It has been a tough year for Christians.
Attendance numbers continue to drop in most mainline churches.
Young people are increasingly skeptical of religion.
The deadliest church shooting in U.S. history took place this fall.
At a time when all this is happening, one would think Christians of all denominations would pull together, that their shared values would be a uniting force in a world that seems increasingly violent, tribal, secular and materialistic.
Yet Christians are more divided than ever, and those divisions are not along theological lines but political ones. The most passionate disputes are not between Catholics and Baptists, or Mormons and Lutherans, but between conservative and liberal adherents within each respective denomination.
The culmination of this year of division took place Dec. 12 when Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, wrote: “No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted U.S. Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”
I am chastened by Galli’s words, ashamed that the faith I profess is not evident in my daily behavior and the behavior of my fellow believers. The question I keep asking myself is, “What does it mean to be a Christian in America today?”
Looking for an answer, I found it helpful to revisit one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
When Frank Capra produced and directed this movie in 1946, America was just emerging from World War II. Capra had spent the previous three years in the U.S. Army directing a seven-part documentary series, “Why We Fight.” After the war he wanted to make a different kind of movie, something that would explain why he loved America, what made America worth fighting for.
The lesson of Capra’s film is this: What makes America great is not its wealth, its military might, or its technological achievements. The core of America’s greatness is its moral character, which is most evident in the daily lives of its ordinary citizens: in their hospitality, their regard for the underdog, their love of neighbors and service to those in need. With its repeated illustrations of repentance, forgiveness, hospitality and kindness, the movie is replete with Christian themes without being overtly religious.
The central character is George Bailey, but the real hero does not fully appear until late in the film: Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class. Because Clarence has not yet earned his wings, he does not have any special powers. He is not especially strong or clever or even articulate. He cannot fly, or protect people from harm, or change the course of human events. All he can do is pay attention to George and try to figure out how to restore his hope.
So that’s what he does. For three quarters of the movie, the audience watches along with Clarence, reviewing the major events of George’s life. We see him rescue his brother, work in a drugstore, fall in love, get married, have a family, then plunge into despair and decide to end his life on Christmas Eve.
Thanks to Capra’s deft direction, the scene in which George jumps into the river to rescue Clarence does not feel like contrivance. The audience, by that point, has come to know George so thoroughly that his self-sacrifice, even in a fog of drunken desperation, is just what we expect of him.
Afterward, while the two are drying off in the tollhouse, Clarence explains why he jumped off the bridge: “I knew if I were drowning you’d try to save me. And you see, you did, and that’s how I saved you.”
This moment in the movie is profound. It conveys the insight that everybody’s greatest need is to be needed. It conforms to neither liberal nor conservative stereotypes in its conviction that the primary goal of helping others is not material self-sufficiency but rather spiritual and social co-dependency.
Clarence tumbles into the world like the infant Christ, without power or authority. He cannot fix any of the practical problems that beset George. All he can do is show him what the world would be like without him and in that way demonstrate that his life means something, that it would be a shame to throw it away.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” may be old-fashioned and sentimental, but its core message is timeless: We don’t have to be powerful, or smart, or exceptionally gifted to love our neighbor. We just have to pay attention to those in need, to encourage them, and not give up. When I keep that message in mind, I see it played out around me every day, quietly, by good people of all faiths.
Just this morning during breakfast, a friend remarked: “I don’t need any Christmas gifts this year. I already got the greatest gift I could hope for.” He went on to describe a conversation he had recently with person in despair. He took time to listen, and that was enough, on that day, to restore a young man’s confidence that he had something worth saying.
Atta boy, Clarence!