Every year, shortly before Christmas, I watch Frank Capra's classic 1946 movie It's A Wonderful Life, which portrays early to mid-20th century America. But it is much more than that. The film has a profound spiritual lesson which is especially poignant at the holiday season.
The story focuses on a young married couple, George and Mary Bailey, living in genteel poverty in the typically American small town of Bedford Falls. George Bailey runs a credit union – a benevolent community institution which for years has withstood the envious, avaricious assaults of a mean-spirited banker named Henry F. Potter. Old Man Potter is the wealthiest person in town. Unmarried, without offspring and confined to a wheelchair, his primary aim in life is to control Bedford Falls completely. He is cunning and ruthless in his unceasing effort to own – literally own – the small world of Bedford Falls. His banking practices are often unscrupulous, reflecting his near-gangster mentality. Potter is best described as a “bankster.” His unrelenting onslaught to “kill” the credit union drives George, on a fateful Christmas eve, to the brink of suicide when he comes to believe his life never really mattered.
Recently, Larry Alex Taunton, founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation summarized the film in an online article adapted from his book The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief:
As financial pressures crowd in on poor George, he begins to question his value to the community. So much so, that he wishes he had never been born. To demonstrate to George the folly of his wish, an angel [named Clarence] is sent [by God] to give him a glimpse of what Bedford Falls would look like if that wish were granted. In Dickensian fashion, the angel takes him from one scene in that small town to another. The difference is stark. Indeed, Bedford Falls isn't even Bedford Falls anymore, but a place called Pottersville. The town's main street is a red-light district, crime is rampant, and life there is coarsened.
When George, in desperation, turns to the angel, seeking an explanation for these drastic changes, the angel says, “Why, George, it's because you were never born!”
Clarence explains to George the Christmas gift he has been given by God so that George will not throw away his life: “You've been given a great gift, George – a chance to see what the world would be like without you.” And that is the spiritual lesson which the film offers those who watch it.
The ending of the film shows George that his life was indeed meaningful and made a difference for the better in the lives of the citizens of Bedford Falls. The difference was often small and unnoticed by many, yet it was there – a result of his honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice and caring for others. George's efforts improved the community for everyone. They added to the Happiness Quotient of Bedford Falls. Old Man Potter's did not; they merely aggrandized him and his circle of colleagues and personal servants, producing misery, vulgarity and a loss of community spirit.
Many people today are critical of America for its alleged crimes against humanity and against nature. I want to leave you with a single question.
The Human Drama Called America
Think of Bedford Falls as a metaphor for America. Think of George Bailey as emblematic of the basic goodness of American citizens, the folks along Main Street who contribute in ways large and small to the quality of life here and, through commerce and cultural diffusion, to the rest of the world – True America. Think of Old Man Potter as emblematic of those dark forces which seek to control America and the world and which serve only themselves – False America.
Then transfer that thought process to the movie screen of your mind and think of the history of America. Visualize it. Ponder it – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then ask yourself: What if America had never been born?
What would the world be like if Columbus had not reached the West Indies?
What would the world be like if the Pilgrims had not reached Massachusetts and the Eastern seaboard colonies had never been established?
What would the world be like if our War for Independence had not been fought?
What would the world be like if our Founders had not produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
What would the world be like if American explorers and pioneers had not opened up the West?
Think of famous Americans.
The presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan.
The captains of industry: Corneilius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, James J. Hill.
The military leaders: Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, John Paul Jones, Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, James Farragut, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, James C. Marshall, Curtis Lemay, Chester Nimitz.
The scientists and inventors: Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Washington Carver, Luther Burbank, Chester Carlson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.
The athletes: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousey, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Joe Louis, Florence Chadwick, Babe Didriksen Zaharias, Jackie Robinson, Willy Mays.
The writers and poets: Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, Stephen Vincent Benet.
The musicians and composers: Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Samuel Barber, John Phillip Sousa, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, Cole Porter, Leroy Anderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman.
The artists and photographers: John Trumbull, John James Audubon, Matthew Brady, Currier and Ives, John Singer Sergent, Georgia O'Keefe, Edward Steichen, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses.
