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Charles Dickens' classic novella, A Christmas Carol, returns to TV and community theaters all over America each year. Nearly everyone in the Western world has either read the book or watched a dramatic adaptation of this quintessential Christmas tale, in which Dickens distilled the Christmas spirit into an unforgettable narrative that audiences love to hear whenever December rolls around.
It is a parable of redemption wherein the irascible Ebenezer Scrooge is forced to confront his own miserly, selfish lifestyle after an unlikely encounter with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.
Dickens describes it thus:
"Jacob," he said, imploringly. "Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob. You were always a good man of business."
"Business!" cried the ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business: charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business."
Borrowing shamelessly from St. Paul's ninefold "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23), Dickens distilled the soul of Christmas into his story. We are inclined to forgive him this bit of benign plagiarism because it conveys a kernel of the Good News that is the heart of Christmas.
During the recent presidential campaign we were reintroduced to a 20th century American writer who could be regarded as the anti-Dickens of her generation. Russian-born Ayn Rand, founder of a philosophy known as Objectivism, was a champion of selfishness and greed. She put forth her philosophy in a revealing volume titled The Virtue of Selfishness, where she defined altruism as an "evil force." A self-proclaimed atheist, she once told Mike Wallace that she didn't believe in self-sacrifice for others under any circumstances.
It is more than a tad ironic that the tea party movement, which is supported by many self-professed evangelical Christians, promotes Rand's atheistic philosophy. Their antipathy toward the disabled and unemployed, hostility against immigrants, and general antagonism regarding government assistance of any kind (except for the defense establishment) is in stark contrast to the sentiments expressed by Jacob Marley to his former partner: charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence and the common welfare.
The character of Scrooge exemplifies the legacy of the late Ayn Rand, whose philosophy was personified in Dickens' immortal curmudgeon. Indeed, "Scrooge" has become a proper noun signifying one who is mean and miserly.
Scrooge did, however, change his tune after opening his eyes to a wider perspective that required a hard look at the dark side of his selfish, narcissistic behavior. Only when he saw the fruit of his Rand-like philosophy a grasping, selfish and cruel indifference to the less fortunate in his world did he awaken to the liberating potentiality of the true Christmas spirit, which echoes the ancient words of the Prophet Micah, "to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."
Dickens' A Christmas Carol endures because its truth is irrefutable: The common welfare is everyone's business.
Emery Cummins is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church and an emeritus professor of counseling at San Diego State University.