Of George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge

Two of my favorite films of the Christmas season are It’s a Wonderful Life and the Muppets’ version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The protagonists in both films are similarly employed. George Bailey’s Building and Loan provided houses and mortgages for the lower middle-class families in Bedford Falls. Ebenezer Scrooge collected mortgage payments from London’s poor who lived in his tenements. Bailey is the very model of the virtuous businessman, while Scrooge is the embodiment of capitalistic evil.

After the ghosts of Christmas effected Scrooge’s transformation, however, his character also became exemplary. He found pleasure in life and joy in his relationships with people. He became charitable toward the poor and raised Bob Cratchit’s salary. Perhaps most importantly, Scrooge’s transformation persisted long after the ghosts disappeared.

Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world … and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  

Presumably, Scrooge repaired and improved the hovels in which his tenants lived, and charged only a fair rate for the housing he provided. He surely would have given his tenants every opportunity to pay their mortgages. Perhaps he assisted those who lost their jobs to find new employment or connected those with financial emergencies to charitable societies that could assist them. Maybe he even dug into his own pockets to help tenants through a rough patch. And surely he would have stopped evicting people on Christmas Eve, subjecting them to life on the streets in the dead of winter.

But If the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge and the virtuous George Bailey were morally obligated to consider the needs of their borrowers, they were equally bound to consider the needs of the others who relied on the income their institutions generated. George Bailey’s Building and Loan lent out other people’s money. Depositors had a right to expect to their money back, and many of them would have depended on the meager interest that the Building and Loan provided. Both Bailey and Scrooge had employees who deserved to be paid a decent salary. If Bailey and Scrooge simply gave away their institution’s money, the vault would soon be empty. In the long run, both investors and future borrowers would be harmed by the bankers’ unlimited largess.

So, whom should George Bailey or the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge evict? For that matter, whom would Jesus put out on the street? Can Christians even work in the banking industry? If such institutions are necessary in order to provide housing for most people, should Christians leave it to non-believers to do the morally objectionable work from which they and others benefit?

More broadly, does the Christian ethic provide a framework for disciples to live and work responsibly within the institutions of this age? Does the Sermon on the Mount or a “Red Letter Christian” ethic provide the complete or final word on what it means to live in this world? How, then, does Jesus’ prophetic mission in Galilee and Judea figure in to the overall gospel message and what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus?