It's become an American tradition every Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life entertains and instructs us. No matter how many times we have seen it, the film always reminds us of timeless truths that overlap with Catholic morality and social justice. Love, duty, honor, relationships, respecting the sacredness of human life, the power of prayer, redemption and the need for grace are some of the film's themes.
Though most people don't see this film as having a social justice message (by 'social Justice' here, I mean the Catholic Church's social teachings), we discover the easiest, most Christian way to bring about a better society is not through protests or politcal activism, but through building interpersonal relationships with love, integrity and trust.
Dreams and Plans
George has big plans for his life. He wants to travel and go to college and build things. At one point he enthusiastically exclaims, ‘I’m Gonna See the World’. George declares, “I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.”
It turns out, the most important bridges that George built were relationships. His plans get changed by circumstances beyond his control and he decides to stay home. He could have forged ahead with his dreams but his priorities centered around his sense of duty to his family and community. Ultimately, God had other plans for George. He was needed in Bedford Falls, his small home town.
Relationships and Responsibilities
The sign on the wall of George Bailey’s office reads: “All you take with you is that which you have given away”. On his wedding day, as he and Mary were off on their honeymoon, George witnessed the run on the banks and Mary told him to just continue on with their trip. George singularly focused, got out of the cab and ran to the Savings and Loan. Mary caught up and gave George the money from the wedding which they planned to spend on themselves. As they gave away their money, we see that Mary and George’s love for eachother was turned outward to the community.
Crisis and Grace
George found himself in big trouble. He was missing money and he needed to pay the evil Mr. Potter. In a state of despair and on the brink of suicide, he headed to the bar. At his lowest point he sends up a desperate prayer for God to act. Hearing no reply, George decided to end his life and arrived at a bridge with the intention of jumping. The appearance and intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel who jumped from the bridge, is God’s strange answer to his prayer. George being the virtuous, selfless person that he was, jumped in to save him.
Believing he has never accomplished anything really useful or interesting in life, he begins to think maybe the world would be better had he never been born. Clarence begins to show George what would happen if he got his wish. George was immediately placed into a dystopian world without him, Pottersville.
Every Human Life is a Sacred Gift
As he searched for his wife and his friends, he saw that his beloved childhood hometown, Bedford Falls (without a George Bailey) had become a dangerous, crime-ridden, seedy, sketchy, Las Vegas type town that now went by the name, Pottersville. Without the daily interaction with George, the people changed too. His family and friends had become typical Pottersville people, morally questionable, fearful, greedy, angry, cold and emotionally hurt.
The difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville shows the powerful influence of one member of a community. It goes to show that we don’t need to be social justice activists or government policy wonks to bring about change. All it takes is just one single good person.
George showed us how to take care of the small things like making eye contact with others, giving his time to ask questions and listen, going out of his way to make someone smile or helping them in any small thing, and always being reliable and trustworthy. These daily habits of affirming the human dignity of others, were contagious and multiplied exponentially. Other Bedford Falls citizens, without even thinking about it, payed it forward.This is how communities are built and how the social bond is maintained. Small, unseen acts of love add up to big noticable changes to a society.
Social Justice Begins With Building Relationships
The moral of this story is, if you want social justice, if you want to 'make a difference' or even if you want something grand like world peace, start with how you treat your spouse, family, friends and people with whom you have daily contact. Never lose sight of your own dignity and worth. Realize, as a child of God, you have the power within you to change people and change lives.
George lost sight of his power and his dignity, but with the help of God's grace, he found out the hard way, but also in the end a joyful way that is many acts of kindness changed the world (of Bedford Falls). His friends came back to repay the generosity and the small acts of generosity that he had consistently shown to them.
It's as if those family and friends had a glimpse of the Pottersville version of themselves and they opted for the Bedford Falls version instead. They knew they owed a debt of gratitude to George. They were there for him in his hour of need because he loved them.
It's a Wonderful Life may be a fictional film but it is a story full of truth and wisdom.