“Can citizens of a welfare state fully meet their charitable obligations simply by paying their taxes?” That was the question asked by the late Robert Payton, who helped found the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, and with whom a colleague and I often co-taught a course called Ethical and Religious Perspectives on Philanthropy. His question picks up on a subject in one of the most philanthropically influential texts in the English language, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a staple of every Christmas season.
“A Christmas Carol” arises from an apparently insoluble tension. On the one hand, London was the largest city in the world, the capital of the largest nation in the world. Yet it was also full of legions of poor, plagued by malnutrition and disease, barely living on poor or no wages, and often ended up in workhouses and debtors’ prisons. The financial implosion of Dickens’ family as a boy made him all too familiar with such a life, but he couldn’t bear to share the story with anyone, so great was his shame.
Dickens wrote his story in a few weeks, groaning under financial pressure and taking long, lonely walks around London at night. Recently he had read the “Report of the Child Employment Commission” from 1843, in which he exposed the dire conditions of working class children. It was a life he knew something about from childhood working in a black shoe factory. He had planned to write a political pamphlet but was later caught up in the idea of a story that would land at “20,000 times the strength” of what he had originally planned.
Dickens’ story is so effective because, in Chesterton’s words, it is not aimed at institutions, but “an expression of the human face.” His focus is not on a social movement, but on the transformation of a single heart – perhaps the most memorable character of the writer, who has created more such characters than anyone else. The face of Ebenezer Scrooge (“screw” + “furrow”) shows the expression of a “squeezing, torn, scratching, clinging, desirable old sinner”, a man “hard and sharp as a flint, from whom steel has never been struck.” had from generous fire. ”
Whether or not Scrooge refuses to be forced to pay taxes to support social institutions like workhouses and debtor prisons – and it is very likely that he will – he certainly believes he no longer owes anything.
We meet Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Appropriately, he’s in his counting house, going through his books. “Secret, self-contained and lonely as an oyster”, he is visited by his nephew Fred, whose cheerful greeting he harshly rejects: “If I could work my way, every idiot who would say” Merry Christmas “on his lips to be boiled with one’s own pudding and buried through one’s heart with a stake of holly. ”Next are two charity workers, one of whom appeals,“ At this festive season it is more than usual desirable that we should serve the poor who are currently suffering greatly , take minor precautions. “
“Are there no prisons?” asks Scrooge.
“Lots of them,” says the man.
“And the union houses?” Scrooge asks: “Are they still working?”
“You are,” says the man.
When asked what they can donate it for, Scrooge replies with “nothing” and adds that he cannot afford to make idle people happy. He helps to support the “institutions” he mentioned, they cost “enough” and “those who are badly off have to go there”. To which the man protests: “Many would rather die.”
“If they’d rather die,” Scrooge counters, “you’d better do it and reduce the excess population.”
Scrooge’s philosophy is: The suffering of others is none of my business. “It is enough,” he explains, “for a man to understand his own business and not interfere with that of others.” Whether or not Scrooge refuses to be forced to pay taxes to support social institutions like workhouses and debtor prisons – and it is very likely that he will – he certainly believes he no longer owes anything. In this sense he is a staunch defender of his own freedom, which for him means the freedom to be left alone. Responsibility for others is a matter in which he has no interest.
Later that evening in his dark, empty and cool home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley, who roams the earth in chains of greed he forged in life. He has come to warn that a similar fate awaits him if Scrooge does not change his ways. But Scrooge will not hear about it and will protest
“But you’ve always been such a good businessman, Jacob.”
“Business!” cries the ghost, wringing its hands. “Humanity was my business. The common good was my business; Charity, Compassion, Forbearance, and Benevolence were all my business. The businesses of my trade were just a drop of water in the vast ocean of my business. “
Scrooge lives to accumulate, and he believes that by accumulating more, he enlarges and proves that he lived the way he should have done. But the spirit of Jacob Marley thinks differently, and to help Scrooge re-see the life he led, Marley’s spirits are followed by spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. If only Scrooge could look over his life and reconnect with his ailments as a lonely boy; Witnesses to the impoverished family of his underpaid employee Bob Cratchit, and especially his crippled son Tiny Tim; and see how little his life will have been when it is over – he can still change.
Of course, Scrooge’s words come back to haunt him. After Scrooge witnessed the materially needy and yet spiritually rich Christmas dinner of the Cratchit family, at which Bob offers his boss a generous toast, he is moved to ask if Tiny Tim will be alive. The spirit of the Christmas present replies: “I see an empty space in the poor corner of the fireplace, a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved.”
“No, no,” says Scrooge. “Oh no, kind spirit, say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows are not changed by the future,” says the spirit, “no one will find it here. So what? If he wants to die, he should do it better and reduce the excess population. “
Later two wretched children emerge from the robes of the spirit. The Spirit tells him that they are lack and ignorance. “Do you have no refuge or resource?” screams the terrified Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” says the ghost and turns it on. “Are there no workhouses?”
Scrooge had long soothed his conscience with the thought that the suffering of poor families and children was not his problem. He dutifully paid taxes to assist the institutions dealing with such matters and chose not to delve into them. But the opportunity to see the long way in his life and to see for himself where it would end leads him to see things differently. He realizes that he has not lived the way he should have – even though his coffers are full, his life is deeply impoverished.
His desire to be left alone has created a life for himself that is humanly lonely, poor, evil, brutal and pitifully short in relation to the time he was really able to live. To truly live, it is not enough to rely on bureaucracies to take care of others – you have to roll up your sleeves, reach out your hand and open your heart. When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning to find that the ghosts have done their job in a single night, he is overjoyed and sets about using his resources to enrich the lives of others. Generosity enables happiness he had never known.
In his day, William Thackeray was perhaps Dickens’ greatest literary rival and had reason to regret the huge success of “A Christmas Carol”. Yet he said, “Who can hear objections to such a book? It seems to me to be a national asset and a personal kindness to any man or woman who reads it. “The key word here is personal. Dickens does kindness by reminding us that true generosity must be personal. Regardless of the social programs, we can only be truly generous when we do it ourselves, freely and with good will.
As long as Scrooge pays his taxes to support the debtors’ prisons and workhouses, he is merely transferring wealth under threat of punishment. He does not give up and works with a very blunt instrument that prevents him from tailoring his gifts to the special needs of individuals and families. However, once he begins to volunteer, he takes real pleasure in it and focuses much of his greatness on people he knows well, like the Cratchit family. Moved by Tiny Tim’s plight, he is philanthropically inspired and activated in ways he has never known.
In other words, it is the spirit that matters – in the case of A Christmas Carol, the spirit of Christmas. And while Dickens’ story and the Spirt of the Season serve as touching reminders of the vitality that generosity can bring, there’s no reason we shouldn’t enjoy abundance year round. The transformed Scrooge enriches many lives, but no life is more transformed and enriched than his own. As Bob Payton might say, transfiguration is possible for any of us if only our minds and hearts are opened to the spirit of giving.