“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Except for many it is not. What is the real meaning of this period of the year with the many celebrations and the profound implications? Should we simply eat, drink, and make merry, or should we pause, ponder, and make progress? This essay considers events in the political realm and what they might mean in light of the best commentary available on the “spirit of the season.”
Annually from Thanksgiving through January 1 of the ensuing year, many try to reflect on what the authentic spirit of the festive season is and what lesson we should learn or inspiration we should draw from this special time. As anyone who listens to broadcast media, surfs the Internet, or reads periodicals can attest, this is not the solitary occupation of a cloistered philosopher. Words are abundant though often not consistent. One has more trouble, however, finding actions that model the true spirit of the season as stated by our most admirable essayists and commentators.
Consider that the House of Representatives under Republican control has ceased operations for 2013 with a list of passed bills which among other things cut $39 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]. This bill means “less food and more hunger for millions of low income seniors, veterans, working families with children and disabled Americans.” Tamara Hinton a senior staff member of the House Agriculture Committee says of these Americans: “They’re not being kicked off. They no longer qualify.” This echoes the questions of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Are there no prisons; are there no work houses?” Is the unredeemed Scrooge the 21st century Republican model of the spirit of the season?
To fully appreciate the callousness of this Republican initiative one simply need acknowledge this information from the IRS: “the highest wage in the bottom half of earners is about $34,000. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of four.” Consequently, based on their reported wages, half of Americans are in or near poverty.
As bad as this is, the full reality is worse. “A family in the top half of the income distribution, making $60,000 per year, will have their income reduced by a total tax bill of about $15,000 ($3,000 for federal income tax and $12,000 for payroll, state, and local taxes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau agree that food, housing, and transportation expenses will deduct another $30,000, and that total household expenditures will be about $50,000.” That leaves virtually nothing. Furthermore, while Republicans in Congress continue to cut life-sustaining programs, the majority caucus members should note that “their 400 friends on the Forbes list made more from their stock market gains last year than the total amount of the food, housing, and education budgets combined.” So the answer to Scrooge’s questions from a 21st century House Republican perspective seems to be “Prisons yes; anything helpful, no!”
In addition to the conspicuous lack of generosity and benevolence shown by the legislative efforts described above, the House Majority Republicans have also stonewalled efforts regarding immigrants, low wage workers, the unemployed, and the sick. The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” or S. 744,” came over from the Senate in late June, 2013, only to languish in the House for six months. It passed the Senate on June 27, 2013 by a vote of 68-32 with significant support from both parties. However, the House Majority put S. 744 in solitary confinement and kept it there until they closed down the House and went home for the year. The House Republican Majority has tried at least 46 times to deprive the estimated 41 million Americans of the chance to get needed health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The last time they did so was just prior to their shutting down the federal government in October. Not to be outdone, Republican controlled states have refused to accept Medicaid expansion in what surely ranks as one of the most sordid episodes in recent American politics. They are doing so mainly because it has Obama’s name attached to it, they’ve decided that immiserating millions of poor people is sound governance. “It’s hard to imagine a decision more depraved.” Finally, neither the House nor the Senate took any action to extend unemployment benefits to the 1.3 million Americans for whom they expire on 28 December 2013, or increase the minimum wage for millions more. This inaction is entirely due to Republican intransigence. To ensure that nothing could be done to prevent the expiration of these benefits and the stagnation of these wages, the House went into recess for 2013 as of 16 December. It seems House Republicans once again echo Ebenezer Scrooge who said, “I wish to be left alone, sir! That is what I wish!”
With these less than benign political actions as a backdrop, it must be acknowledged that conservatives, including Republican politicians, profess grave concern about a “War on Christmas.” They also emphasize the need to regain and demonstrate the “true spirit of Christmas.” For example, Sarah Palin, the failed 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, appeared at Liberty University to promote her new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. She informed an audience of students that Thomas Jefferson “would recognize those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season, those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas. Are, for the most part, angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans.” Fundamentalists of his day regularly denounced Jefferson as an atheist, but this is irrelevant to Palin. Meanwhile Bill O’Reilly, the not so jolly Saint Nicholas of the War on Christmas crowd, again clamored that “dastardly people want to, banish any mention of Jesus in the public square.” O’Reilly asserts what the “USA celebrates on December 25th, is the birth of the baby Jesus.” So for conservatives, the joy and jubilation of the season is all about baby worship.
