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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Somber Christmas

In the Scandinavian Protestant church in which I was raised, there were sanctions against smoking, drinking, dancing, card playing, movies, and anything sexual.  The result in my generation was people who with a certain relish smoked, drank, danced, played cards, went to movies, and fucked if the opportunity presented itself.  And there was not a little effort expended in presenting opportunities. 

However, those restrictive sanctions, while preached with some persistence, did not define the primary mission of the church.  That mission became apparent as the Christmas season approached.  Reformation Sunday in the last week of October marked the beginning of  a massive drive to collect food, clothing, and other essentials of life for the needy.  November, December, and January were times of intense activity, presided over by the women’s missionary societies, but involved all members of the church in the collection and distribution of food, clothes, and essentials such as blankets to those in need.  Churches in general were in engaged in an enterprise now largely the province of the Salvation Army. This mission was ecumenical in nature.  It is the one area of Christian principle in which the fundamentalist protestant churches participated with the Roman Catholic church. 

 The mandate of Christ to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and heal the sick was pursued without equivocation.  In those later days of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, there was no absence of hunger, poverty, and illness to address.  Once a week during the wintery season, my mother drove my dad, a letter carrier, to work at 5:30 in the morning so that she could have the family car to deliver boxes of food and clothing items to people for the church.  The women’s societies had a roster of people who gathered, packed, and delivered boxes of goods to people on a list it compiled and maintained.  This was an ongoing activity throughout the week.

Whenever people worshiped or engaged in the Lord’s work back then, they wore their Sunday best as a sign of respect for the calling.  My mother dressed up, dressed me up to ride along, and went to the church and loaded the trunk and back seat of the car up with boxes and bags of food and clothing and spent the day delivering them.  I have vivid memories of delivering food to people who lived in shacks with swept-dirt floors, of elderly people huddled in blankets waiting for death or whatever deliverance from poverty they expected, of children in rags eying the winter mackinaw my mother had put me in. 

This work was not considered charity.  It was considered duty.  Although the cold months around the holiday season were when the church was most active in ministering to the needy, the principle extended to family life throughout the rest of the year,  also.  During that time, it was common for the steps to our back porch to be occupied by men who were willing to perform some work in exchange for food.  My mother fixed them scrambled eggs and toast and coffee as a matter of hospitality for a wayfarer, not as charity or with the expectation of any work to be performed.  In her broken English, my Swedish grandmother explained the premise of that hospitality.  What if Jesus came to your door in hunger, she said, and you turned him away?  The idea was not that Christ stalked the land as a hobo checking to see who followed his mandate to feed the hungry, but to remind one that feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, and healing the sick defined what it was to profess Christianity. 

A Lutheran pastor friend of mine said that the old Swedes regarded themselves as the instruments through which Christ fed a multitude with a few fishes and slices of bread.  They spread the gospel with slabs of lutfisk, barrels of pickled herring, and loaves of limpa bread,  the Scandinavian sacraments. 

Praise the  lord and pass the lutfisk.
The Christmases of my childhood had a somber aspect, because while we celebrated with our families, the poor were a presence of which we were mindful.

One did not go around wishing everyone a merry Christmas, especially people who were thralls to poverty and need.  Instead, one did things to increase the possibility that those people might find some spark of hope, respect, and dignity in the Christmas season.

My wife recently had a series of jobs in which she traveled extensively in northeast South Dakota.  I often helped drive her to her appointments and meetings and took an interest in the many Scandinavian churches I found throughout the countryside.  Few of them are still operating with congregations; most are maintained as historic landmarks in the settlement and development of the Dakotas by immigrants. 

That interest in those churches actually began some years previous when another professor and I were asked to be consultants for a group that wanted to write a history of one of those churches.  There was historical information contained in the church’s documents, most of which are on file in the library of the Lutheran college where I taught for 8 years, but it was cursory and incomplete.  The people who initiated the project planned to interview the families of church members and clergy who had served the parish.  That is where the project began to stall.  We had a complete list of members over the years, but found that extremely few of the families had members left in South Dakota.  The project then involved a strenuous effort to find people whose families were members with the expectation that we could get some accounts of the church from family memories and records.  We found many of the people scattered from New York to Los Angeles and Seattle, but were surprised by a diffidence.  Their common explanation was that as young people their driving ambition was to go to college and find lives elsewhere.  The other professor and I did get some accounts about the vital role the church played in the rural community.  And we did find that the churches were the center of community life and that those Scandinavian churches on the plains  also practiced what Christ preached in feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor.  We got accounts of young people much involved in that activity, just as my mother involved me as a child. 

