"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, December 24, 2010

Taking Stock of our Inner Scrooge

The unregenerate Scrooge got and gets a bum rap. Of course he was cruel, selfish, cynical, and unbelieving. But so are all of us, to the extent we fail to internalize the message of Christmas. Scrooge is the old Adam (and Eve) within everybody past the age of reason, saying secretly or not so secretly "Bah, humbug" to the vulnerability of God in the Christ Child. It is not obvious that our inner Scrooge is wrong. If it were, divine revelation would have been unnecessary.

Nor is the truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ itself obvious. That a baby, sucking at a breast and needing diaper changes, was God, is not obvious. It is not obvious that, as an adult, he would save humanity from itself by letting himself be tortured and executed as a threat to the powers-that-be. It is by no means obvious that the vulnerability of God is the most important means by which he manifests his love and power to us. The Manger is as much a paradox as the Cross, and for the same reason. That must be recognized and acknowledged before we can internalize the message. Until we do, all we have are scapegoats for cleansing ourselves of evil. Scrooge unregenerate is a literary scapegoat; but not even creating real ones, which we do all the time, can effect transformation.

By the same token, however, it is not unreasonable to embrace the paradox. Our world teems with violence, exploitation, and filth that pose their own paradoxes. Wars are always breaking out, simmering, or threatening; most are the usual grabs at power and wealth, wasting countless lives in the process. But a certain class of monotheist still kills the innocent in the name of God "the Merciful, the Compassionate." Before they can see the light of day, when they would become even more inconvenient, children are regularly slaughtered in the name of freedom and life for women. Drug- and sex-trafficking entrench forms of slavery even worse than the buying and selling of human beings for their unpaid labor—itself a practice which it took humanity until the 19th century to begin to see as wrong. We degrade the ecosphere as a whole to support "economic growth," thus coming ever closer to killing the goose while we debate whether there is any problem at all.  We rack up unprecedented levels of debt, public and private, thus robbing our children and grandchildren—who, thanks to contraception and abortion, won't be numerous enough anyhow to support us in the style to which we have grown accustomed. We are now on the verge of recreating life through genetic manipulation when we can't even live life now with enough sense and compassion. Those who most loudly champion "science," a human discipline that has indeed increased knowledge and improved life, expect us to believe that life is from nothing, to nothing, for nothing. Does life not seen and appreciated through the paradox of the Manger and Cross make more sense than life seen through it? I for one cannot think so, and I have a lot of company.

Yet even I and that company often have a hard time seeing the urgency of living the message of Christmas. Even when we do, we have a hard time living it. That signifies the unregenerate nature which made redemption necessary. We are animals commanded to become gods (cf. John 10:34; 2 Peter 1:4). On the other hand, we can thank God that our nature is not wholly corrupted. That is why even unbelievers can appreciate Christmas. The challenge for believers as well as unbelievers is to move beyond sentimentality to celebration, beyond appreciation to transformation. Since we cannot meet that challenge ourselves, the first step is to get out of the Child's way. My prayer is that we have the courage to do so.