Christmas was big in my house when we were little, but as we grew older, the Christmas tree went away, then even the presents went away. Our parents bought us some things, and maybe a relative or two visited, but Christmas really faded from our home as a big event. But there was one tradition that stayed and continues in my parents’ house to this day. Every year, at some point during the holiday season, we would sit down and watch the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. My favorite part of this experience as an adolescent was watching my father’s amazement at some section of the movie that he would swear he hadn’t seen before, even though we had the movie on videotape. This is a tradition that I continue to this day. At some point during the holiday season, I will sit down and watch this movie again.
For those who are unfamiliar, It’s a Wonderful Life was made in 1946 and stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, and was directed by Frank Capra. It’s the story of George Bailey, a smart, entrepreneurial young man from the small town of Bedford Falls, who has dreams of seeing the world and building modern cities. He finds himself trapped, however, by the circumstances of life. His father, who runs a building and loan with his drunk, forgetful uncle, dies and the Bailey Building and Loan will dissolve if George doesn’t take it over. So, he stays in Bedford Falls so that Mr. Potter, the villain of the film, will not take over everything in the town and oppress the poor. Bailey gives the money to his brother so that he can attend college, with the understanding that after his little brother graduates, he’ll come home to run the office while George goes to college. His brother graduates but gets married and takes a job from his new father-in-law, and George is stuck again. George gets married but has to give up his honeymoon money when there’s a run on the building and loan on the day of his wedding. George’s life becomes a cycle of fighting Mr. Potter and barely making ends meet for his wife and four children. He finally snaps on Christmas Eve when his uncle accidentally gives $8,000 of company funds to Mr. Potter. The threat of prison, along with all the other stressors in his life, drives George to want to commit suicide. At that moment, he meets Clarence, an angel who has yet to earn his wings. After wishing he had never been born, Clarence shows him what life would be like if he got his wish. In this alternate reality, George’s brother, who is now a war hero, died at the age of eight because George wasn’t there to save his life. The druggist he worked for as a child went to jail because George wasn’t there to stop him from accidentally poisoning a child. His friend no longer owned his business and his wife became an old maid. George eventually pleads to God for his life back, running home to find that his wife has marshaled the town to help him. His friends and neighbors come running in to give him money to make up the shortfall. His brother, after it’s clear that George now has more than he needs, gives a toast to his big brother as “the richest man in town.”
This movie has been considered one of the most inspirational films of all time, and with good reason. Now, as an adult, I see some of the problems with it (the Black mammy character, the fact that Mr. Potter doesn’t end up in jail, and a bunch of other things). I take many lessons from this movie about love, faithfulness, perspective, and forgiveness (of ourselves and others), but what I am reminded of the most is the sense of community present in the closing scenes of the film. The angel Clarence described it this way: “No man is a failure who has friends.” I look at our society in this holiday season and see so much that tends to divide us, things that break the bonds of community. In the largest sense, we have spent the last few years living under a present specter of death in a way rarely seen in human history. But that sense of death comes to us in small and more personal ways as well. Death by its very nature breaks the bonds of community, but it seems we have exacerbated the problem in the way we have used these tragedies as political footballs for the living to argue over and separate even further. Unfortunately, Christianity is not immune to this disease. Religion has been grossly politicized as well, breaking the bonds of love and community that it was meant to create and reinforce.
My prayer for this Christmas season is that we as the body of Christ return to the spirit of community found in the biblical text, taking responsibility for the ways we helped to sever these bonds and actively working to restore them. I pray that we begin to fervently believe in a community free of discrimination and judgment. I pray that we begin to live out the spirit and mission of the God who became a man to draw us closer to himself.
Notes & References:
 I will put the obligatory spoiler alert here for the rare person who is planning to watch this classic movie but has never seen it before.
 Obviously, I am thinking about the pandemic, but I am also reminded of the recent ten-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Massacre and even the apparent suicide of Stephen “tWitch” Boss.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.
Title image: still from It's a Wonderful Life (public domain)
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