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It was late and Ebenezer Scrooge was in no mood for distractions.
Especially those that would cost him money.
He had just backed his incessantly cheerful nephew out of his counting house with a curt “Bah, Humbug!” and a terse “Good afternoon!” when these two strangers pressed themselves in.
Well-fed, hats in hand and papers at the ready, they bowed to Scrooge and began their entreaty.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
And Scrooge’s response?
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons,” they responded.
“And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” Scrooge inquired.
“They are. Still, I wish I could say they were not,” shuddered the men at the abuses in these bastions of indignity.
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?”
“Both very busy, sir.”
Scrooge smiled triumphantly.
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course. I am very glad to hear it… I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
With little more to say, the two men walked away slack-jawed and empty-handed. Ebenezer Scrooge locked his counting house, bitterly self-righteous.
When I read this each year, Despicable, my scrupulous self says. Unconscionable, my self-righteousness condemns. How could anyone be so unfeeling, so selfish? Who does that?
And then, I realize…
How often have I walked by, averted my eyes, given less and rationalized more in the face of need? If I am honest, I can, too often, hear the voice in my mind excusing: I already contributed, it’s someone else’s turn. I know they have needs, but so do I. Didn’t I already give enough? Let me pass the plate, the hat, the envelope to the next person. Surely, I’ve done my part.
Today, I caught part of a speech given by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that spoke a little to this.
“[Christ’s] message was not the need to eliminate hunger or misery or misfortune, but rather the need for each individual to love and help the hungry, the miserable, and the unfortunate. To the extent that the State takes upon itself one of the corporal works of mercy that could and would have been undertaken privately, it deprives individuals of an opportunity for sanctification and deprives the Body of Christ of an occasion for the interchange of love among its members. I wonder to what extent the decimation of women’s religious orders throughout the West is attributable to the governmentalization of charity. Consider how many orphanages, hospitals, schools and homes for the elderly used to be provided by orders of nuns. They’re almost all gone – as are the nuns who ran them. The State now provides or pays for these services through salaried social workers. Even purely individual charity must surely have been affected. ‘What need for me to give a beggar a handout? Do I not pay taxes for government food stamps and municipally run shelters and soup kitchens? The man asking me for a dollar probably wants it for liquor!’ There is, of course, neither love nor merit in the taxes I pay for those services. I pay them because I have to… The transformation of charity into legal entitlement has produced donors without love and recipients without gratitude.”
It is a curious thing. One hundred seventy-five years ago, Ebenezer Scrooge uttered the selfish excuse cited by Justice Scalia almost verbatim. And, at times, it is uttered by me. Because at times, like Scrooge, I have been hollowed out – dislocated from my fellow man – by the impersonal modern institutions of charity and my own shallow selfishness. At times, my reliance on the government and social services to help those in need has given me an excuse and, like Scrooge, has led me, all too willingly, to abdicate my accountability, responsibility and initiative to help my fellow man. And yes, at times, I too find myself echoing an infamous ancestor, Cain, when he indignantly cried, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and before I deign to hear God’s answer, I smugly walk away.
Once, when Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor was counseling a freshman in college on keeping his faith, she remarked,
“[A gentleman] once wrote [Catholic poet] Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he [the gentleman] could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, ‘Give alms.’ He was trying to say to [him] that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings).”
This season, I pray that I love and truly see my fellow man. I will give alms. It is time to step forward a little further to be an agent of Grace.
It is time to be sanctified.
God bless us, everyone.