Me and Mr. Potter
What do these phrases have in common?
1. I wish I had a million dollars. Hot Dog!
2. What is it that you want Mary? Do you want the moon? I’ll give you the moon.
3. Well why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?
4. Look Burt! My mouth’s bleeding! My mouth’s bleeding Burt!
5. I’ve been saving this money for a divorce if I ever get a husband.
6. Look, daddy! Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
7. You once called me a warped-frustrated old man.
These are just a few of the one-liners in what is arguably the best loved film of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The movie follows the story of a man named George Bailey, a man who had great dreams for himself, but found himself stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls running the business/charity Bailey Building and Loan, the company he inherited from his father.
Like all good movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has a villain, and the villain’s name is Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter represents the corporate villain who cares for no one but himself and tramples on the poor like garbage. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a job, promising him the pie in the sky but basically asking for his soul in return. In classic hero fashion George Bailey gives Potter a piece of his mind and calls him a warped-frustrated old man. Potter’s position throughout the film is that of condescension. Potter says that George Bailey isn’t a business man and that he’s made life too easy for his borrowers.
Here’s my problem. Every time I watch the movie, I have this struggle between my head and my heart. In my heart, I’d like to believe a man can do business like George Bailey, but in my head, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Potter that a man can’t run a business like a charity.
Think about it. Have you ever met a George Bailey? Can you imagine Country-Wide mortgage telling you “Oh..that’s okay. I know you’ve been having a hard time lately. Just pay me when you can.” That’s basically how George Bailey ran his business and that’s precisely what makes him such a stark contrast to the evil Mr. Potter.
Throw the teaching of Jesus into the mix, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” and it seems we have a real dilemma. If anyone typifies the spirit of Jesus in these words, it’s George Bailey. The problem is that George Bailey is a fictional character, not a real person.
Here are a few questions that I think are worthy of reflection.
1. Have you every met a real George Bailey? If so, did he or she remain in business or did they have to close shop eventually?
2. In our impersonal capitalist economy, is it even possible to be a George Bailey?
3. How do you run a genuine business, especially one that affects people’s livelihoods, without becoming a Mr. Potter?
4. What would Jesus say to a guy like George Bailey, a man who cares for the poor, but happens to be their lender?
5. Does the fact that it’s very difficult to imagine a real live George Bailey tell us something about the economic system that we’ve taken for granted? Are there other macro-economic systems that would make it more viable for people like George Bailey to survive in the real world?