Read/Watch: “George Bailey and the Radical Resistance” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Lest you suppose that the notion of glitter revenge is a mere conceptual metaphor, consider the work of former NASA engineer Mark Rober. Displeased by the activities of so called ‘porch pirates’, who were stealing unattended packages delivered by Amazon and others to doorways in his neighborhood, Rober applied his technical skills to the creation of a package designed to annoy and inconvenience such thieves — with a shower of glitter. It took him six months of devious experimentation, but just in time for Christmas delivery season, he came up with an innocent and tempting looking device that when opened delivers a fan-driven cloud of a full pound of tiny, impossible to eradicate glitter all over anyone who happens to be close, and the surrounding area. It then proceeds to emit bursts of — shall we call it ‘stink spray’? — at 30 second intervals, causing the unreflective thieves to hurl it out of what is usually a car. This enables Rober to follow a GPS signal and later retrieve the opened package, so that it can be reset, and used again. Best of all, a set up of four cell phones records the events when the package is opened, and automatically uploads to the Cloud, so that Rober can watch and hear the openers’ incredulous dismay — and share it on Youtube. One baffled thief, just before ejecting the package, was heard to bemoan that he would now have to explain to his girlfriend why there was glitter all over her car, and who he had been with. Thieves who were observant, and literate in 1990s American cinema, might know that something was up, since the package is addressed on the typical Amazon label from Kevin McCallister, the young hero of Home Alone, to his bumbling burglar adversaries, Harry and Marv.
So you see, Anthony, glitter has a good use after all! It is part of the resistance, as Christmas itself has always been. Before the Victorian era, and its cultural recasting by the English author Charles Dickens, Christmas was a much more rowdy affair. It was part of the sequence of holy days and saints’ masses by which serfs and peasants claimed some precious relief from the demand of incessant toil by their overlords. Uproarious dancing finally got the music we know today as ‘carols’ banned from inside the churches, and taken to the streets. The rich were expected to distribute largesse in the form of food, drink, and money to the poor, who enforced their demands with veiled threats like “we won’t go until we get some” in return for their blessings. It was a celebration of resistance to economic inequity and hereditary class. The New England Puritans famously tried to ban Christmas celebrations as both disorderly and pagan in origin – and in fact they constituted a continuing resistance to the hegemony of the Protestant theocracy in that colonial world. Dickens himself, for all his emphasis on the domestic rather than religious nature of the holiday, was perfectly explicit about its implications for resistance to injustice. At the end of the day, literally, the ghost of Christmas Present reveals beneath its robes two starving children. Scrooge asks whether they are the Spirit’s own offspring, and he replies, “They are Man’s, and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance, and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Christmas for Dickens was not very much about Jesus, but it was certainly about more than top hats and rum punch.
Or, let us consider the classic 1946 American movie by director Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life. Filmed just after the end of the second world war, it tells the life story of George Bailey, an upstanding citizen of Bedford Falls, with events leading up to the Christmas Eve crisis when his guardian angel is sent to prevent him from attempting suicide. Clarence, the angel, decides that the best way to address George’s despair is to show him what his hometown would be like if he had never been born. George’s more expansive life ambitions, including college, travel, and the hope to become an architectural engineer, have been consistently thwarted by his felt obligation to protect the legacy of his father’s business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan — the only financial institution in the town not beholden to its richest citizen, Old Man Potter. By viewing Bedford Falls without his influence, George finds that the absence of his personal relationships has made life much sadder and harder for all the people he cares about. But more than that, the character of Bedford Falls itself would be palpably different. Without the home ownership made possible by accessible mortgages from the Building and Loan, families would suffer from inadequate housing, which would create a tense, unstable environment full of problems. Now re-named Pottersville (what is it about mean, crabby, greedy people that makes them like to name things after themselves?) the town is filled with cheap bars, strip clubs, pawn shops, and dissolute locals, rather than the wholesome community George had invested in and worked to maintain.
In addition to being appalled by the condition of the town, George is unable to bear the thought of his wife, Mary, dwindling into an old maid librarian, and his children never being born. Finally acknowledging the value of his life, he rejects the temptation to throw it away, and in the end is rescued from his difficulties by the generosity and trust of the very people who have benefitted from his friendship and presence all along.
The story is a heart-warming testimony to the importance of personal relationships and mutual care, but like Scrooge’s experience in A Christmas Carol, it is also something more political, and even revolutionary, than that. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the FBI. At the time It’s A Wonderful Life premiered, J. Edgar Hoover’s internal national security agency was working hand in glove with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee, to identify communist agents and members of the communist party in Hollywood. They were convinced that the relatively new medium of popular motion pictures was being used to spread propaganda, and subtly recruit unsuspecting American citizens to sympathize with international communist ideas. It was easy enough to show that suspected party members had worked on a given movie – written it, directed it, acted in it; – it was somewhat more of an interpretive task to show that the content of a particular film represented communist ideas. The first case was not hard to make with regard to It’s A Wonderful Life. Despite having produced a series of highly successful propaganda films for the US during WW II, Capra himself was viewed with suspicion because his previous hit, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was considered ‘decidedly socialist in nature.’ Dalton Trumbo, the famously black-listed screen writer, had authored a version of the preliminary script for Wonderful Life, and later screen writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were considered to be ‘close associates to known Communists.’ But the subversive message of the film itself was more challenging. In August of 1947, a year and a half after the movie’s release – to rather indifferent success the first time around, by the way – the Hollywood field office of the FBI issued a report about the content of eight movies then in circulation. Mostly the focus was on the portrayal of military or overtly political matters, or images of the Bureau itself, but one of those movies was It’s A Wonderful Life.
