Railway Man reconciliation

Sometimes—amid posts on this blog about various aspects of church life—you could be forgiven for forgetting that Christians have an actual gospel—good news—to share with the world.

I love finding this gospel message outside the walls of the church, off the pages of the Bible, and presented by people who aren’t professional religious specialists. The recent movie The Railway Man is one example. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT.)

the-railway-manColin Firth plays a veteran of World War II, who was tortured by the Japanese and forced to build a railway through impossible conditions. He can barely cope with his memories more than four decades after the end of the war. Nicole Kidman is his wife, steadfast in her love for him and longing to see him move past the pain. Firth finds out that one of his torturers, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is still alive and makes a living offering tours of what was once his prison camp.

This movie is soaked in themes of grace, judgment, redemption, forgiveness, and above all else, reconciliation. There are three moments in particular that vividly brought the gospel message alive for me. I’m not technically capable of putting them online, so my own description will have to suffice.

At one point, Firth ends up on a beach on the English seashore, alone in his pain and hurt, no doubt hoping the world will just stay away. But Kidman comes running after him, begging him, imploring him to share his pain with her, to receive her love, to be open to the idea that the world can do something besides harm us. One of my favourite themes in the Bible is of a God who pursues us in love, coming after us even when we are far away. Jesus tells us about that when the father of the prodigal son abandons all dignity appropriate to his position in life and goes running out to his son while the son “was still far off.” (Luke 15.20). It is a message that is echoed in Ephesians, which teaches how Jesus came to us “who once were far off” but have now “been brought near.” (2.13) And it is picked up in one of the post-communion prayers in Common Worship: “we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off…” Kidman embodies the pursuing love of God. And it is that love that begins to show Firth new possibilities.

It is Firth’s old war-time friend, Stellan Skarsgård, who finds out that Sanada is still alive. He shares this news with Kidman and then gives her a knife. Sanada, Skarsgård says, can at last “be brought to justice.” The knife, of course, makes clear that this is not the justice of a courtroom. Firth is to take matters into his own hands and at last give to Sanada what is his due.

THE-RAILWAY-MAN-Image-07Firth carries the knife with him to Malaysia and at times it seems as if he is going to use it in the way that Skarsgaard intends. Instead, however, in a deeply symbolic move, he uses it to cut Sanada free from the cage in which Firth was once imprisoned and in which Firth has temporarily imprisoned Sanada. This is grace, not justice. Sanada, by the standards of the world, does not deserve to be set free. But he is because Firth comes to understand that justice will serve no one. Christians do not “deserve” the love of God, but God sends that love in the form of Jesus regardless. God uses a weapon—the cross—to set us free. God’s love is not justand we thank God for that.

The final scene of the movie is a moment of reconciliation. That r-word is thrown around a lot in the church. Good—it is the concept that is central to the gospel. But sometimes it’s hard to know precisely what is meant by it. This final scene give us some idea. Under the loving gaze of Kidman, Sanada and Firth meet, weep, and embrace at the site of the particularly gruelling pass the Japanese had forced the prisoners to build.

railwayWhat does this teach about reconciliation? First, reconciliation happens within the love of God. It is God’s love that is constantly impelling us towards one another in that same spirit of love. Second, reconciliation is about meeting together. Sanada and Firth actually had to come to the same place. Third, reconciliation is about honestly acknowledging pain, both in oneself and in the other. Earlier, one moment of breakthrough for Firth had been when he realizes that Sanada is broken and hurt by the war as well. Fourth, reconciliation honestly reckons with the past. Sanada and Firth meet at the very site—the train pass—that had caused them each, in different ways, such pain and trauma. Reconciliation doesn’t happen by disregarding the past but by coming to see it in a new way—transformed by the love of God.

If you ask me why I’m a Christian, the answer is provided by this movie: the pursuing grace of God that is constantly moving us towards reconciliation. This is truly good news.

Justice and grace in the vineyard

When I was growing up, I would often amuse myself during church with a series of illustrated children’s books that told Bible stories. I have a very distinct memory of the book that told the story of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16). There were pictures of the vineyard-owner going into town in the morning to hire workers to help with the harvest. Then he went back later and hired more, and then still more, and even more. Finally, at the end of the day, he hauled out his big money trunk and started handing out coins to each worker—the same amount to each worker!

