One of the best movies from 2018 that you probably haven’t yet seen is Mary Magdalene, staring Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus of Nazareth. (I’m also gonna go on record and call it the best movie about the life of Jesus--at least, that I have seen and/or can recall).
Among other things--including the incredible portrayal of Mary Magdalene, aka, the Apostle to the Apostles--it offers a vision of imagining Jesus’ healing ministry and his unique power in ways that the metaphysically challenged among us (aka, if you struggle believing in all those woo woo miracle stories) can actually get behind.
Watching Jesus sit with, talk with, and help unlock people from the chains that bind them through compassionate listening, unconditional love and acceptance, and piercing questioning, is a gorgeous and inspiring experience.
I kept thinking, “oh, NOW I think I get why people might’ve been so enthralled by Jesus!”
In one of my favorite scenes, Jesus is about to speak to a group of women. As he walks over he asks Mary, “What shall I teach?”
To which Mary perfectly quips , “Are we so different from men you must teach us different things.”
Your Spirit is Your Own
Then, check out the ensuing dialogue between Jesus and one of the women in the group named Susannah. I find it illustrative of both the incredible wisdom and the infuriating difficulty of Jesus’s teachings.
Susannah: We are women. Our lives are not our own.
Jesus: Your spirit's your own. And you alone answer for that. And your spirit is precious to God. As precious as that of your husband... or your father.
Part of what made (makes?) Jesus so radical was his insistence on people’s inherent worth and value. Humans are beloved and precious simply by virtue of being alive. Whatever else they may be in the world’s eyes, whatever labels or identities they might posses--rich/poor, black/white, male/female, and so on--the fundamental Reality is that their truest identity is that of a beloved child of God.
Though the world may try and make you something else... and even, like Susannah attests to, may try and take away parts of who you are... it cannot touch the truth of your pure essence.
You are a spirit that is precious to God.
That is who you are, and that is yours and yours alone.
Susannah: Then who should we obey? If God commands one thing, but our husbands, our fathers tell us another?
Jesus: You must follow God.
Mary Magdalene: So are we to defy them and leave our lives behind?
Jesus: Yes. Though they judge you... persecute you... you must forgive them.
The idea of “following God” instead of “obeying men” strikes me as something entirely subjective and resistant to clear parameters. What that might actually look like, and how it might be accomplished, will surely depend on all sorts of variables.
I won’t claim to understand how people should work that out for themselves.
Rather, I think the point, if I can come close to getting it, is that ultimately no one owns you.
No person. No group. No identity. No class.
You are you, and you alone are responsible for how you respond to the summons and the insistence of God.
Hatred and Forgiveness
But when Jesus says, “you must forgive them,” that quickly pushes up against Susannah’s instincts—as well as, I can imagine, so many of our own.
She responds with a harrowing story, and asks how can forgiveness be given in this?
Susannah: Forgive them!? A year ago a woman from Cana... many of us knew her here. She was young. Her husband found her with another man... and he and his brothers... they dragged her to the river and they raped her. And after they were done... they drowned her. In the court before they were sentenced one of them repented, "God, forgive me." But I'm not God.
If someone thinks being a Christian is easy, they’re not paying attention. If someone thinks Jesus’s ideas weren’t absurdly radical and obnoxiously impossible, they’ve been misinformed.
The Gospels often point out how people would leave Jesus’s company because his Way was too hard, too much, too impossibly impractical.
Platitudes like “bless those who curse you,” and, “love your enemy,” and, “forgive seventy times seven times,” sound nice, but immediately can feel suspect when put against some of the most evil conditions humanity can muster.
And this was Susannah’s point. How can forgiveness be expected of those whom have endured unspeakable trauma and suffering? Surely there must be conditions under which the call to forgive is held in suspension, right? Conditions under which we are justified in the nursing of our anger. Where the thought of forgiveness sounds not just hard, but downright wrong.
To her query (which, for the record, I entirely resonate with...) Jesus says the following—which happens to be my favorite line of the entire film.
Jesus: How does it feel to carry that hate in your heart?
With this one simple question, I was and am undone.
He goes on...
Jesus: Does it lessen as the months go by? It seeps into your days... your nights... until it consumes everything you once were. Those men, they too, were filled with hate. You are strong sister, but you must forgive. There is no other way to enter the kingdom of God. Will you join us? Will you be born anew?
I believe Jesus had deep insight into the power of hate, understanding that it does not respect boundaries inside our souls. We cannot wall off portions of our being and say, “this area here is reserved for hatred toward this person or these types of people... but for everyone else, my hatred is kept at bay.”
Jesus understood that harboring hatred is swallowing a poison, we cannot contain its damage. It seeps and oozes, eventually touching all.
In his effort to convey the seriousness of carrying hatred in our hearts, Jesus (in the Gospels, now, not the film) once said, “You have heard it said, “you shall not murder,”... but I say to you anyone who is angry with their brother or sister... anyone who says “you fool!”... will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
We intuitively know that physical murder is wrong, yet we kid ourselves if we think we can but possess a murderous spirit (yet only in our hearts) and escape its effects.
And How Does That Feel?
How does it feel to carry that hate in your heart?
A truly brilliant question that pierces our defenses seeking to justify our feelings toward those who’ve wronged us.
Does it lessen as the months go by?
Rhetorical, because of course, no, it doesn’t.
Hatred is lethal.
For others and for ourselves.
Though it might feel good for a while, eventually it will destroy us.
If our hope is to live lives of freedom, of peace, of love, (or, as Jesus called it, the Kingdom of God) then we must choose the path of forgiveness.
Even (especially) for those we’ve cause to hate.
Next week, I’ll share more on the subject of hate as taught by Howard Thurman in “Jesus and the Disinherited,” where he unpacks the dangers present when the weak (ie, the oppressed, the marginalized) harbor hatred for the strong (ie, their oppressors).