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John DoughertyDecember 22, 2021
Screenshot, The Hewitt Police Department Facebook page

This Christmas season brought a new trend: arresting the Grinch. Across the country, police departments shared videos of officers “saving Christmas” by arresting the Dr. Seuss villain. There are plenty of videos out there, but the one I have seen shared the most is from a tree-lighting in Hewitt, Tex.: Police cuff the green-furred miscreant’s wrists behind his back and lead him away as the crowd cheers.

It is silly and harmless (as harmless as something that makes our deadly carceral state look cutesy can be, anyway). I should probably just let it go. But the more I think about it, the more it troubles me. The Grinch is supposed to be a loathsome character—there is a whole song about how mean he is, after all. But the moral of the story is that he finds redemption in the end by learning the true meaning of Christmas.

When I saw the video of the Grinch being led away in handcuffs, all I could think about was how we lose something essential when we change stories of redemption into stories of punishment. We forget what we really are supposed to learn from these stories: that we are in need of redemption, too. More often than we’d like to admit, we are the Grinch.

More often than we’d like to admit, we are the Grinch.

My introduction to the Grinch was the 1966 animated TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” which ran reliably on TNT and TBS every December when I was a kid. It quickly became a favorite, a story I knew nearly word for word. I liked that the Grinch was sinister but also kind of goofy. He was a bad guy but not so scary that I felt like I had to hold him at arm’s length (or a 39-and-a-half foot pole’s length). He isn’t exactly Milton’s Lucifer, but for a 6-year-old, the Grinch makes a compelling villain.

What I loved most was his literal change of heart at the end, when it grows “three sizes” from its original, shrunken state. I think the Grinch was the first movie I watched as a kid where the villain did not end up dead or in jail (this was especially true for animated movies since Disney villains have a tendency to fall into abysses). The idea that a character as awful as the Grinch could change for the better seized my imagination and made me realize that different sorts of stories were possible.

I did not identify with the Grinch as a kid, of course. You’re not supposed to. You are supposed to see yourself in Cindy Lou Who and view the Grinch as a moral lesson, a warning against small-heartedness. The Grinch was who I might grow into if I lost my childish innocence.

These days, I think it is inevitable that we all become the Grinch, at least a little. I have never stolen a roast beast, but there are times when I keep my heart too small, too hard. Sometimes I make choices based entirely on my own comfort, pride or desire. I sing songs about Christ’s birth in the car and interrupt them to curse at other drivers. I work in ministry, but I often find myself worrying about how students, parents, bosses and co-workers will respond to me, not about facilitating an encounter with Christ. I isolate myself by holding the suffering of others, and the world, at arm’s length.

In those moments, like the Grinch, I have forgotten what really matters. When I remember, conversion happens. And I do remember, eventually. I remember that my heart is not meant to be wrapped in barbed wire, that God calls us into relationship for a reason. The tragedy of being human is that I always forget and have to remember again.

Our lives are not 26-minute animated shorts. All revelations, no matter how powerful, fade over time. All of us forget, and we all need reminders. For the Grinch, it is Christmas morning and realizing that the holiday “means a little bit more” than its physical trappings.

For me, it is Advent. I get on the wrong track when I forget that I need redemption. Then it becomes too easy to convince myself that I am always in the right, that I can judge other people, that I can keep my heart small because it is simpler and safer. During Advent, I slow down enough to take stock of things and realize that I am as needy as ever. I need humility; I need to make amends; I need other people. Most important, I need God. Advent reminds me of my absolute dependence on God’s grace. The Incarnation dispels any illusions that I can do this on my own. I cannot save myself; none of us can.

Redemption stories give another gift: they remind us that we all share the same need for grace. Just as we hope we will not be judged solely on the worst thing we have ever done, we should extend the same grace to others. The most insidious thing about “arrest the Grinch” stunts is that they co-opt a redemption story as publicity for a system that favors punishment over rehabilitation. Yes, I realize I am talking about a rhyming Christmas cartoon here. But the stories we tell, and how we tell them, help us to understand ourselves. When we take a famous redemption story and replace the redemption with punishment, it says something ugly about how we see the world.

It is also a poor way to celebrate the holiday. Christmas does not need to be saved; it’s about being saved. We are not the heroes of the story: Christ is. We are the Grinches in need of redemption, our hearts shriveled from bitterness and fear. God comes to us with mercy instead of punishment, not to bind our wrists and lock us away but to swell our hearts and set us free.

More: Christmas / Advent / TV

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