“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat”. [Perry Smith, “Capote”]
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” [Book of Hebrews]
“I want to feel that I have lived my life.” [Gabriella, “As it is in heaven”]
In the last week I have seen two contrasting and strangely related movies.
Firstly, “Capote” starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in which famous American author Truman Capote writes a brilliant novel, “In cold blood”, based on the senseless murder of a Midwestern family. In which he develops a close relationship to the condemned but is unable to transcend his spectacularly selfish motivations, and leads him into a web of deception where the salvation of a man becomes subject to the needs of an authors ego.
Secondly, “As it is in Heaven” depicts the return of a famous conductor to the village of his birth. He is ill and weary, and seeks involvement with music in such a way as to experience its magic in community, rather than on the grand stages of the world. He becomes involved in the Village Church’s choir and soon finds life erupting in the middle of a stale, brittle, protestant religious subculture. This life is accepted to varying degrees; blessing ensues for the majority, but some attempt to remain outside of the circle of grace. Those who come off worst are either deeply damaged victims or deeply pious, and form the distinct minority.
All around us, tabloids bay for “justice”. They create an appetite for the consumption of the punitive spectacle. This allows us to place a divide between ourselves and an evil which is “out there”.
There are 2 kinds of justice, retributive justice and distributive justice-compassion. (For extensive treatment of this theme see Sea Raven’s blog) True justice consists not of what man meets out to man either directly in anger, vengeance or vigilante activity, or institutionally via the justice system (law, law enforcement, courts and jails).
Rather this has to do with Love, whereby the blessing of G-d is distributed, rather than the wrath of God re-tributed. “Tribute“, the common aspect of the words, means something given or returned. In our tributes, do we give out blessing or meet out punishment?
Love is the ultimate punishment. Even if we do not find love, or we reject it in this life, Love will find us. It won’t “hunt us down” as though we will be able to hide, it will inexhorably reel us in.
Our encounter with Love, once the deceptions of this world (vanity, fear, anger, myopia, materialism) are stripped away, and we “know as we are known”, will purge us. The torment described in the Lazarus tale in Luke’s gospel (which many mistake for God’s punitive condemnation to “hell”) is the torment of hard transformation.
The word for torment in this passage comes from the Greek βάσανοσ which talks of a standard, or touchstone. This is the standard of Love and Truth. The transformation which is forced on the rich man is by radical change of circumstances (such a physical death or traumatic loss), rather than a willing and ongoing co-operation with the transformative spirit. Punishment in the Kingdom of God is a by-product of transformation, not the wrath of some insecure, schitzophrenic deity who delights in “Eternal Love” on the one hand and “Endless Punishment” on the other.
In “Capote”, an opportunity to reveal selfless Love to a desperate and deeply damaged criminal, goes to waste because the one given the chance has chosen to “gain the world”, and thus “looses his soul”, as well as that of the one whom he might have helped.
In “As it is in Heaven”, the village pastor is forced by circumstances away from his illusions of pious grandeur, coming close to killing both himself and the one who channeled life into his world, a great depiction of Hard, and yet incomplete Transformation. As for the majority, they were only too happy to be happy…
How do we view punishment? In determining the answer to this question, surely the chief focus needs to be on the models given us which pertain to mans ultimate destiny, not our more base and short term addictions to retribution? And can we apply all our thoughts about punishment to every case, especially that of ourselves?
Most of us will manage to stay on the right side of the law throughout our lives. But can we see that the punishment all of us will encounter will the the purging fire of Love? The quote from the book of Hebrews is not aimed at the criminal, the sinner or the miscreant, although one might think so based on popular preaching.
Don’t do the mistake of coming to this scripture through the filters of a retributive culture or theology. The uncovering is achieved via consummate love, and its painful or “punitive” elements are only the result of our need to be made whole. The entire process is by grace, not a work of our own righteousness.