It seems, generally speaking, that Christians have a hard time deciding what types of “sin” they are willing to watch and what types they won’t. My decision to watch a show is intentional: I have to get on the computer, pull up Netflix, and let the show load. The one show I’ve watched most recently and enjoy wholeheartedly is Downton Abbey. But many Christians, including some close to me, believe that I’ve made a poor viewing choice due to the portrayal of certain sins in its plot.
My husband and I discovered Downton Abbey and watched the first season online over the course of one week. I found the show to be beautiful, charming, mysterious, and shocking. Not too long after seeing the first season, I recommended it to a few friends from church, praising the show. A friend came back to me and told me she and her husband couldn’t get past the first episode. When I asked her why, she told me it was because one character, Thomas, was gay. For them, watching a homosexual on the show wasn’t something they could do. While it wasn’t always easy for me to watch Thomas’s behavior, I was curious to see how the writers would develop this plot line and what they would communicate about our culture’s attitude toward homosexuality.
My question was answered in the latter part of this season. One evening, Thomas entered Jimmy’s room and kissed him in his sleep. Jimmy pushes Thomas off (and they are found out by another footman, Alfred, who later reports the incident to Carson who is the butler of the grand estate). Their dialogue displays Thomas’s sincere impression that Jimmy felt the same way about him. We see the shame and embarrassment that Thomas experiences in this moment.
As Thomas speaks to Carson about the incident, Carson is insensitive and dumbfounded as to why this criminal offense, as he calls it, has taken place. Thomas tries to explain the difficulties of being a homosexual – the way one must read the signs because one can’t speak openly. Carson replies, “I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world.”
Carson’s response could very well be our own. We’ve convinced ourselves that their struggle is so unlike our own (whatever they may be) that we can’t relate to “them”—and we don’t even try. The easiest reaction is to call it sin and walk away, to not even stop and think about what the struggle and hardship does to the individual. We can’t wrap our minds around the temptation so we merely tell them to “snap out of it.” We don’t know how to respond to them in love and empathy because we haven’t taken the time to know them.
However, if we allow ourselves to be taught, there is something valuable Christians can learn from Thomas’s character. We can learn to empathize with Thomas as we see his attraction to Jimmy fall apart. We watch the consequences of Thomas’s actions affect his future and Downton, and we find empathy because we see reflected back our own tangled mess of actions and consequences.
Downton Abbey has made it a little easier for me to understand the heart of someone like Thomas. My personal interactions with homosexuals are infrequent at best, but I hope and pray that the bend of my heart is to empathize and pray for those I do know, instead of giving in to a fear that calls for their condemnation.