The Common Good

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: A Chain of Our Own Making

Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

The specter of Jacob Marley entered Scrooge’s room. It had been seven years to the day since Marley died.

Before he sees them, Scrooge hears the clanking of the heavy chains his old business partner now carries with him.

Scrooge asks how it is that Marley became thus fettered.

“I wear the chain I forge in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it.”

Marley did not realize in life that he was a slave. He assumed that his wealth and the absence of external restraints meant he was free, when in fact his miserly and selfish ways were forging the means of his own bondage.

Why did Jesus come not for the healthy but for the sick? Because it is only the sick who recognize they need a doctor. It is the sinners who know they are sinners who seek salvation.

Like St. John’s message to Church in Laodecia (Revelation 3), Scrooge thought he was wealthy and in need of nothing when in fact he was wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. He, at least at this point in the story, had no concept of his own poverty.

Later, the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge the beginnings of Scrooge’s own bondage. Dickens describes the young Scrooge like this:

There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.

Scrooge is able to look on at his old self seated with his former sweetheart, Belle. But, it is a sad memory as Belle leaves him that Christmas. Her reason for leaving him explained where the chain Scrooge fashioned for himself had begun.

“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

Scrooge begs the Ghost of Christmas Past not to show him anymore. But, there is a final visitation. It show’s Belle as a grandmother years later happy and satisfied. Belle’s husband returns home and tells the story of seeing Scrooge sitting in his office alone on the holiday.

“His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe.”

Scrooge didn’t start out as the Scrooge we met in the opening scene. That Scrooge was created choice by choice, decision by decision, Christmas after Christmas and chain link by chain link.

His bondage began, as it often did with the Israelites, with idolatry. The pattern we see through the Hebrew scriptures is a cycle of idolatry, captivity, repentance and then freedom.

I get frustrated reading through the book of Judges. The cycle of idolatry is repeated over and over. But, I too find myself in the midst of that story. I am in a constant spiral of allowing idols to crop up in my life, becoming captive to them and once again repenting — in need of liberating grace and mercy.  

When we replace God with something else, we sew the seeds of our own captivity.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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