Think of American “firsts” in science, medicine, technology, invention and even simple, everyday gadgets: the telephone, the electric light bulb, the electrical generating station, motion pictures, the safety pin, modern air conditioning, the photocopier, the moon landings, the space shuttle, the nuclear power plant, anesthesia, the polio vaccine, carbon dating, the cotton gin, the transistor, email, e-Bay, the zipper and the internet.
Think of American “firsts” in society: free public schools, free land for settlers, mass production, rural electrification, the Blood Bank, express delivery service (FedEx, UPS and USPS), skyscrapers and safety elevators, the National Park Service, Better Business Bureau, Alcoholics Anonymous and its spinoff Twelve-Step programs, frozen foods and TV dinners, jazz, the blues, rock and roll, Hollywood, toilet paper on a roll, baseball and – oh, yes – the written national constitution.
Think also of the educators, engineers, film, stage and television stars, and innumerable others in still more fields of endeavor – such as religion, medicine, public health, publishing, manufacturing and urban design – who likewise contributed to the making of America, and through that, to the making of the modern world.
Would Planet Earth and its peoples be better or worse today if all that were erased from history?
The Self-Evident Truth about America
To me, the answer is clear: worse – far worse. Why? Because of the self-evident truth that Divine Providence was behind the creation of America – and still is. Our Founders also referred to that self-evident truth as the Creator, Nature's God, Supreme Judge of the world, Governor of the universe and Spirit of Liberty. They saw that God has a plan for the human race based on enlightened living – that is, living in accordance with the ideals, principles and values which are the essence of the American Spirit [as explained in my book]. God's plan involves establishing conditions which will lead, across centuries and through later generations, to the kingdom of heaven on earth. Heaven on earth results from living in a God-centered manner; hell on earth results from living in a self-centered manner. But “God so loved the world” that he gave us the freedom to choose either one.
Some have obviously chosen the path of self-centeredness – not the enlightened self-interest of the Golden Rule which builds society but the aggrandizing self-interest of gold-plated rulers which destroys society. They have forsaken True America for False America. They have departed from the path of righteousness and spiritual unfoldment which leads to heaven on earth and taken the path of iniquitous self-glorification which leads to hell on earth. They have forgotten – or perhaps never even learned – the wisdom which Abraham Lincoln distilled in his 1863 proclamation appointing a National Fast Day that year:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
However, despite the delusions of self-serving wannabe Masters of the Universe, God is still in charge of the world. God has a glorious destiny for humanity and we humans have a rendezvous with destiny – a rendezvous which our Founders recognized. That rendezvous will not be prevented by those who think they can play God rather than recognize and submit to the self-evident truth about God and the future of Planet Earth which is the foundation of America. As Steven Vincent Benet said about Daniel Webster's speech which saved Jabez Stone from the Devil by convincing an unholy jury to acquit him:
He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.
Centuries ago the continent of North America became the stage for a new act in the drama of humanity's release from the slavery of self-centeredness into a wonderfully new estate – spiritual freedom and a God-centered global society. The opening scene was the settlement of the continent, beginning with Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Shortly thereafter the Pilgrims established themselves at Plymouth, Massachusetts. And in 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led his band of Puritans to the site which would become Boston, a few miles north of their neighbors at Plymouth. In a sermon written while their ship, the Arbella, was crossing the Atlantic, Winthrop told his settlers to behave with charity and decency for the success of the wilderness community they would build. “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
The second scene was set In 1776, when a group of 56 courageous men met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, risking death by their action – called treason by King George III and Parliament – of separating from their oppressive motherland. The Declaration of Independence brought forth a new nation, under God, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. John Adams, at the Continental Congress there, wrote to his wife Abigail at home in Massachusetts:
I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means.
America emerged as the leading edge of that millennia-long worldwide process by which God is bringing humanity to an exalted state, step by evolutionary step, act by act through history until one day in a distant future, all people will have attained a personal and societal condition of godlike stature, albeit humbly surrendered to God in recognition of the gift of life and the grace – the unmerited favor and love – which sustains us day by day, moment by moment, in the grand ascent of humanity to full awareness of the power and the light and the glory of the Divine Intelligence behind all the cosmos.
So, my fellow Americans – lovers of liberty, friends of freedom – how do you see your life in this noble, epic experiment in the human potential for enlightenment? Are you sleepwalking or awake?
To help you awaken, I leave you with this question:
What if America had never been born?