My son and I have been watching the entire series of the TV show “House, M.D.” A few days ago, we started the sixth season. In one episode, a maniacal genocidal dictator, who was visiting the United States, gets ill and comes under the care of Greg House’s team at the hospital. Throughout the show, one of the team members, Cameron, struggles with helping this dictator get well because she fears she will then be complicit in any deaths he brings about in the future. Others on the team keep telling her that their jobs as doctors are not to pass judgment on their patient, but to cure him. The conflict builds and finally Cameron’s husband, Chase, who is also on the team, becomes convinced that this dictator is going to commit genocide against many thousands of his own people if he recovers and goes back to his home country. He can’t bear that thought, so switches a blood sample to make it look like the dictator has a medical problem he does not have. The treatment will most certainly kill him given what they believed his real condition was. The plan succeeds, the dictator dies, and now Chase must figure out how to cover up his actions and fight his inner demons.
Moral dilemmas in TV shows and movies have always intrigued me. They push me to evaluate how I would response if put in a similar situation. The answer is not always easy. In fact, more often than not, I am left not really knowing for sure what I would do.
During World War II, there were quite a few Germans who saw Hitler for what he really was, which was a maniacal genocidal dictator like the one in the “House, M.D.” episode. Some of these astute citizens realized they needed to stop Hitler before he destroyed their country. Several assassination attempts were unsuccessfully carried out. I often wonder how those people, had they been successful at assassinating Hitler, would be viewed by the world. Most assuredly the German military would have executed them for treason. But much of the rest of the world would have viewed them as heroes and martyrs.
It is interesting how varied people’s opinions can be over the same actions of others. In most of the cop shows, the main issue is justice. Someone mistreats other people and the police talk about bringing that person to justice. In other movies like “John Wick,” the issue is revenge. Someone did something bad, and the victim won’t stop until he gets his vengeance against the perpetrator. In religious shows, the emphasis is oftentimes placed on forgiveness. Rather than seeking justice or revenge, seek to forgive the person who transgressed against you. Yet in other shows, the emphasis is salvation. Consider the movie “Taken.” A man’s daughter is kidnapped and about to be sold into slavery. Since the man has “certain skills,” he goes on a rampage to save his daughter. He is not driven by justice or revenge, but rather solely by rescuing his daughter from the hands of evil. Anyone who stands in his way is a target of his wrath.
This afternoon, my wife and I went to see the movie “The Shack.” I had read the book many years ago but, given the inefficiency of my long-term memory, could not recall much about it. The basis of the movie is that a young daughter of the main character is kidnapped and killed. The father struggles with this as does his wife and two other children. He gets an invitation from God to return to the shack where his daughter was murdered. There his judgmental mentality and his inability to forgive others is challenged. And, interestingly, a question that I had just challenged my wife and son with at lunch earlier was asked in the movie. “How does one decide what is good and what is evil?” If you think deeply about this, the answer may not be as obvious as it seems at first glance.
Now, ask yourself, “Which response to evil do you like the best?” Revenge? Justice? Forgiveness? Salvation? If you are like me, I think perhaps you might be saying, “I like them all.” I cheer on John Wick as he leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake while seeking revenge on the man who stole his car, killed his dog, and knocked him unconscious. I applaud the police officers who relentlessly investigate a murder and finally bring in the murderer so justice can be served. I cry at the struggle victims go through to forgive the criminal who did them wrong. I urge on the man who will do anything to save the person he loves.
So, what’s going on? Do I have multiple personalities living within my brain? Am I simply crazy? Or is it simply coded into my DNA, and perhaps yours as well, to want all these things to occur simultaneously? Is that even possible?
Upon thinking about these questions, I have concluded that it is possible. Revenge seeks to teach an evil person how deep the pain of what they did was by having that person experience that same pain. Justice seeks to right a wrong, as much as humanly possible, by taking them out of society, thus making it impossible to perpetrate the same evil on others. Forgiveness seeks protection of yourself by letting the past go and to quit obsessing over the evil that occurred. Salvation seeks to prevent harm to a loved one and perhaps prevent additional harm to others. A combination of these things can be both therapeutic and good for society as a whole. While all four of these reactions are legitimate, different situations call for a differing mix of the four.
I don’t pretend to have it all figured out, but I do have an inkling of how these four reactions should be applied. For instance, while seeking vengeance, you must not cross a line that ends up making you the evil one. When seeking justice, one must be certain, usually through a trial process, that the right person is being punished. When seeking to forgive, you should not “deal with the devil” or place yourself or others in danger. When seeking to save, one must be confident that the actions they take do not end up bringing harm to the one you are trying to save. Accomplishing these things will most likely not be easy. Mistakes will often be made, but doing nothing will probably end badly.
After watching “The Shack,” I told my wife that I view some movies as following the Old Testament, where we typically think of God acting out of vengeance and justice, while other movies are like the New Testament, where God is defined by forgiveness and salvation. I like a little of both. Concerning forgiveness, I should note that there are actually three levels of forgiveness: 1) letting go, 2) no punishment, and 3) restored relationship. “The Shack” only addresses the first. That level of forgiveness is difficult, but the other two are much more so. For a complete explanation, please see my book, “God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God.”