Back in my first term with MCC in Bolivia someone gave me the book Papillon (French for butterfly) to read. That was in the early 70s. Later, they made the movie and now, in 2018 they made it again. I went to see it two weeks ago one evening. The story happened in France, in 1933, when Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière, a safe cracker in Paris, but not a murderer, was framed for murdering a pimp and dispatched for life to French Guiana, from where, after two attempts to escape, he was dispatched to Devil’s island, where, as the warden who sent him said, ‘strange things happen’. From that lonely rock, Papillon did escape to the mainland of Venezuela, and eventually, in 1969, he wrote his story; it exposed the dark brutishness of what France was doing to about 80,000 men, most of whom never returned to France. They died in the dehumanizing misery of prison, as, apparently, they were meant to.
It’s a difficult movie to watch and if there wasn’t an element of goodness that the movie works so hard, against all principalities and powers to push to its surface, it would be unbearable. The cruelty of which human beings are capable makes some movies, documentaries and many newscasts hard to see. Sometimes I walk away, and I almost walked out of this one. Last winter I got half way through the book, Dark Hope: written by an Israeli writer, it’s about Palestinians who live in Hebron, maybe 500 Israeli settlers living in their midst with full military protection, and their endless willingness to make life as miserable as possible for Palestinian farmers, families, children. I couldn’t finish it.
So why is it that we humans find it so hard to see harm done to others, including the violence of humiliation, of abuse, of deceit, of neglect, of poverty … sickness … pain? The man-made disaster that is Venezuela these days makes us angry. It’s hard to imagine it and we don’t want to; 2.3 million Venezuelans now displaced. It’s becoming the Syria of the Western Hemisphere. How could this happen anywhere, let alone in such a wealthy country? The world still recoils at the atrocities of ISIS a few years back. Earlier this week when we heard that Egypt had sentenced 75 people to be executed, the world shuddered. Donald Trump, a man with no apparent capacity for empathy, who, as someone said, has spent his entire life doing things to others, is almost universally understood as a nasty man. Even evangelicals who cheer him on for their own interests sometimes turn away because they can’t watch the wreckage. This week we mark 9/11, an immense tragedy that outraged and frightened almost everyone. Why was there such almost global dismay and anguish at princess Dianna’s early and tragic death, and such sympathy for her during most of her married life. The entire world reveres an Anne Frank, a Helen Keller, Mother Theresa, a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, a Martin Luther King? How do we explain the massive international outcry and response when little Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey on Sept 2, 2015. The Syrian tragedy had been going on since 2011, but that Sept 2 was a kind of tipping point; human compassion had found a strong voice … for a while at least. And the truth is, all of humanity yearns to hear that voice. Those few who don’t are, of all people, the most tragic and the most miserable, no matter how rich or how powerful they are.
Most children and adults alike, listening to any story, hope for an ending that makes us feel better, not worse. More hopeful, not less. At the end of the day, not many of us like to go to bed worried or anxious about school, about relationships, travels, assignments, unhappy work or school or home situations, nor even about pain somewhere else, happening to people we may not know; it troubles us. Why, when someone is very ill or disabled or when someone dies, do we go to such lengths to say trite, sometimes stupid and unhelpful things? It’s that unquenchable need to point towards something better, to be hopeful; we actually want to helpful.
Most movie stories arc toward goodness. Even with all the pain and trouble that drives every plot, the pull towards goodness is there in most scripts. The struggle, and the yearning to have goodness overtake the plot feeds the tension and keeps us watching … or, sometimes, when we can’t stand it, it walks us out. Even Papillón,at enormous human cost, bends toward the triumph of eventual goodness. Whether science fiction, drama, comedy … the scripts may not have happy endings, but they are almost always built to give goodness the edge. Those are the stories we instinctively want to watch. Deep in our souls, we are beings of hope and goodness, not creatures of evil and despair and destruction.
In one of his books (maybe Mere Christianity) C.S. Lewis asked how it is that we humans know, across pretty much all cultures, nationalities and faiths, what is wrong and what is right. Good and not good. It’s because, he said, we have right and goodness inside of us. We know a crooked line because we have inside of us, a straight one. Maybe that’s what the soul is; that presence of God we are all born with. That presence, whether we know him by one name or another, is never far from us, says Richard Rohr. We are part of the global goodness that is God, he says.
Maybe this goodness of God is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:20 when he says ‘since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen … ‘. In 8:22 he writes ‘the whole of creation has been groaning inwardly as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time.’ And just before that … ‘in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into glorious freedom ….’
Intuitively, this is who we are. We find evil and darkness and horror repugnant, and we are endlessly attracted to goodness … aching to see it released and liberated to overcome the fearful nastiness. And it will.