Every year, my family practices the time-honored tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.
The 1992 classic is full of wonders you can’t find anywhere else: Michael Caine starring in a children’s movie, a ghost of Christmas future that haunts me every time I consider splurging on frivolities, and a drum set at a Victorian England Christmas party. But the movie isn’t just a fun, Muppet-y take on Charles Dickens’ classic novella; it’s also a compelling screenplay with heart-warming, humorous songs that offer a radical Christmas message of “cast down the mighty … send the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
You might be thinking to yourself: “Sure, Mitchell, all versions of A Christmas Carol have the same lessons on greed, capitalism, and righteously haunting the rich into repentance,” but that is where you would be wrong. While Dickens wrote a classic, the Muppet cast took it to another level. Few other takes on this yuletide film have such unique insights into what it takes to build a beloved community. Plus, nowhere in Dickens’ version does Rizzo yell: “Light the lamp, not the rat! Light the lamp, not the rat!”
So next time your family or friends consider putting on that 2009 Jim Carrey trash, here are four reasons to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol instead.
1. “Even the vegetables don't like him.” —Townsperson
In the opening number of the film, we see the town decry the evils of their main exploiter, Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine), i.e., Mr. Humbug, Mr. Grim. In the Muppet version, every creature in the town — from horses and heads of lettuce to housecats and “meeces” (a poor family of mice) — decry the cruelty of their capitalist overlord who “charges folks a fortune / For his dark and drafty houses.”
This mirrors the biblical text, which tells us that not only does creation reveal and proclaim the glory of God, but that “the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor,” (Romans 8:22).
As Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “[creation] longs for those who will follow the Spirit of God, those who will follow God’s ways, those who will work for reconciliation between humanity and God, as well as humanity and the rest of creation.”
We need reminders that capitalism and exploitation don’t just harm human creation, but all members of our earthly family. Through talking heads of lettuce and a family of poor mice, The Muppet Christmas Carol gives just that.
2. “We should have known our evil deeds would put us both in shaaaaackles.” —Jacob and Robert Marley
This one is pretty obvious: As they stomp and sing in their ghostly, clanking chains, the Marleys (Statler and Waldorf) sing that Scrooge is “doomed … doomed for all time,” and show some awareness that they (and, by affiliation, Scrooge) should have known better.
Jesus said the rich would struggle to get into heaven like a camel (or, as some scholars say, maybe a thick rope) through the eye of a needle, literally exclaiming: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). James says that the rich should “moan and groan” for what is about to come to them.
Throughout their song, Marley and Marley (Whooooo!) bemoan what they “should have known” which suggests no one warned them. It’s a fair objection; after all, Christians in this country (and others, as you’ll see below) have convinced themselves that prudential faith includes mass accumulations of wealth, and that poverty is just a part of the process.
“Christians should consider the types of judgment they can be involved with here and now,” writes Matt Bernico. “For the rich exploiters of our society, there’s nothing more miserable than seeing the profits you’ve stolen from workers dry up when those workers begin to organize a union. God hears workers crying out for justice against an exploitative boss, and it’s time for Christians to listen up too.”
It’s incumbent upon Christians to change that. If ghosts aren’t coming to scare the rich into acting justly, the Holy Ghost must.
3. “It is the American way ... it is the British way.” —Scrooge’s headmaster
During Scrooge’s visits to Christmas past, he watches as his school-age self sits and listens to the final instructions from his headmaster (Sam the Eagle). The headmaster exhorts Scrooge to “keep his nose to the grindstone” and tells him that he is becoming a “man of business.” Then, the fourth-wall breaks, and we’re let in on another joke at the expense of colonial empires.
“You’ll love business — it is the American way!” the headmaster says. Our narrator, Dickens (Gonzo the Great), interrupts to point out that the story is originally set in England. “Oh — It is the British way,” the headmaster corrects himself.
In this scene, we see a key insight into the global reproduction of colonialism and capitalism: Capitalist logic — including the desire to become a “man of business,” consumed with success — will flow easily from one context to another, unless we choose to resist it.
We can see this flow not just from Europe and England to the U.S., but from the U.S. to other countries — like Brazilian evangelicals’ political engagement.
But it doesn’t have to spread. Instead, Christians can interrogate and resist the forces of racial capitalism, drawing on the work of scholars like Nathan Luis Cartagena to, as he told Sojourners, “move in more decolonial ways and address the church’s egregious history.”
4. “I’m about to raise you right off the pavement!” —Emily Cratchit
Toward the end of the film, as Scrooge is revealing his change in behavior, he announces to Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog) that he is “about to raise [his] salary!” to which an exasperated and confused Emily Cratchit (Miss Piggy) replies, “I’m about to raise you right off the pavement!”
To our surprise, Scrooge and Bob do not chastise Emily’s threats of violence and protection of her husband. Instead, we can see an important practice of understanding and empathy paid to this expression of anger. While nonviolence is the way of Christ, we would do well to have patience with violent cries for justice — or at least be challenged by them.
My own deep commitment to nonviolence has been challenged by theologians who, while not celebrating violence, defend its application in the pursuit of justice. If nonviolence is indeed correct, it can stand in conversation with other theologies and strengthen itself against them.