will remember that S&L’s eventually went bad, so they are not foolproof. When I run out of things to do, I’ll research what went wrong and let you know; for now, the important point is that the movie depicts the early days when they were an essential tool for increasing homeownership. In any case, the same sort of corruption can be found in Christmas itself, which was kicked off by a fatal stampede this year and is in need of another revival like that inspired by “A Christmas Carol.”
Rather than visions of getting more personal stuff (which is becoming more precarious as the economy falters), we should focus on the symbolic promise of Christmas, that a messiah could come to dramatically change a really bad situation; that in the darkest time of year, the light is returning; that love beats fear and we can really hope for a new world that fits our highest ideals.
So merry Christmas, whatever that means to you, I hope that you find some sort of encouragement in stories like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and also in the story of Jesus. Whatever is true about personal salvation and such, it’s got a lot to teach us in these hard times about how we can come together to escape the Potters of our day.