Calvary: A Film That Wrestles with the Cruciform Life

Calvary: A Film That Wrestles with the Cruciform Life March 16, 2015

Because self-seeking shepherds can cause horrendous damage to their flocks, the biblical prophets were scathing in their pronouncements against such religious leaders. I will quote a small portion of Ezekiel 34, but I hope you will click over and read the whole chapter too.

The word of the Lord came to me:“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.–vv.1-6 NIV

The threatening congregation member in Calvary has been twisted and mangled by the selfish, evil desires of a priest who should have been a shepherd, but who instead used a lamb to fulfill his own appetites.

How does God feel toward such scattered, broken sheep? Does He condemn them for their brokenness? Verse 16 (and the verses surrounding it) give us a sense of God’s protective heart toward those who have been so abused:

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong [the religious leaders] I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

In Matthew 12:20, a verse from the Old Testament is quoted to describe Jesus:

A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out

Honestly, that’s one of my favorite verses in the Bible. And it really speaks to me about how we as Christians should respond to people who have been wounded by the Church. All too often, we respond to bruised people with more bruising. When people attack us, we lash out in self-protective response. In the film, townspeople are forever referring to Father James and fellow priests as “your kind. He is asked to bear the guilt of all the others who shattered people’s trust.

It may seem unfair that an innocent party is blamed for what others have done. But even though he is not personally guilty of the sin of sexual abuse, he chooses to receive into himself the pain with which hurting people lash out. He comes to see that they are angry, and they need to be able to express that anger to someone safe. All of us as Christians are called to respond with love and not defensiveness when wounded people attack us. We are not to fight to claim our corner of the playground, but to graciously give of self to others. We are called to receive into ourselves the wounds that wounded people express. It must be said, though, that to do this is a supernatural and not natural activity. When wounds fall on us, we must immediately give them over to God. The burdens of the broken are too heavy for any human being to personally carry.

Understand, I am not speaking of a Christianity that tells an abused woman to go back to her abuser. There is certainly a necessary place for boundaries in relationships; they help the other person as much as they help us. What I am talking about is those of us who are privileged and spoiled and comfortable choosing to lay down our privilege and comfort for the sake of someone who is broken and hurting. I am talking about loving people who are angry with us enough to not have to “win” an argument or claim our rights. I am talking about leaning into the pain and sadness and horror and hurt and seeing a person that God loves instead of an enemy in a war.

Not only does this film give me a sense of how one lives out Christian witness–a sense of this path of discipleship–but it also gives me some meaningful insight into the Atonement. There is much more to the Atonement than one theory could possibly explicate, but Calvary makes me consider anew the ontological brokenness that led to the killing of Jesus on the cross, and the way in which His death was not so much necessary for God’s sake as it was for our sake. Something had to happen at the cross for our sake. Something that would lead to our healing, to new life. God didn’t need there to be a cross so much as we needed to put Jesus on that cross.

The ending of the film lends itself to multiple interpretations, perhaps in order to invite us as the viewer to reflect on our own reaction to the events that have transpired. How will we respond? Will life spring out of death or will the tomb win in the end?

Father James Lavelle: I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.

Fiona Lavelle: What would be your number one?

Father James Lavelle: I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.

In the end, Calvary‘s deceptively simple plot left me scribbling notes late at night, challenged by how we as flawed Christians can live as Jesus’s disciples in a world full of wounded people–people that all too often “our kind” has helped to wound. It helped me consider anew a life in which I do not live to defend my corner of the sandbox, but rather one in which I am poured out for others.

I have a long way to go.

For more on Calvary, check out Wade Bearden’s great review over at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also check out Kevin McLenithan‘s short write-up about the film in the “Christ and Pop Culture 25” for 2014.

More articles on Calvary:

Jeffrey Overstreet compiles a bunch of thoughtful comments on the film here.

Kenneth R. Morefield’s review for Christianity Today.

Alissa Wilkinson on how Calvary succeeds as a “Christian” film (though not a traditional one).

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Image source: IMDB.com. © 2014 – Fox Searchlight.

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