One of the things we young descendants also learned from the experience is that the people who formed those early congregations came to America to find the promise of equality and opportunity that had been made to them through their churches.  And they were determined not to repeat the social and economic strictures of the Old World in America. 

Most of us who went to these churches remember sitting through  sermons and being drilled on them in Sunday school on the scripture: 
 Matt 26:11: The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

The Swedish tradition never let that verse hang out there, as it often does now, to suggest that the poor will always be around and there is not much we can do about it.  The sermons always emphasized that Christ was making the point that there will be poverty, but he would not always be present to instruct us to take action.  We’d have to act on our own initiative.  That verse was always followed by those quotations from the scripture that got very specific about how we were to treat the poor. 
 Lk. 11:41: But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. 

Lk. 14:13-14: But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
 There are those who are content to the let the poor be among us as a state of the economy.  I read a perspective on the matter in South Dakota Magazine in a column by Ken Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard purported to be giving a meditation on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a literary work that has shaped the way we celebrate Christmas.  As one reads the column, one finds that Prof. Blanchard is talking about some versions of "A Christmas Carol" that have been made for films, not the work as it is actually written.  When Dickens wrote the story, he said he intended to "strike a sledge hammer blow" for the poor.  But Dickens guarded carefully against letting his portrayals of the poor and the causes of their condition take on a political aspect.  His concern was that his literary art portray people, not flack for any particular political viewpoint.  Prof. Blanchard, however, cannot resist bringing a bit of flack into his appraisal of "A Christmas Carol."  Although the story involves the transformational redemption of Scrooge as a human being, Prof. Blanchard finds that in his role as a businessman, Scrooge did not need redeeming: for Scrooge "was about as efficiently productive as it is possible for a human being to be, as least when it comes to cold, hard, cash. Cruel as he was, he had money to lend and a job for poor Bob Cratchit."

This contention is extended to the capitalist class altogether:  "Say what you want about the evils of capitalism, it has done more to supply the hearths of the poor than dropping alms into collection plates ever did. More Tiny Tims of the developed world have been saved by the power and prosperity of modern civilization than ever were by a ghost sprinkling Christmas cheer."

Literarily and historically that statement misses the entire point of the story. (And the suggestion that capitalism lifted the poor out of poverty does not seem to align with the facts of history.)  The ghost  of Marley bemoans that he lived his life in a mindless, capitalist pursuit:

Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise
Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!
As Scrooge is taken by the second spirit of Christmas to look in on the home of his employee, Bob Cratchit, he looks at an empty chair with Tiny Tim's crutch leaning on it and asks if the child is destined to die.  The spirit answers in Scrooge's own words:

'If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. `Man,' said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what
men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God, to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.'

Scrooge is rebuked for pursuing business with no concern or awareness of the effect that his mindless pursuit has for others.  That is the lesson that the three spirits all show him.  

Dickens was a contemporary of Karl Marx.  His work was seen by the Marxists as a classic portrayal of the struggle of the working class to survive against the negligence and malevolence of those who regard workers as disposable pawns in their capital schemes.  But Dickens did not write to elucidate political theory; he wrote to explore the value of all humanity.  George Bernard Shaw points out that "The difference between Marx and Dickens was that Marx knew he was a revolutionist whilst Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling."  

In "A Christmas Carol," Dickens did not invent the contemporary celebration of Christmas.  He recalled its celebration as it was observed by the lower classes, and he defined it as recognizing the call to duty that those Scandinavian churches tried to live by.  

Those people of my generation and later who have renounced their faith still tend to adhere to those principles laid down by Christ.  In many cases, it is the failure of the church to practice those principles that causes the loss of faith. 

