I've been watching the Peabody-winning series Brotherhood over the long weekend. It's tough-viewing - I'm only half-way through. I've never seen the Godfather or the Sopranos because they are so intense, so dark and intense. The most intense I seem to be able to tolerate - and that's just barely - is Shakespeare's Richard III.
Which is of course what all these stories really are - a retelling of Richard III - or Macbeth or any one of Shakespeare's tragedies. Brotherhood is no exception - it is very dark, where the church is distant, more of a social occasion and open to certain kinds of corruption. The series draws parallels between two brothers of Irish descent in Providence, Rhode Island. It's familiar to me since I am a graduate of Roger Williams University and I remember Rhode Island very well. In the series, one brother is a politician, a member of the State House. The other is, well, a mobster. As the series unfolds we meet all their friends, family, associates, acquaintances, and victims as their lives intertwine, for better and mostly for worse. Hope is thin.
Just like in Richard III.
I've seen Richard III on stage, as well as on the screen. A fascinating inside look at Richard III is Al Pacino's "documentary" called Looking for Richard - a must-see for any filmmaker or writer, or actor. An excellent look inside the preparation of a play (which is staged for this "documentary") but also looking inside what makes Richard III so evil.
I've also seen an amazing production several years ago at the Kennedy Center with Ian McKellen as Richard III. It was so real that I almost forgot I was watching a play and caught myself nearly shouting out from the audience, "don't listen to him!" It felt like evil was in the room. I chuckled when I realized how caught up in the play I was and it broke the spell. But I supposed that was what Shakespeare intended.
What is the nature of evil? These types of productions - the Godfather, the Sopranos, Brotherhood, Richard the III and a host of other Shakespearean plays and so much more - at once show us the depth the human heart can descend into not only evil-doing, but evil itself. There seems very little hope for redemption, or sometimes at its most cynical, the need for it.
Brotherhood is filled with tragic characters and sometimes evil appears to go unpunished, until another dark corner, an unexpected turn, and even one of the brothers is taken down by a fallen cop tortured in his soul for his own powerlessness against internal corruption and his willingness to compromise what principles he had left.
As we learn more about each character, we are never presented with a good person. Every character so far is presented multi-faceted and broken. The contrast of the mobsters with the politicians shows they play the same game, the same rules - although the mobsters shoot to kill the body, the politicians often aim for the soul. Which is worse, the filmmakers seem to ask us?
And so here we are at Christmas, a time that is everything these films and plays are not. A time of celebrating joy and peace on earth and the promised redemption of the world. How does the Christmas Story break through such stories as the ones sketched out on the screen and on the stage? Happy thoughts and conversations are not enough. There is something far more radical required than just being nice.
Forgiveness is radical. It means taking the pain that comes from blame and guilt onto oneself, when indeed someone else deserves the punishment. It is foolish. It's saying "not guilty" not for some amoral outcome, but because there is guilt and, whether recognized or not, they are spared. It's not smiling, it's weeping. It's saying "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."
In these films and plays, God is in the shadows, allegedly kept at bay - or so the characters think, as though they could contain the power of God, not just for His justice which is terrible, but for His kindness that can actually change the condition of the human heart.
Unforgiveness is dangerous, it can last for generations, it can destroy nations as it destroys families, as it destroys one human heart. Unforgiveness dares to imagine a world where we are guiltless and the fault is outside ourselves. Unforgiveness feigns no pain, but it is a cancer of the soul. Unforgiveness means Jesus died for nothing.
Jesus said that when we forgive sins, they are forgiven. But first we recognize that sin is real, that it encompasses our lives and the lives of those we love, and those we fear, and those we meet in passing. Films and plays like Brotherhood and Richard III remind us that sin is very real and it is a human problem, our problem - not solved by politics or quests for power.
When we forgive, people are forgiven. It's an amazing power we have - though it costs us much. We forgive because we have been forgiven so much. Whatever pride finds a home in our heart is rent apart when we forgive. We become transparent. We look like the Velveteen Rabbit and in doing so, we become real, we become alive.
When I look at these plays and films, I see shadows of real life, merely shadows. To forgive, even in my own ordinary life, is to breakthrough those shadows to where we pray with conviction, "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Thy Kingdom Come, where the kingdoms of this world transform as we forgive. "We look through a glass darkly," Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, "but then we shall see face to face."
Who would dare see face to face, unless it is through a cross of forgiveness? When Moses looked at the face of God he saw Glory - not the glory of this world as those he encountered quickly saw when he down from the mountain.
And do we, when we forgive, do we not - perhaps for the first time in our lives - encounter this glory? Is it not a glory that no human power can manufacture or convey, but a glory that comes when heaven breaks through and God's will is done - His Will to forgive. His love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, no record of wrongs - all of those things that lifts the stories of this world from their weight upon the human heart. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
And we are set free. "It is for freedom Christ set us free," Paul writes to the Galatians. This is the Christmas Story. God breaks through the kingdoms of this world to set us free and He did it through a most radical act of forgiveness.
"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven ... And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ... For Thine is the Kingdom and the Glory and the Power Forever and ever."
The kingdoms of Brotherhood or Richard III, the glory that they seek, the power they crave is fleeting, it is mere shadow, it is soul-less, it's a trick. And perhaps that is why these plays exist. To remind us that to forgive is freedom, real freedom that politics and power can never buy. And we can engage in this radical act of forgiveness, not because we are good or we are strong - but because we are not.