Thursday, November 20, 2008

Justice, Jesus and Denzel Washington

I love Denzel Washington. He’s just so believable. I wish I could take his character out of film and unleash him, in all his crime-fighting-glory, on the real oppressors of our day. Last night, Neal and I watched Denzel kick butt in a movie called Inside Man. In this movie, one of the characters, we’ll call him “the banker,” is a man who made a fortune dealing with the Nazis during World War II. He’s spent the rest of his life doing humanitarian work to cover the blood on his hands. Dalton, the thief of the movie, says:

I was stealing from a man who traded his [soul] away for a few dollars. And then he tried to wash away his guilt. Drown it in a lifetime of good deeds and a sea of respectability.

The banker had the power at one time to protect his Jewish friends. Instead, he literally sold them out, amassing a fortune. While his safe deposit boxes inherited diamonds and treasures, the former owners of those gems smoldered in concentration camps.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak once on the Holocaust.

If evil were to ever show itself in an objective, raw form, the atrocities that marked the Holocaust would be its purest manifestation. Elie argued that discussions of absolute truth, morality and right versus wrong should find their starting point with the Holocaust. If the world can unanimously define (apart from some foolish bigots) the Holocaust as wrong, then philosophers, teachers, and everyday thinkers can then begin to define what is right. As an elementary teacher, I gingerly touched on themes from that era of history. In our discussions, the children could barely comprehend the concept of racism—genocide was something they would have to grapple with later.

Back to the movie, Inside Man. As I watched Dalton, the self-righteous thief, reflect on the banker’s plight, I questioned what hope a man like that might have. If one did participate in the genocide of a nation for personal profit, once the thrill of worldly success could no longer silence the conscience’s screams of guilt, what could one do? Without knowledge of the forgiveness of Christ, it only makes sense to attempt to “drown it in a lifetime of good deeds.” The banker confessed, “I sold my soul to the devil and I’ve been trying to buy it back ever since.” Dalton exposes the banker’s efforts as futile and what’s more, hypocritical. And, in a sense, they are.

The characterization of a man who sold Jews to the Nazis challenges my present belief in the gospel. I live, preach and breathe the truth that my evil is not only covered, but forgotten by a God-Man’s sacrifice. I look at this dying world through a lens of hope that it, too, might entrust its own evil to this God-Man, and thereby find true freedom and cleansing forgiveness. Humanitarian works are important, but they can never absolve one’s soul. Only an act of substitution can justify—my evil, which merits death, for the life of a Perfect One.

That is the gospel I believe. And, it all sounds good. Everything I’ve come across in my life, in observing this world, fits into this narrative. The Penthouse model I talked to at a bar in Tallahassee—yeah, she fits. She can find freedom, cleansing and new life in Christ. My favorite childhood artist whose marriage dissolved in front of the world—yeah, she fits. Again, forgiveness, cleansing, freedom.

But… the banker. Does he fit?

Let’s get theoretical. Let’s enter the movie Inside Man with a little creative license. Because I love Denzel so much, he’s gonna be the token Christ-follower. In the last scene, while he’s confronting the banker about his past, Denzel explains to the Banker how he has personally found freedom and a new lease on life through Jesus. Denzel then challenges the banker, with that wily smirk on his face, to surrender his life to God and the banker breaks down in tears. They pray together and share in a manly embrace.

Last scene of our theoretical movie—the banker calls for a press conference in which he confesses his participation in the annihilation of the Jews. He renounces all of his humanitarian awards because they were given in false pretense. He voluntarily submits himself to the authorities and asks for everyone’s forgiveness. He demonstrates, in all possible ways, the actions of true repentance.

My gospel says the banker is forgiven. My gospel says that on the Day of Judgment, when he stands before the throne of God, Jesus will stand up and tell the Father, “He’s covered. He can enter into our Kingdom forever.” (Don’t get all seminary on me—the details may be off.)

Really? Really. What about the victims? What about the hundreds of innocent people who met an inconceivable death at his hands? I may sound calloused and self-righteous, but I have to cry—where is the Justice? Where is the accountability?

It’s at this point in my imagined scene (which really will take place, the only difference being the names), that I go to the two most certain things I know of my God—Justice and Mercy. I can acknowledge his Mercy in forgiving the banker. But Justice has to fit in somewhere. In my Sunday School upbringing, I was taught that Jesus “paid the price” for our sin while on the cross. Scripture says that God poured out his wrath onto his Son in those excruciating moments. That Jesus literally "became sin."

If that is true, then I have to expand my understanding of what really went on at Golgotha. If Mercy means that God forgives the banker, and Justice means that God unleashed the banker’s punishment on His Son, then I’ve really had no clue as to the depth of Jesus’ suffering in the passion.

I’ve been clueless.

In the past, I’ve meditated on Jesus empathizing with the pain I would experience in my lifetime. I’ve pondered Jesus absorbing my sin into his body and soul. But I’ve never before truly considered the Justice of God being poured onto that cross.

All that I experience when I think of the effects of the banker’s actions—anger, horror, repulsion—it was all accounted for on the cross. In my finite mind, it doesn’t seem possible. Forgive the heresy, but it doesn’t seem enough. Did the cross really cover the Holocaust? Does Jesus' blood really answer for those who shed the blood of 6 million Jews? Does the crucifixion satisfy the vengeance of God against humanity's worst offenders?

The God of my gospel says yes.

Moral of the story? You don’t want to watch movies with me—hot, black guys become Christians, Nazis repent, and the meaning of cross is exponentially expanded. Next time, I’ll just watch.

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