Revenge has always been an intriguing subject because of the inherit struggle between good and evil. Revenge can contribute a degree of complexity to a story because it races ambiguously towards either justice or hatred, with the vigilante often not knowing which is his/her motivation—nor even if there is a real difference in these polar opposite moral positions.
With two recent very well-done films, Hollywood has discovered that the journey toward forgiveness can be just as dramatic. Early last year, Philomena (2013)was released in time to secure three Golden Globe Awards and four Academy Award nominations as well as a number of other accolades.
Judi Dench delivers an extraordinary performance as Philomena Lee, the mother of a boy who was forcibly taken from her and given up for adoption by a sanctimonious Mother Superior in the convent community for unwed mothers like Philomena.
After living with the secret for fifty years, Philomena reveals her secret to her daughter who persuades a journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to help her mother try to find her son. They begin, of course, at the convent where Philomena had been, but are again rebuffed and are turned away as had happened in previous attempts by the mother to find out about her child.
I want you to see the film, so I’m not going to tell you more except that the story is bittersweet! After the drama of the search is resolved, Philomena confronts the sisters of the convent one last time with her pain and agony, suffering which had been cloaked in shame for fifty years, laid on her by the unmerciful sister. The journalist is livid and vitriolic in his attack on the heartless woman, but Philomena instead forgives her. That’s the surprise ending that won’t ruin the story for you. It’s not cheap grace, it’s not sappy and maudlin—it’s a choice to not be destroyed by hatred.
Last week, Sherrylee and I saw The Railway Man (2013)with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. As was Philomena, this film is also based on a true story, that of Eric Lomax. Lomax was a British officer taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese early in WWII. He and his mates were not only made to work under horrendous conditions on Thai-Burma railroad (think Bridge Over the River Kwai), but tortured as well for building a radio.
Viewers only learn these secrets of Lomax’s through flashbacks because the actual story takes place in Great Britain in the 1980s. Lomax, a fanatic railroad enthusiast, falls in love with a younger woman (Nicole Kidman) he meets on a train. After their marriage, she learns the truth about the considerable psychological suffering that he still experiences from the trauma of torture. Reluctantly from his war buddies she forces out the whole story with the hope that she can help him.
But she also learns from his mates that her husband’s main torturer is still alive. Lomax doesn’t want to hear about this, but is forced to confront not only the existence of this man, but his own years of hatred toward him as well as the perpetual imaginations of revenge that he has fed on for forty years.
Lomax tracks down his torturer and confronts him with a knife in his hand. But as he learns of his opponents own mental anguish and sees how he has tried to make some amends for his crimes, Lomax finds that it is more healing to forgive him than to kill him.
Two real movies about two real people who suffered horrible atrocities and injustices, who nevertheless chose to forgive their enemies—there’s a lesson here!
In thinking about these two movies, I couldn’t help but think about the young man in Jordan, a Palestinian whose family had fled Israel during the ’67 War after their home and their life there was lost. He hated the Jews for what they had done to his father and mother. He hated Israel—as do so many in the Middle East for the injustices they believe have been done to their families and their peoples.
And the Israelis appear to have an arrogance born of fear—fear of future holocausts, fear of being pushed into the sea by their enemies.
When you talk with people in Jordan and Israel about politics, they very often fall back to a safe position with “It’s complicated.” And it is.
But I do know that until someone is ready to forgive someone else who has wronged them horribly, there will never be peace.
Jesus taught us this first!