I have such a vivid memory of this book for one reason:

I hated it.

the-parable-of-the-workers-in-the-vineyard“Listen, Jesus,” I wanted to say, “you might have some good things to say elsewhere in these stories, but I think someone has given you a pretty poor steer here. If people work different amounts of time during the day, they should be paid differently. The people who showed up in the morning need to get more than those who showed up late in the day. It’s only just.”

As my seven-year-old response shows, considerations of justice are deeply rooted in our western society. There’s good reason for this. At least since the time of Plato and Aristotle, people have debating what justice means and how to make it central to the functioning of a society. It is a central concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well. Over time, we imbibe a clear understanding of what justice is. It is just to give to each what it is his or her due. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s right. That’s what’s just.

But what this parable reminds us is that the love of God is almost the opposite of justice. God’s love for us is completely undeserved. We call it grace. There is nothing we can do that would make it fair or right for God to shower that love on us—but God does so nonetheless. Christians are people who called to share that same unjust love with others, through mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

It took me a very long time to come to peace with this parable. Until one day, as these things go, I realized all of a sudden my mistake: I was identifying with the wrong people in the story. Ever since my first encounter with the parable as a child on a pew, I had always imagined the story from the perspective of the early risers, the people who had been working all day only to be paid the same amount as the people who arrived at the end. My sense of justice was offended because I was feeling short-changed.

What I realized is that, in fact, when it comes to responding to God’s love, I am one of the latecomers, the people who barely work and still get the full day’s wage. And what a joy that is, to arrive late and receive the unearned grace of God. It’s also a good definition of the church: not a bunch of perfect, hard-working early risers but the collection of latecomers who keep a look out for other latecomers to welcome them in.

There’s one final piece of this parable that I only noticed this week. I had always thought—probably because this is what that children’s book said—that the vineyard owner goes looking for more workers because he needs more help. In fact, all the story says is that he went into town and happened to find people without work. Even more unjust! He was just passing out money to people whose labour he didn’t even need!

But it is yet one more indication of the nature of the grace of God. Not only is it unearned, God’s love is a love that comes seeking after us to draw us in. God pursues us in love for no other reason than that God loves us.

As I’ve written before on this blog, God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.

The answer to injustice isn’t more justice, it’s…

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Last year, when Trayvon Martin was killed, I put on my clerical collar and joined a march in New Haven, Connecticut, protesting the shooting and the apparent inaction of authorities in arresting the shooter, George Zimmerman. Our claim was one of justice—the shooting was an injustice and it needed to be remedied. “No justice, no peace,” we chanted. The speakers that day called for the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman. That is, they wanted to remedy the injustice of the death by applying justice to the situation. We call our courts the “justice system” after all.

We got what we wanted. Zimmerman was arrested, tried, and, as we all know by now, acquitted. No one seems satisfied with the outcome. Our desire for more justice has not remedied the injustice of the situation.

There are many ways to think about this verdict—for instance, there may be unjust laws that, when applied in the context of the justice system, produce unjust results—but I am struck by this disjunction: as protestors, we got what we wanted—but no one is now satisfied.

The Christian faith recognizes the reality of injustice in the world—how could it not?—but the answer the Christian faith gives to injustice is not more justice. The answer Christians give is grace, above all the grace expressed in forgiveness.

Jesus once told a story (Luke 15:11-32) about a son who (justly) demands his half of his inheritance early. The father (justly) gives it to him. But then the son squanders it and comes home. The elder son (justly) says the younger son has no claim on anyone. But the father runs out to meet his younger son and showers him with forgiveness. You can hear the father saying, “Forget justice; forgiveness brings my son back.”

Forgiveness does not stand alone, however. It is closely linked to another idea Jesus taught—repentance. The younger son had to acknowledge he was wrong, turn again (the literal meaning of the word “repent”), and come home to know his father’s forgiving love.

