Unpacking Scrooge: The Gift of Conscience

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ~ C.S. Lewis


“Bah!  Humbug!  Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”  So insists the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous,” pointed nose protagonist of the famous novella, A Christmas Carol. Written by Charles Dickens, England’s first great urban novelist, the brief narrative tells the story of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation into a gentler, kindlier money-lender after visitations by the specter of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come.

A Christmas Carol was written at a time (1843) when unemployment and famine in England were widespread. Throughout the story, Dickens consequently criticizes the economic, social, and moral abuses of his day. In particular, the cold-hearted character of Scrooge is used to symbolically advance the narrative’s major theme – the powerful influence of conscience. In the end, the novella successfully challenged England’s aristocracy to focus on the needs of others by reviving the Christmas tradition of generosity.

Apart from more traditional interpretations, the characters presented in A Christmas Carol may be effortlessly analyzed according to current models of leadership.  Scrooge, whose name comes from the words “screw” and “gouge,” is a caricature of the self-centered leader who suffers from a deficit of conscience. Greedy, malicious, and callous, Scrooge conserves his house in darkness, his fire small, and explicitly rejects the extravagances of Christmas.

A Christmas Carol remediates Scrooge’s impoverished disposition by Christmas-conscience personas.  Due to his association with charitable, though financially downtrodden, individuals such as his employee Bob Cratchit, Ebenezer’s miserly character begins to shift.  His final awakening, however, occurs as a result of four poltergeists that traumatically expose him to the impending consequences of his past and current lifestyles. While Marley, Scrooge’s recently deceased business partner, represents the inner voice of “revenant” conscience, the three additional ghosts who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve may be linked to the influences of memory, context, and vision. In fact, each ghost exposes Scrooge to the penalties associated with an individual’s life cycle lived without love.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?” “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied Marley. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge is speechless. He is shown that if he continues to ignore the voice of his conscience, like Marley, he too is destined to endlessly wander the earth in heavy chains – the links forged by hos own free will – according to the pattern of self-interest and greed.

The message of Dickens is clear. A world without conscience is a world imprisoned by the heavy shackles of selfishness and excessive individualism. Recent acts of religious and ideological violence throughout the globe attests to such a loss of conscience.  Exiled to the outer banks of rationality, the repression of humanity’s inner voice has resulted in fear, moral anarchy, and illogical relativism. Fortunately, like Scrooge, the Christmas-Epiphany Season (12 Days of Christmas) provides leaders a valuable occasion to examine the “voices” of their respective past, present and future aspirations and, in turn, more effectively envision legacies of valiant service to others. Such “resuscitation” is the hallmark of leaders who, like Scrooge, experience the healing power of forgiveness, service, and genuine generosity.

Leadership may generally be divided into two classifications: (a) tactical/transactional, and (b) value-based/transformational leadership. While tactical/transactional leadership is based on exchanges of favors (money, power, honor, etc.) between leader and follower, transformational leadership is centered on a particular set of values and, thereby, employs vision, service, and conscience to motivate followers to advance to a higher purpose.

The Christmas-Epiphany Season provides leaders an opportunity to meditate on the degree to which their aspirations are effectively modulated by a healthy inner voice. Are we motivated by transaction or by a value-based conscience? Are our leader-follower relationships forged on selfless service, humility, and love, or solely on tactical strategies and pecuniary incentives? Is our leadership inspired by the voice of conscience, or the conveniences of Scrooge-like concentrations?

Conscience has never been uniformly described. The evolution of the term is so ample that one cannot speak of a homogenous concept. Fundamentally, conscience may be understood as a function of moral, personal decision-making. Conscience is the innate “advisor” of moral actions, based on an interiorized set of core values.

Religious views usually link the notion of conscience to a “moral code” inherent in all humans. Common metaphors for such considerations include the “voice within” and “inner light.” In fact, like Dickens’ novella, the overture of the New Testament includes references to what may be referred to as the “inner voice” of the Church – Saint John Baptist.  Allied to an important Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 40:3), the opening four narratives of the New Testament describe the ministry of John as a “voice in the wilderness” used by God to “straighten” humanity’s “crooked paths” in preparation for the “Visitation” of the Messiah (Mathew 3:3;Mark 1:3: Luke 3:4: John 1:23).