This report claimed that the portrayal of Old Man Potter as a “scrooge-type” was ‘a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’ that resulted in Potter being ‘the most hated man in the picture.’ This was noted to be ‘a common trick used by Communists,’ and the report argued that Potter could have been shown as merely following state banking laws and protecting his depositors, rather than ruthless and mean-spirited, without significantly changing the story. The report also noted ‘a subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.’ This refers to the scene in which George defends his father’s legacy against Potter’s claim that offering accessible mortgages makes for a “discontented, lazy rabble,” who then demand other entitlements and become less biddable as a work force. In response, George says this:
Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. Just a minute. Now, you’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get outta your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why — here, you’re all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?
What’d you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. You know how long it takes a workin’ man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you — a warped, frustrated old man — they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.
I know very well what you’re talking about. You’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on, and it’s galling you. That’s what you’re talking about, I know. There’s just one thing more, though. This town needs this measly one-horse institution, if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.
This speech was one of the elements considered ‘subversive’ by Hoover’s agents, and I love it, but it seems to me that the scene about the run on the bank, that we just saw a few minutes ago, is actually more radical, and indeed more lower-case ‘communist’, by far. It is a scene that to me expresses the essence of covenant community – that people who work together for a shared goal, who trust each other and stay loyal in hard times, will always be better off in the long run than those who only seek their own selfish good and a quick buck. The thing that the FBI analysts, writing for a boss incapable of processing ambiguity, failed to note was this: George Bailey too is a banker. And one of the points of the movie, it seems to me, is that there are both Potter-type bankers and George Bailey-type bankers in the world, and it is in part up to each of us to choose which kind we are going to become. Another thing that the FBI found suspicious about the movie is that George debates at several moments whether his life has been a success or a failure. In Hoover’s criteria, success was assumed to be an American value, which meant that movies that invited sympathy for anyone portrayed as a ‘failure’ were clearly red propaganda. According to this analysis, Potter is more successful, and therefore more American and more admirable, than George, and should be the hero of the story.
But the transformation of Bedford Falls and the change in the character of the people George has known all his life suggests that something more than individual moral choice is at work in this tale. George Bailey became the person he was not only through a unique set of personal experiences that we witness, but also in the context of Bedford Falls itself. The town shapes his options, his consciousness, his compassion, his sense of responsibility. The people of the imagined Pottersville are different, because the environment and the values of Pottersville are different. Their social contract and their accountability to one another are different. The Bailey Building and Loan doesn’t break the day of the bank run, because its depositors make a decision, when called to their higher selves by George’s vision, to be there for each other, to trust the fabric of their connection to their neighbors and their town and their institution. In the end, the Building and Loan is not the staff, or the building, or the two dollars (or any other amount of money) in the safe; it exists in the minds and hearts of its subscribers, in their ‘inescapable network of mutuality,’ as Dr. King would have called it. All fiat currency is an act of faith; tear up a thousand dollar bill, and you have not destroyed any real thing in the world except a piece of paper. It’s all about what we agree to believe.
Seems to me that Christmas is about what we agree to believe, too – or perhaps more importantly, what we agree to imagine together. We can imagine a jovial, generous toy maker living with his reindeer at the top of the world, creating both delight and avarice for children. We can imagine a new born baby in a manger, signifying the untold possibility of every new life, and the vulnerability of the disenfranchised, and the stranger, wherever and whenever they are found. Perhaps we can imagine a choir of midnight angels, stunning us with good news we hardly dare to believe, and renewing the call to peace and goodwill that is always buried somewhere in our hearts.
We can imagine a world where success is about more than riches and power, and where, if we keep our heads together when Old Man Potter is trying to manipulate us, and buy us up, and tear us apart, we can get through this thing. We can imagine a world where revenge is taken in glitter rather than fists, where the daughters of Want and the sons of Ignorance are provided for, before Doom is etched indelibly upon their boney brows. We can imagine a Christmas that is antithetical to arrogant supremacy, counter to ravenous capitalism, incompatible with rabid nationalism. A Christmas that does not consent to heartlessness, to callousness, to hubris; a Christmas of resistance, that perpetuates the heart of that Middle Eastern child who once turned the world upside down in the name of a compassion that knew no borders and a love that had no walls.
That Christmas is always there, hiding underneath the sentimental stories and the hot cocoa ads and the self-serving, self-important bustle of it all. The good news, that resistance remains possible; that the world we imagine together still has the capacity to shake the nations, and shut down the Powers that Be, and change your life, and save the soul of our community. Imagine that. Listen; hear the angels sing. Go; tell.