For me,  Christmas will be a somber time.  Living in South Dakota where nine reservations were created and are maintained by exactly the attitude and mindset that Scrooge repudiated makes Christmas exceedingly somber.

I hope you had a somber Christmas and have the honesty and courage to see that somberness all year through. 


Deb Geelsdottir said...

Thank you very much for an excellent post. I am a Lutheran pastor, and have served very small congregations NE of Aberdeen, and West River, northeast of the Hills.

There are people there whose memories mirror yours. My Gramma always provided a sandwich to the hobos who came past her home. She had barely enough for her disabled husband & 3 children, but it was her "Christian Duty" to offer something to anyone in need.

Lastly, I feel sickened by the way Jesus' clear message has been twisted and distorted to serve greed. It is heartbreaking.

I live in St. Paul, MN, now. I attend a small church while serving as a chaplain to people with brain injuries and mental illnesses. My church knows its duty to our neighborhood, and we strive daily to fulfill it. We have more success some days than others, but we don't give up.

The outer ring suburbs are home to mega-churches that preach a "prosperity gospel." That sickens me.

It all frightens me - "Geed is good . . . Prosperity Gospel." Ugh.

Douglas said...

Happy New Year to all who do good and those who can do better. And thanks to your blog and those who comment here.

Ken Blanchard said...

David: this is a very fine post and, contrary to how you deal with my essay, I do not find much here to disagree with. A few points:

Yes, most Christians read Matt 26:11 to mean that poverty will never be eradicated; however, they also believe that everyone should be generous to the poor and needy.

In my essay at South Dakota Magazine Online I look at A Christmas Carol from the perspective of political theory. I contrast modern virtue (invented by Machiavelli and exemplified by
Scrooge prior to his reclamation) with Christian virtue, understood as generosity. From that perspective, Dickens' story stands as an argument: modern virtue is a wretched thing without Christian virtue. Was I wrong?

I also say that "Dickens shows the flaw in modern virtue without rejecting modern virtue." Fezziwig is surely held as a model for a good and generous man. He is also a business man. That he has balanced well these two functions is indicated by this passage:

"Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: “Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!”

Once Scrooge has come to see the light, he can afford to be very generous. A Christmas Carol is Christian but hardly anti-capitalist. Am I wrong about that?

Contrary to what you say, only my penultimate paragraph was directed to a film version of the story. The rest applies to the text, which I love.

You point out that "Those people of my generation and later who have renounced their faith still tend to adhere to those principles laid down by Christ." I am emphatically agree that many people who are not religious in belief nonetheless practice Christian virtue.

I would point out that many of those on the right whom you love to loath are very generous people as well.

David Newquist said...

Having been at one time identified as being on the right, I have met generous people with that inclination, but I find scant evidence of that generosity in the way the right has defined itself politically today.

It seems inevitable that Dickens will inspire discussions that are conducted in terms of religious and political labels, but my point is that Dickens strenuously tried to avoid reducing his portrayals to labels and intended to illuminate how the circumstances humans find themselves in, whatever labels they may bear, affect their lives.

Pastor Geelsdottir and I both recall when confronting poverty, which meant the conditions that create it, was considered a duty, not an occasional display of generosity. Dickens work at large defines decency in that way and does not make any sectarian belief a precondition of that decency.

In responding to a clergyman's question about Christianity, Dickens wrote:

"There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency, than I have. If I am ever . . . mistaken on this subject, it is because I discountenance all obtrusive professions of and trading in religion, as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world; and because my observation of life induces me to hold in unspeakable dread and horror, those unseemly squabbles about the letter which drive the spirit out of hundreds of thousands."

His treatment of what we call capitalism, especially in "A Christmas Carol" is that it is devoid of any moral component, and is not the human quality that has much to do with creation or deliverance from poverty.

Ken Blanchard said...

David: thank you for your thoughtful reply. Again, I think we are more in agreement than not.

I am not sure that Dickens' point was that "capitalism is devoid of any moral component". If that was his point, he was surely wrong. "A penny saved is a penny earned", with its admonition to defer gratification for future rewards, is a genuine moral sentiment.

Dickens' main point is that capitalism is not humane without Christian virtue. On that we seem to agree.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States