In 2017 Martin McDonough released his grotesquely dark film Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri. Essentially, it is a story of hate. Deep, bitter, all-consuming hate. But, in McDonough’s Flannery O’Connor-esque style, the film takes place around Easter-time, and grace pierces through, and the unexpected occurs: forgiveness and redemption confront anger.
Immediately, the film sparked controversy. What about the movie evoked such controversy? Interestingly, it had nothing to do with the intense rage that permeated almost every scene, but rather that the film offered redemption to the protagonists, and one of the protagonists was a daft, cruel-hearted, racist cop. He is purged by literal flames. Yes, he is roasted almost to death as the police station burns down.
As a result, he finds himself in the hospital, bandaged from head to toe and in excruciating pain; a fellow patient takes pity on him. He wanders over to him, but in doing so recognizes the cop. It’s the hateful cop who threw him out of a window. The cop who caused him to wind up in the hospital.
The man pauses uncomfortably. The cop recognizes who it is and becomes terrified. For the first time, he is totally vulnerable.
Yet, the man simply offers him a drink.
Instead of hate, he offers love. Forgiveness. This paves the way for a dissolute cop to encounter goodness.
“It’s just… too soon. Bad timing. Insensitive, ya know?” A friend of mine remarked after viewing the film. “People aren’t ready to see that.”
“But isn’t that the thing about forgiveness? We’re not usually ready to give it?” I asked.
The film is not “woke.” But it is wise. The cop’s actions are never painted as acceptable or even “okay.” No act of hate in the film is shown favorably, but rather as something grave, ugly, and ultimately something that will only “beget more hate.”
All the same, the film audaciously asks, are you ready to forgive? This question is wildly unpopular, but desperately needed. And what better time to ask this of ourselves than at the start of Eastertide?
Are You Ready to Forgive?
Today, our world encourages unending love, and simultaneously denies forgiveness and pushes for “canceling.” This is an impossible contradiction because real love demands forgiveness. Real love responds to another’s being, not their doing. Hence, why it’s possible for us to say, “love the sinner; hate the sin.” You love who the person is, not what they do.
But we’ve forgotten this. It seems that the world believes that who we are is tied up in what we do or have done. How many people can say who they are without referring to their jobs, education, or accomplishments?
In the same vein, this kind of thinking leads us to believe that we are our sins. We are our flaws. So, if we hate the sin, we also hate the sinner.
If that’s the case, there really isn’t much room for forgiveness. Because there isn’t much room for love.
Love for the Unlovable
When I went into teaching, we had to go through a program that certified us to be around children. We had to do fingerprints, background checks, fill out forms, take mini-online classes, and attend some seminars. It was tedious.
The last thing I had to do was attend a presentation. It was one of the most difficult talks I ever had to sit through. It was on predators. We had to watch videos where actual child molesters were interviewed. We witnessed their sick minds. Then, we listened to victims tell their story. I could barely breathe. Tears burned behind my eyes.
I hated the evil creeps who hurt those children.
The talk started to wrap up. The woman leading it paused, “let’s take a moment and pray for all those who have been victims to child abuse.”
Heartfelt prayer surged forth from the room.
“And now,” the woman added, “let’s pray for the salvation of all those who have preyed upon and molested the innocent. Let’s pray for their conversion.”
Something inside me lurched. What!?
“I don’t think I can do that.” Someone finally spoke up.
The woman nodded, “It’s not easy to pray for someone who has done something so insidious. But how can we give ourselves in love, when our love and forgiveness are only meant for the innocent? Are we only called to love when it’s easy?”
That was one of the hardest prayers I ever whispered.
Forgiveness Isn’t Pretty
Forgiveness isn’t pretty, but it’s beautiful. It’s not pretty because it encounters sin. It looks right into the face of ugliness and personal hurt inflicted on us by someone and says,”I forgive you.” Even if forgiveness was not asked.
Forgiveness isn’t about turning a blind eye or people pleasing; it’s not about encouraging wrong. Instead, it refuses to allow the heart to grow cold with resentment. It encounters bitterness and pours out love. Even if it’s not warranted.
As C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
It’s easy to love the victim, but it’s hard to love the bully. Yet, we have to.
Christ died for all of us. The victim, the villain, and everyone in between. He loves all of us and desires that all of us be in Heaven with Him. That’s why God made us, “to be eternally happy with Him in Heaven.” When He died on the cross, the cross which our sins nailed Him to, He begged for our forgiveness, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” Can we really decide to be less forgiving and patient than God, who has forgiven “the inexcusable in us”?
The cross isn’t pretty, but it’s beautiful because it’s real love. Only real love makes forgiveness and redemption possible.
“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” — Dorothy Day
Before worrying about championing each and every social cause, and condemning those who don’t, perhaps we should first ask ourselves, am I ready to forgive and keep on forgiving those who hurt and keep on hurting me?
Because that’s where transformation happens. Forgiveness is the place of redemption.