They take offense when people who have the Constitutional right to free exercise of religion prefer to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” To the professionally devout, ritualistic language is the very essence of this marvelous time of year. Furthermore, O’Reilly simply obscures and ignores the indisputable fact that December 25th was expropriated by the early Christians in their own war against the pagan culture they inhabited. Everything he and the half-governor of Alaska trumpet as vital to the “true meaning of the season” is either irrelevant or fraudulent.
Giving Jesus his due, however, perhaps one can gain insight into the true meaning of the season by considering his reported teachings rather than the almost certainly fictional incidentals of his birth. The very book these modern day Pharisees revere is filled with statements describing the principles of the adult Jesus as well as the circumstances of the infant Jesus.
Checking the adult’s statements reveals a glaring hypocrisy exhibited by conservatives: they want to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas, but they want to ignore the adult Christ’s teachings in the policies they promote and enact every other day of the year. They treat baby Jesus as an idol and their worship is thus a form of idolatry. Conservatives ignore the adult Jesus who champions helping those in need, especially the poor. The Jesus conservatives worship is a caricature of the Christian sage. They quite selectively and completely out of context cite his reported teachings to excuse their self-righteous and callous slashing of programs that help the unfortunate and downtrodden, from food stamps to health insurance to unemployment benefits to minimum wages, and immigration reform.
For example, in regard to SNAP Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) cited 2 Thessalonians 3:10 – “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” The pompous Mr. Fincher conveniently neglected to mention two things. First, the context of the citation makes clear it is an admonition to people who had stopped working in anticipation of the Second Coming. Furthermore, it went on to declare: “We hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life. They aren’t working, but they are meddling in other people’s business.” This context makes it sound more like a reprimand of Congress rather than the long-term unemployed. Incidentally, the 2013 GOP House Majority put in the fewest hours since records have been kept at 28 weekly hours for 35 weeks. Perhaps, they were too busy meddling.
If they are pushed to explain the contradiction between their pious pronouncements and their callous practices, conservatives fall back on the contention that their actions are good for business. They then further claim that what is good for business is ultimately good for America. The more obviously benevolent policies they reject are in the words of Rand Paul “a disservice” to those who benefit from the policies.
This rationale did not work very well when Scrooge used it with Marley’s Ghost. In a moving scene from the 1984 Christmas Carol, Marley’s Ghost laments “life’s opportunities misused.” Scrooge, trembling with fear and beginning to share in Marley’s guilt, says: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” [http://youtu.be/qh_fUMgFomk]
Upon which the Ghost cries out in anguish:
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
While rarely noted explicitly, Marley’s declaration is quite compatible with a reported teaching of the Jesus conservatives studiously ignore. When he separated people who did right from those who did not, Jesus said: “Come and take what is yours… I was hungry. And you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty. And you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger. And you invited me in. I needed clothes. And you gave them to me. I was sick. And you took care of me. I was in prison. And you came to visit me.”
The people who did right asked when they did this.
Jesus reportedly replies, “What I’m about to tell you is true. Anything you did for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” So adult Jesus is firmly on the side of charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence even though the Republicans are not.
While hollering about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” and the true meaning of the season, conservatives blatantly ignore what the person they so publicly revere asserts determines the fate of human beings on the Day of Judgment. They also ignore Marley’s admonition to Scrooge. In fact, their only active devotion seems to be to a miserly ideology that maligns and marginalizes the poor and powerless and serves the wealthy and powerful. It would seem they have lost their way and fail to understand the true meaning of the season and their professed creed. These people who possess both wealth and rank evidently lack wisdom and humanity. Consequently, they are actually bereft despite their apparent prominence and affluence.
Conservatives need to reflect on the teachings of the sage they claim to venerate. They need to appreciate the truth of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. They need to abandon idolatry and activate idealism. They need to practice the true meaning of the creed they profess. Perhaps, they can understand this with the help of one more example from a carol that deserves more recognition than it often gets:
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor
shall yourselves find blessing.”
Conversely, Christian men and women who now berate the poor shall find themselves bereft, if not immediately, then when the full accounting is completed. They need to heed the lessons set before them and with Scrooge cease to be whom they have been and “honor Christmas in their hearts, and try to keep it all the year. They must “ ‘live in the Past, the Present, and the Future’ so the Spirits of all three shall strive within” them.
The carol cited above is Good King Wenceslas. No American can be a King because this is contrary to the republican form of government ordained and established by the Constitution. Every American, however, can be good. This is a chance we take and a choice we make. What does it say of any American who chooses otherwise? What does it say of all Americans if our political leaders are allowed to choose otherwise?