One good Day of Atonement that I remember occurred when I was living in New York. I liked holy days because they were time off from school and homework, and that was the case with the Day of Atonement, even though I disliked the fasting element. Before the sun set and the Day of Atonement was upon me, I went to Blockbuster and checked out two movies for the night: Stephen King’s Needful Things, and Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story.
Needful Things is about a demonic old man who sets up a shop in a small town. He offers everyone who comes into his store a “needful thing,” something that the customer desires, like a rare baseball card, or a device that predicts the outcome of horse races. But the old man requires customers to do something mischievous and harmful to get their “needful thing.” Before you know it, the people in the town are at each others’ throats, and murders occur in the process.
Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story is about an African-American janitor who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in the 1980’s. The Native-American judge was expected to give him a fair case, but instead he collaborated with the prosecution. And racism was a huge factor in Clarence Brandley’s conviction.
I prayed after watching those movies, and it was the sort of prayer that went into preaching mode, as one idea generated the next. I was tying those movies into Day of Atonement themes: sin, deception by the devil, injustice. I may have been going to Redeemer Presbyterian Church at the time, for Tim Keller’s definition of sin was going through my mind: Tim Keller defines sin as worshiping and rooting our sense of self-worth in anything other than God, whether it be the approval of others, sex, money, power, fame, etc. And that’s what I saw in these movies. In Needful Things, people were throwing their moral values out the window to get the object of their desire, their “needful thing.” And in Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story, the Native American judge acted unjustly in his pursuit of acceptance by the white legal community.
Many people observing the Day of Atonement wouldn’t watch television on that holiest of days. But I found that I got more out of the day by seeing those two movies.
Although I didn’t pray for a long time last night, television once again made me think about the Day of Atonement. On the season premier of Desperate Housewives, Mary Alice Young (the narrator) was drawing a distinction between sin and evil. She said that there was secret sin in the superbs, and she showed examples: there was Bree, who was reluctantly cheating on her husband Orson because he had embarrassed her and was trapping her in their marriage. There was Katherine, who was plotting against Susan for stealing her boyfriend Mike (Susan’s ex-husband). And there was Lynette, whose children were out of the house and who found herself pregnant, even though she didn’t want more kids. Mary Alice called these “sins.” Then we saw a new boy in the neighborhood who was choking Susan’s daughter. Mary Alice referred to that as “evil.”
I can understand why Mary Alice distinguishes between sin and evil. There are character flaws, like resentment, jealousy, and a reluctance to love more children. Many people have these at some points in their lives. And then there is evil, such as taking hatred to the next level and actually murdering someone. Many evangelicals would say that all sin is evil. Others would make distinctions.
What’s interesting about Needful Things and Whitewash is that they present character flaws leading to evil. People make something other than God the center of their universe, and they end up throwing righteousness out of the window in their pursuit of a “needful thing.” An outsider judge wants to fit in with his colleagues, so he commits an act of injustice. Character flaws that appear rather innocuous can lead to evil acts that harm other people.
I’m not for beating myself up over my character defects, but I need to take heed that they don’t erupt into actual evil. That’s why I need to lessen my hatred and fill my mind with something positive. And I also should take heed not to do evil in the future, as in hurting other people’s feelings when there are more tactful ways to go about a situation.