Saturday, December 10, 2005

A West Wing Sermon

Last Sunday my wife and I sat down to watch our favourite television show, The West Wing, and even though we had been to church in the morning we were interested to hear another sermon the same evening, only now in front of the tube.

In case you missed it, in this episode the Latino Democrat running for president was faced with the daunting task of speaking to an African American congregation shortly after a Latino police officer had gunned down an African American teenager in the local streets as a mistaken act of self defense.

I thought it was a pretty fantastic scene even though the American phenomenon of churches allowing politicians to use their pulpits from which to campaign boggles my mind. I am from Canada. I'm sure this happens here but it seems to be less commonplace.

The show did a good job of capturing the racial tension and also of holding back from the "too easy" conclusion that might have been tempting to write. You know, where it all ends with a group hug and everyone holding candles at a White House vigil. The realism was good, and you could feel the questions sticking in your throat just as they do when stuff like this happens in real life.

The speech given by Democrat Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) was what stuck with me the most. He had been wrestling with how he would walk the tightrope of trying to win votes and yet be honest with what had happened. How could he get up there and vent his anger at both the police officer for his mistake and the teenager who had brought on the tragedy? In the end he made what I thought was a great speech which the congregation could only stand and applaude. (Okay, so maybe the script could be accused of ending a bit too easy)

His speech was about the struggle between blame and compassion.

In a nutshell his point was that we need to get beyond our desire to cast blame and seek vindication and conjur up instead the compassion that it takes to really make a difference in the world. It was the sort of speech you wish people would listen to before they went out and rioted.

The line that really stuck with me was where Santos said that even if people had to pretend to have compassion, they should! That's a fantastic point. How often do we stop from doing the right thing because we don't quite feel like it?

I mean, sincerity is a good thing, and authenticity is to be strived for, but is a good and right action somehow less admirable if one has to force oneself to perform it? Is it any less sincere if I show compassion to someone not just because my passing moods led me to but because I decided to? It occurs to me that while insincerity may often be a fault, perhaps sincerity can be an even more devestating fault if our insistence on it keeps us from doing what we know is right!

To be honest, I find that quite often in my life I have to drum up the fortitude and courage to show compassion to someone only to discover that only once I've done so do I actually begin to feel that compassion. I'm not saying that i do this very often, but it happens, and judging from the fact that there are real writers behind the words of Santos, it seems I may not be the only one!

Great point Matt Santos. Once we're convinced that a certain response is the right one nothing, including our own moods (however fierce or justified), should keep us from responding in that way. Good show West Wing. Even though I disagree with many of the viewpoints expressed on this show, I have to hand it to them, they got this one right.

But I can't just leave it at that either. After all, there was something that went painfully unsaid in that fictional church service, or at least the part that was shown (as if there was any other part). Namely, it is this:

If we are to lay aside blame, then how can we count on justice to be done? And if we must pretend to have compassion even when we do not, then what hope is there for humanity? Is that really where our hope lies: In faking love for one another until somehow our utopia is achieved?

Truth is, if the congregation Matt Santos spoke to was a Bible-believing one, the reason for their standing ovation would have been not so much for the promise of racial understanding, or the articulation of good morals, but for the connection Santos' speech had with the very gospel of Christ. As a matter of fact, without Christ, Santos' speech is actually quite empty.

I'm not making a judgment call on the religious persuasion of the writers of this show, I'm just pointing out that what often goes unsaid on television is actually the part that most needs to be heard. In the gospel of Christ blame is dealt with, and compassion is dealt out in droves.

For in Christ we can actually let go of blame without fearing that justice will be lost completely. The punishment for sin has been handed out and Jesus has taken the brunt of it all and He will hand out justice accordingly in the future when all is weighed out and made right based on the perfect knowledge of God.

And in Christ our compasion has a foundation, and in one sense doesn't necessarily even need to be pretended. As we consider our own sin from his perspective and know that He loves us unconditionally we can begin to do the same. The love of Christ can compel us even when human emotion or even the force of our own will may not.

So it is that in the struggle between blame and compassion, the only proper intersection is at the cross, where blame is taken, and compassion is given in its place.

In this we the good news that flies in the face of the bad, and no matter what your political persuasion it is the only thing that can save the world.

Just what the President was looking for. Seems he was in the right place.

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