The tragic truth is that nothing will bring Trayvon Martin back in this life. Lamenting his loss and mourning his death are important tasks and we should not move quickly past them. But I have been wondering what role forgiveness and repentance plays in all this. Can we repent of the way racism infects our daily interactions? Can we see the new possibilities that God is opening up for us? Can we forgive George Zimmerman and pray he sees his way to a grace-filled future?

I hope so. It’s the direction the Gospel is always calling us to go.

(My thinking in this post is influenced by the wonderful piece Samuel Wells wrote for The Christian Century some months back and a post from seminary colleague Josh Rodriguez.)

Justice and grace: the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain

Our political discourse is shaped by the language of justice. In England, there is a big debate about “shirkers” vs. “strivers.” The latter deserve government benefits because they are working hard to improve the lot, the former certainly not. A major argument for same-sex marriage is that it would be unjust to deny two people who love one another the right to be married. Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are justified by explaining that they are just punishment for the crimes of the victims. Whatever you think about any of these issues, the key thing is that they all use the language of justice.

But is justice really the best way of approaching the world? The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday make us think otherwise.

In the first reading (I Kings 17:17-24), the prophet Elijah raises the dead son of a widow. The entire encounter is framed in terms of justice. When her son dies, the widow is convinced that it is just punishment for something she has done (v. 18). Elijah appeals to God in terms of justice—it is not fair that he should leave her without a man to support her (v. 20). God is apparently convinced by this reasoning and raises the son from the dead (v. 22). Justice prevails. But one implication of the reading is that if the situation had been different—if the woman wasn’t a widow, if she had another son—God might not have raised her.

The parallels between the Luke passage (Luke 7:11-17) and the Kings passage are so close that Luke is almost certainly trying to make a point. He certainly wants to claim that Jesus was a great prophet like Elijah. But I think Luke—along with the entire Christian tradition—wants to say something more about Jesus. We see what that something more might be by looking at the differences between the two passages.

The major difference is that the motivation for Jesus acting to raise the son is not justice but compassion. Rather than imploring God to act justly, he simply reaches out his hand and raises the son.

The people in the funeral procession are astounded. One of the things they say in response is, “God has looked favourably on his people!” (v. 16) That phrase, “looked favourably,” is only used three other times in the Bible and all by Luke. It is used first when Elizabeth realizes she has conceived John the Baptist (1:25). It is used again by Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah when John the Baptist is born in the canticle that has become known as the Benedictus (1:68-69):

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty saviour for us

in the house of his servant David.

Although Zechariah is holding his long-awaited son in his hands, he realizes that God has something greater in store for God’s people—the long-promised Messiah is coming.

Luke also uses “looked favourably” in Acts, when the apostles are trying to decide if non-Jews can follow Jesus. James realizes they can when he realizes that God has “looked favourably” on the Gentiles (15:14). The saving work of God is not just for the Jewish people, but for all people from every race, culture, and tradition.

So when Luke uses “looked favourably” in this passage, he is invoking the entire sweep of God’s saving action. God comes to each one of us while we are lost, wandering, and spiritually dead in sin, has compassion on us, and raises us to true and abundant life.

Christians have a word for this compassion—grace. And the key thing about grace is that it is not just. What makes grace so wonderful is precisely that it is unmerited and undeserved. God didn’t have to be convinced of the justice of our cause to come to us. God came to us in Jesus Christ because God loves us. This is the good news.

There’s one final difference between the two stories to highlight. Elijah raises the son in a home. Jesus raises the son on the road out of town. We are that son, lost on the road. The only other time Luke uses the word “compassion” is in the story of the prodigal son when the father sees the son “far off” on the road, has compassion on him, rushes out to meet him, and brings him home (15:20). We, too, are wandering far off, but God comes to us in Christ and brings us home to God’s loving embrace. (Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2:13). That is the depth of God’s love for us.

But the world still insists in thinking in terms of justice—and sometimes Christians do too. But grace, the central idea of the Christian gospel, is not just—and that’s what make it so wonderful. The calling for Christians is to realize how lost and dead we are, to realize the depth and unjust nature of God’s love for us, to be transformed by this love, and then to share it with others who are similarly lost, broken, and dead.

God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.