I am writing from Hawaii. Oahu, to be exact, and so it seems timely to write about The Descendants. I know it came out last December and was released to DVD a month or more ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it, even when I’m not in Hawaii.
Why? Because this film, as much as any that has been released this past year, is about life – about how fragile and unpredictable it is, and about how difficult it can be. Even more, it’s about how absolutely impossible it is to get through this fragile, unpredictable, and difficult life without forgiveness.
At this point I would pen the usual notice about spoilers coming just around the corner, except that the film’s trailer pretty much lays out the premise of the movie: George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron whose wife, Elizabeth, lies in the hospital in a coma after a boating accident. Matt has been absent for much of their marriage – physically tending business, and emotionally as well – but after the accident he is all back, all on board for making his marriage and family work. When he urges his eldest daughter, Alex, similarly to recommit to the family – and in particular to get over whatever fight she had been having with her mother – Matt learns that his wife was having an affair.
Much of the rest of the film is about the struggle of Matt and Alex to come to terms with what has happened – both Elizabeth’s infidelity and her present state – and their struggle to forgive. And this is what is so important about this film. They do move to a point of forgiveness. It’s not easy; it takes a lot out of both of them and others. But they do.
But here’s the thing: forgiveness is not about saying everything is okay, or what happened wasn’t wrong, or that there are no consequences. The consequences of Elizabeth’s affair, and to a lesser degree Matt’s distance, ripple throughout the film. Yet acceptance and forgiveness are ultimately the only way this family can move forward.
And here’s where a lot of Christians – and especially Christian theologians, I think – get tangled up. Forgiveness is not the opposite of justice – as in letting someone off the hook. Forgiveness and justice operate on two entirely different planes. Justice is important – it guides our life together via the law, setting boundaries, enforcing rules, exacting payment and punishment and all the rest. It matters. But forgiveness isn’t about the legal dimension of our lives; it’s about the relational dimension. In fact, forgiveness is entirely relational. Which is why it’s so important.
To illustrate: what would justice be in the case of Matt, Alex and Elizabeth? That Matt have an affair to even the score? That Elizabeth be punished? To view her accident as punishment? For Elizabeth to lose the affection of her daughters and husband? Though all these possibilities may be consequences, none of them sounds like justice. What is justice in this situation? The question itself doesn’t seem to make sense. Why? Because while justice is important, even crucial to our lives together, it has its limits. It is, in other words, confined to the legal dimension of our lives that sets the boundaries within which we live. But while law supports our lives, it does not constitute them. What constitutes life is relationship, our relationships with God and with each other, and this is the domain of forgiveness.
There’s a lot more to this film, but this is enough. As you can probably tell, I loved this movie – in which, by the way, great performances abound – because it feels like it tells the truth: about life, about love and forgiveness, and even – though it may not know it is doing it – about God.