Prayer Wednesday : A reader struggles with scruples about Netflix

Prayer Wednesday : A reader struggles with scruples about Netflix March 11, 2020

Prayer is about the conversation of the soul with God, and that often includes wrestling our consciences before God. Not for nothing is one of the great images in Scripture the strange tale of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Not for nothing is his other name–given by God himself–Israel: He who struggles with God.

I often hear from readers who are struggling and I often talk with other people about my struggles. That is normal healthy Christian life. Prayer happens in community. The Great Prayer begins Our Father, not My Father.

So I thought it might be good to post this conversation for the benefit of others who wrestle with their consciences–and most especially for the benefit of the scrupulous.

A reader writes:

I am the person who wrote to you about the Netflix problem last June – and given the current state of affairs, you can probably already see where this letter is going.

When I heard of that “parody” Jesus movie – saw it near the bottom of the “coming soon” list – my reaction was pretty much to wait until it’s out, humb it down without watching so I wouldn’t see it again, say a quick prayer for the creators, and try to banish it from my mind completely. Some things are just so dumb and terrible they do not deserve my attention, even of the negative kind, and it certainly looked like one such thing. There is a zillion of other things to watch on Netflix and I was pretty okay with choosing something else to watch (although I ended up only watching maybe one thing since then because life and other issues got in the way) while not touching that movie with a ten-foot pole, letting it gather dust in Netflix’ less popular corners. I just hoped it wouldn’t spark a huge outrage that would backfire and give it free advertising instead. Things like that, it seems to me, are better fought by ignoring them as much as possible instead of giving them publicity.

Rather predictably, it *did* spark a huge outrage that backfired and gave it free advertising instead. Good luck with asking Netflix to remove a show you helped made popular, folks.

I tried to ignore the whole thing, knowing it would only increase my anxiety (which has been really bad recently anyway and the last thing I needed was something new to worry about), but, long story short, I failed, and, among other things, I saw that people like me are denounced as lukewarm (at best) and that it’s “clear” that our priorities lie “elsewhere” and we don’t care about our faith, and we will regret it.

Having seen those comments I then tried to forget about them (engaging was not an option, I may be reckless but not *that* reckless). I still remembered uour last letter, the arguments of other people who helped me process the problem back then, and my own reasoning in this particular case, which seemed sound enough: you can’t really stop them from distributing what you deem trash (its existence suggests a market for it, so alas, they’re gonna cater to them), but you can boost the heck of what you think is good in their offer (by watching, rating, sharing opinions, etc.) and thus create a demand for more good stuff instead of leaving the field altogether, reducing your influence.

But anxiety gonna anx and I am doubting myself again. In part because in this case this movie is a part of their business and not just a side consequence of it. Yeah, it’s a small part, but still. It’s here. I can’t exactly opt out of not having it in my library. I can’t just pay for individual productions, I pay for the whole package – and according to some it only fuels the argument to ditch it completely, other stuff being good or not, because if I pay for it, I support trash, therefore it’s sinful and treacherous. And step by step I worried myself deeper into anxiety to the point of not being sure if I should receive the Eucharist today at Mass. (FYI, I did. But I still feel antsy about it.)

In short, do the rules of formal vs material cooperation still apply here? Am I making it too much of an issue than it really is, or am I right to be worried here? I really cannot trust my own judgment now – I’m way too anxious for this and I keep second-guessing everything I say or do – so I’d rather ask someone more reasonable for an opinion.

It seems to me that watching something else on Netflix is just remote material cooperation.  If you went to your local Cinemaplex 2000 to watch Star Wars and it was also showing something blasphemous on one of the other 19 screens, why should you feel guilty?  You aren’t watching that thing.  And would you have to pledge to never go to that theatre ever again?  How many theatres would you have to boycott over time?  If you go to buy a can of beans at the store and they are selling The Da Vinci Code on the cheesy book rack, does make you guilty of shopping at your grocery store? What grocery or bookstore would ever be pure enough to meet such rigorous standards?

“But Netflix made The First Temptation of Christ!”  Actually, a Brazilian comedy group made it.  Netflix stuck their name on it.  Likewise, Martin Scorcese made the blasphemous Last Temptation of Christ and Universal stuck their name on it.  I think the idea of therefore forever refusing to see anything by Scorcese or Universal ever again as punishment is absurd.

Turn this around the other way.  The very fact that your conscience is so sensitive and you care so very much about trying to please God is itself a huge sign that you are not the hard-hearted sinner you fear you are and the bullies say you are.

I repeat what I have said before: All these sorts of purity boycotts about remote material cooperation with evil achieve nothing good and much evil.  They don’t do anything but draw attention to an evil that nobody would have heard of, as you wisely note.  And when imposed on tender consciences by bullies, all they achieve is stoking a power trip for the bully and pointless guilt and fear for the scrupulous victim of the bully.  They aren’t even coherent since there are a thousand other corporations remotely (and even directly) involved in all sorts of other evils.  But the Righteous are not interested in those, because they don’t have the “Look at me!  I’m standing up to those damned Hollywood Liberals” thrill that makes Right Wing Culture Warrior hearts go pitty-pat.  You don’t see these people boycotting slave chocolate.  Not sexy.  But guilting out some innocent who didn’t even watch the film?  What a cost-free power trip.

Nope.  Stick with the Church’s teaching on remote material cooperation and don’t let the bullies ride you down.  Indeed, feel free to tell some other scrupulous person, “We don’t have to take this anymore!  The Church herself says so!” and explain to the remote material cooperation with evil.  Or if you want, just quietly go about your business.  But don’t let the bullies beat you up.  The gospel is about liberty from puny human rules and silly shibboleths.

(On a side note, all those cries of “They wouldn’t dare to make a movie like that about Islam” irk me for a number of reasons, including the fact that Jesus *is actually revered in Islam as a prophet*. I bet you could find quite a few Muslims angry about that movie too.)

You are perfectly right.

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