A Christmas crisis of faith – It’s 'All In the Family'

It was Christmas Eve. I was watching TV – one of those retro-channels that play reruns over the air rather than broadcasting on cable or satellite. The program was a 1977 Christmas Eve show of “All In the Family,” entitled “Edith’s Crisis of Faith.”

“All In the Family” ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, and starred Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted, though somewhat lovable, Archie Bunker. Archie was a working class World War II veteran with an unsophisticated personality. He continuously struggled to find his place in a rapidly changing world. His wife was the nåively sincere Edith who always looked on the bright and positive side of life. She genuinely loved Archie in spite of his crude and often hurtful behaviors, and saw that below the surface of his rough and prejudiced exterior was a good man who hid his fears behind a hyperbolic and bombastic chauvinism. Rounding out the family was Archie and Edith’s college age daughter, Gloria, played by Sally Struthers and her counter cultural husband, Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner.

The episode I watched on this Christmas Eve originally was a two-part show, but the episodes were combined and condensed for syndication. It is a story, I believe, that truly touched on the meaning of Christmas in a very profound way.

The episode reintroduced a recurring character named Beverly La Salle played by Lori Shannon. Beverly was a female impersonator who first appeared on the show in 1975 in a show called “Archie the Hero.” In that episode Archie is working a second job as a part-time cab driver. A female fare fell unconscious in his cab and Archie performed CPR with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive her. He is proud and boasts of his heroic behavior until he discovers the passenger was really a man dressed in drag. With that information Archie tries to deny his heroic deed.

In the ‘77 season Lori Shannon returned to “All In the Family” as Beverly La Salle in the episode, “Beverly Rides Again.” Here Archie plots to get back at practical joke-playing friend by setting the friend up on a blind date with Beverly. The set-up turns into a farce but in the process Edith and Beverly establish a bond of friendship.

In the Christmas Eve, show Beverly is back in town. Beverly, along with Mike, is on the way to Archie and Edith’s home for a Christmas party. On the way some street thugs attack them. Mike receives minor injuries, but Beverly is killed in the assault. Archie is deeply saddened by Beverly’s death and ponders the implications of a society in which someone could be seriously injured, and even killed, just for being different. Edith, though, reacts with despair. It’s Christmas and she had planned to go to church. She goes out the door supposedly heading for Christmas services, but Archie soon discovers her sitting on the front porch of their home. Archie tells Edith that she really ought to go to church but Edith responds with, “Why? What good does it do?”

Eventually Mike, who is not a believer, tells his mother-in-law that we really cannot understand everything that happens in life. He does not speak to Edith’s reasoned question – “Why? What good does [faith] do?” – but he speaks to her heart. She is comforted, not by an answer that explains why a good and loving God would allow such a tragedy to occur, but by realizing that in life suffering and tragedy happens. Our response is to care for one another in the midst of it all. God is with us in the suffering, and God cares as we care.

It is over 30 years since the fictional Beverly La Salle was killed in what today would be described as a hate crime. It is over 30 years since Edith suffered her “crisis of faith.” Still, violence is perpetrated against those who appear different, whether because of sexual orientation, religious belief, political persuasion, race or gender. If the Christmas story speaks to us about anything, it must speak to us about our intolerance of others who appear to be different.

Archie Bunker, throughout the seasons of “All In the Family,” gives voice to prejudices toward anyone who is different than he. Little by little, as the seasons unfolded, we saw beyond Archie’s bombastic pronouncements, to find a man who is deeply afraid. He is fearful of a world that is different than the one he grew up in and a world for which he risked his life to preserve the World War II. He is afraid the new world that is unfolding has no room for him. In this he – Archie – is like the Holy Family. They too, in the story, find themselves in a world that has no room for them. Out of fear Archie becomes a reactionary in the worse sense of the word.

We also see Archie through the eyes of the woman who loves him. Little by little, Edith’s accepting love and understanding of Archie slowly transforms his fears. Archie, who is not a religious man in spite of his declarations to the contrary, offers to say grace over the Christmas dinner when the woman he loves is unable to pray because of the crisis of her faith.

As my wife and I climbed the steps to enter the church Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Christ, my heart was with Edith. As all who were gathered sang Christmas Carols, and heard again the story of Jesus’ birth from the scriptures, and as Holy Communion was shared, it became very clear to me that the birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago has very little meaning unless the spirit of that birth finds a home within us today.

The killing of the fictional Beverly La Salle is a reminder of how the killings of so many people who are different takes place today all around the world. Remembering the birth of Jesus is to remember that he, too, was different. He, too, would be killed for being different. The carols and the candlelit church were beautiful. They can lull us away from realizing the tragic truth of that birth and the tragic reality of those who suffer for their differences all over the world.

Edith Bunker suffered a crisis of faith. It seems to me that without a crisis of faith, faith is very shallow indeed.

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