Authentic leaders are ever tuned to the “voice of conscience” crying in the wilderness of their souls. Although it may initially appear that such a comment pertains to “religious” as opposed to “secular” based leaders, I refrain from making such a distinction, as my experiences with both underscores the importance and vitality of synchronized conscience-mindedness for all, irrespective of position, influence, and/or authority.

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Unfortunately, conscience may not always be trusted to “be our guide.” According to Saint Paul, conscience may become seared “as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:1). In other words, it can be warped, and/or bent out of shape. Consequently, if leaders honestly desire to faithfully distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, they must continually “make straight” the “crooked,” “seared,” and “scrooged” aspects of their core values, character, and respective contextual responsibilities.

The word “conscience” derives etymologically from the Latin conscientia, meaning “privity of knowledge” or “with-knowledge.” The English word implies internal awareness of a moral standard in the mind concerning the quality of one’s motives, as well as a consciousness of our own actions. Conscience should, therefore, not be reduced to the notions of willpower, gut feelings, or prudent habits. It is not an “awakened force” of meritocratic Jedi, nor an ever-changing construct of political correctness, but a vital part of the human soul, created by God as a decision-making voice that convicts, instructs, and guides. Conscience is, thus, more correctly understood as an “interior space” where one can listen to and hear the “voice of truth” emanating from an abiding relationship with God.

Unfortunately, there is seemingly a lack of conscience-based feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse left in our contemporary culture. The camel’s nose of immorality, injustice, fundamentalism, corruption, falsehood, and abuse has embarrassingly slipped itself under the tent of religious, as well secular institutions. Without a mindful return to moral values, and the rousing of an awakened conscience, the violence of corporate, ideological, and religious terrorism will most assuredly increase and threaten the collapse of any canopy of global concord.

Fortuitously, like Scrooge, humanity’s contemporary leaders can avoid the life-sapping chains of a seared conscience by cultivating three attitudinal competencies: (a) forgiveness, (b) factualness, and (c) faith.

Forgiveness: The chain of a seared conscience may be broken by first straightening the “scrooged” and “crooked” attitudes of past events. Unlike their more vindictive counterparts, healthy leaders forget and forgive past injustices.  When suffering an intensely painful event, the body releases hormones into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. These hormones turn experiences of intensely painful emotional and negative events into strong memories. Unfortunately, like Scrooge, dwelling on past traumas will only ensure our inability to trust others. By letting go of past insults and focusing attention on their own deficiencies, conscience-minded leaders can cast off feelings of abandonment and avoid the paralysis of negative psychological festering.

Factualness: Apart from forgetting and forgiving past injustices, the second link in the chain of a seared conscience that the prudent must seek to shatter is the temptation to create and perpetuate facades. Healthy leaders live factually in the present. They do not downplay negative data, opinions, or operational results, but consistently express the truth with words and images that are aligned with core principles and values. They learn from failure and mistakes and honor the leading of their inner voice with courageous and transparent rectitude.

Faith: Healthy leaders are faith-filled when facing the future. Alternatively, unlike Einstein who said that, “imagination is more important than knowledge,” Scrooge-type leaders are content “counting” the value of their titles, degrees, and past achievements in the solitary cold and dark of risk-averse environments.  Leaders with healthy consciences, however, dare to dream impossible dreams. They delight in new reveries, envision better products, better services, better workplaces – all based on inexhaustible core values.

Years ago, when telegraph was the primary form of communication, a local headquarters advertised for a competent assistant. A number of young applicants responded and, after filling out employment forms, were told to wait until summoned to the director’s office

After a fairly long period of time, one of the applicants got up and entered the main office. Adding to the confusion, the director came out and said that he had made his selection. “Wait a minute,” asked one of the candidates. “The rest of us never got a chance to be interviewed. How did you select your assistant?”

“For the last several minutes,” answered the communications director, “while you were all sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following messages in Morse Code – ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours!’ – None of you heard it . . . or understood it . . . He did!”

A “scrooged” conscience is a seared, crooked, and – in the words of C.S. Lewis quoted at the onset of this commentary – a “deaf” conscience.  It is the condition of humanity without God – without the Telegraph of His Guiding Voice. Dickens is correct – the Christmas Spirit is the only corrective for such a self-centered condition.  Life should not be reduced to self-comfort, wealth, and superficial security but rather to authentic expressions of love and service to others.

This, in the end is the true Message of the Christmas-Epiphany Season – the Gift that Marley wanted his business partner to unwrap. Value-based leaders would be wise to heed his warning!


Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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