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Charles Dickens’ “ghostly little tale,” A Christmas Carol is one of individual conversion and transformation. But tucked away in a short dialogue between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present is a ghostly little sermon—a pointed reflection on the Christian church.

On Christmas Day Scrooge watches the Ghost (who represents the divine) sprinkle incense that restores cheer to weary individuals. Scrooge, who thinks of supernatural beings as religious killjoys, is surprised. He accuses the Spirit of closing bakers’ shops on Sunday, depriving people of innocent pleasure. When the Spirit denies the charge, Scrooge responds: “it has been done in your name.” The Ghost then explains: “there are some. . .who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us. . .as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

There is enormous difference, the Ghost insists, between what God desires for human beings and what many religious individuals and institutions think God desires. What the Spirit describes is all too true—Christians have done great harm in God’s name. The list is depressing. The historical record includes antisemitism, violence against theological non-conformists, colonial genocide, white supremacy and patriarchy. The contemporary record contains the anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-poor, anti-climate, anti-science and anti-democracy posture of conservative American Christians. Meanwhile, mainline Protestants have been largely silent and passive—attempting to survive financially by remaining apolitical.

Terrible things that destroy human well-being have been done in God’s name. But having acknowledged this, the Ghost points out that they are done by people who “claim to know” God.

Claim to know—but in fact do not. They are, the Spirit declares, “strange to us”—so unfamiliar as if they did not exist. Blame them, the Spirit concludes, not God. His comment echoes God’s voice through the prophets: “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). It restates Jesus’ rebuke of religious leaders, who “tithe mint and. . .herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice” (Luke 11:42).

It replicates his warning: “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (Matt 7:21-22). Christians, individually and institutionally, can be self-deceived, thinking they are pleasing God but failing spectacularly to understand what God actually requires.

The Ghost’s comments can easily produce despair. Given what people of faith are known for in America today contradicts the all-encompassing love of Jesus, I am some days tempted to answer the question ‘do I stay Christian?’ with a decisive ‘no.’

Still, I find a note of hope in the Spirit’s rebuke of religious individuals and institutions. “There are some,” the Spirit says, who are deluded in professing to know God’s will. Some—but not all. This implies that there are some who do truly understand and do what God requires. They accept the Micah (6:8) mandate: God “has told you. . what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” They carry forward Jesus’ mission “to bring good news to the poor …. to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). They take the criterion of last judgment seriously: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

On the days I stay Christian, it’s because of those who attempt to live the life Jesus modeled and taught, the subversive vision of God’s inclusive kingdom.

While Christians often get off track with their belligerence, hatred, air of superiority and indifference to the teachings of Jesus, not all expressions of Christian faith are—to use Scrooge’s catchphrase—‘humbug.’ Many Christians have and do attempt to live as God requires.

Sister Claire and Brother Francis of Assisi restored Jesus’ values to a corrupt church, devoting themselves to a simple life of poverty, love of neighbor and concern for creation. Bartholome de las Casas, a European settler in the Americas, came to oppose the colonial abuses of indigenous peoples, actively fighting church policies of slavery and inhumanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship, and eventually was executed on Hitler’s order. Mother Teresa, Father Greg Boyle and William Barber II serve the least and the lost. L’Arche communities humanize people with intellectual disabilities. Recently, women writers like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Anthea Butler, and Rachel Held Evans battle the church’s alignment with right-wing politics and its control by white, heterosexual men.

Then there are all the ordinary people I know doing unremarkable but hospitable things that make a difference in someone’s life. These Christians stand against American religious perversions of what Jesus was about. Their lives, lit by his love, are bright signs in a dark world. This gives me reason to stay and try to be authentically Christian—to live out the posthumous insight of Jacob Marley’s ghost: because human beings and their welfare is God’s business, “charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence” (as well as justice) are my business, too.


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James Gould

James Gould taught Philosophy at McHenry County College, Illinois, for 35 years. He has published numerous academic articles in philosophy, theology, bioethics, disability studies, higher education curriculum design -- even motorcycling. He is now active in disability advocacy.


  • David J Jones says:

    Excellent article. Thank you. I echo your thoughts on how difficult it is to keep one’s commitment to the faith when there seems to be so many voices that are, well, simply an embarrassment. It’s the ordinary folks who keep on doing what is good and kind and faithful that keep me going. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who don’t get noticed as much as those voices that do so much harm.

  • Don T says:

    Thanks (again) Jim for your insights, vulnerability and challenge. Well said. T

  • Thank you for this!

    Taking this sentence with me: “ On the days I stay Christian, it’s because of those who attempt to live the life Jesus modeled and taught, the subversive vision of God’s inclusive kingdom.”

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you! So good!

  • Jack says:

    Thank you. Oh my yes, thank YOU.
    There does seem to be the Jesus of theology, doctrine, belief, catechism, etc
    And Jesus.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:

    Thank you, James, for your “Ghostly Little Sermon” with its present day application. You highlight the struggle that many of us face daily given the current religious environment. Ordinary people quietly following Jesus and living out Micah 6:8 ground us and encourage us to continue the journey. The labels “Christ Follower” and “Christian” are no longer synonomous it seems.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you for articulating what resonates so strongly with me.

  • Lean says:

    “Do I stay Christian”? The author is unsure if he should remain a Christian based on the terrible things other supposedly Christian people carry out under the Christ’s name. I remain a Christian because Christ redeemed me and I believe that the God of the Bible is the one true God. My belief is based on who God is, not who some Christians are.
    Also, are conservative white males the only “sinners”? Are patriarchy, climate denial, colonialism (see blog for complete list) the only “sins”? It appears that only white people need to attend mainline churches because the primary message is for them.

  • Kevin Bolkema says:

    Thanks for the article, Jim. Serving as the hands and feet of Jesus rather than presuming to be his voice would put Christianity in a very different light.

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