Writings by Cole Huffman

Benefit of the Doubt

With news of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication today, my participation in a Catholic wedding over the weekend, and having the human need for mercy much on my mind of late, I ponder again the movie Doubt. The setting is a Bronx Catholic school. It’s 1964. The jovial parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), also coaches the boys’ basketball team. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the school principal who runs her charge with the glee of a Pharisee. 

Sister Aloysius comes to oppose Father Flynn because she’s self-convinced he’s a pedophile although she has no corroborative evidence to support the accusation. She only has her unremitting zeal to accuse based on a wisp of secondhand observations. But this, for her, is all she needs to bring down Father Flynn. 

During the climactic confrontation scene, Father Flynn says to Sister Aloysius—his voice breaking in wearied sorrow, resigned to the realization that she will succeed in executing his reputation—“Where’s your compassion?” She snarls back contemptuously, “Nowhere you can get to it!”

Doubt is quite thought-provoking for a pastor. Years ago I started praying for myself Proverbs 30:8 (“Remove from me falsehood and lying…”) because just to be accused of a breach of integrity is to be guilt. A wisp becomes a whisper becomes a wailing, and quickly. 

Even though the movie leaves the question of Father Flynn’s guilt ambiguous, I remember feeling terrific sorrow for him as he fought for his vocational life in Sister Aloysius’ dimly lit office. The scene tapped my adrenaline. I forgot I was watching a movie. Father Flynn was before my eyes enduring one of my worst fears in life.

But their exchange also surfaced another fear: The fear that many in the world see you and me as Sister Aloysius. Our compassion is nowhere they can get to it. Those people we stand ever-ready to help God take down—the immoral, the liberal, the criminal. We are so certain about their unfitness to God. Our compassion? Nowhere they can get to it.

I know a pastor in another city who ministers to addicts, including registered sex offenders. He started a church for them since they are personae non gratae in most churches. His church meets on Sunday nights in a rented room. Sometimes they have 20 people, sometimes 100. They have no programs, just a worship service and groups that gather during the week.

This pastor is purposefully provocative as he talks about the nature of his ministry. He’s told me that every church has pedophiles in it, including my own. The difference, he said, between his church and mine is that he knows who his are. It is a deeply broken community that is openly frank about themselves.

I listened to this pastor speak of receiving phone calls from other pastors in his area who question the wisdom of his reaching out to sex offenders. His voice broke and tears welled in his eyes as he questioned how they could not reach out. Is this a group Jesus won’t touch? Where’s your compassion? he asks these pastors. Nowhere sex offenders can get to it.

Part of me understands the pastors’ reticence. As a father of five children a pedophile is the last person on earth I’m looking for. And I fear “it” happening in our church, in our nursery. We take appropriate precautions but there are no bombproof safeguards. Every precaution we take has limitations. The most adept offenders are the ones least suspected who know their way around precautions.

Part of me understands the addicts’ pastor’s rebuttal too. Who does Jesus permit us to avoid? Who is immune to God’s grace? Do I really believe in the forgiveness of God and His transformation of sinners after the image of Jesus (cp. Rom. 8:29)? Is my lack of true compassion not due to a defective doctrine of grace but of sin? As Mark Buchanan describes it in Your God is Too Safe:

“We have become self-obsessed in our doctrine of sin, as though sin were merely a personal flaw like acne, plantar’s warts, or crooked teeth. As though sin is merely about personal victory or defeat. We seldom see sin as a brokenness that’s bone deep and creationwide. Sin ruptures our relationships: with God, with one another, with the creation. It ruptures our own deepest self. So sin needs more than a private remedy, a personal therapy…. God desires restoration and reconciliation—of relationships, of creation, of our own true selves” (p. 109).

For God to achieve this desire what must He do? Put His compassion where everyone can get to it! Where moral skinflints like Sister Aloysius can get to it and immoral, skin-deep sex addicts can get to it. Where Cole Huffman can get to it and then get on with it, because “from now on…we regard no one according to the flesh…. Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:16, 18, 20).

Where’s your compassion? Is it where the most broken can get to it? To them Jesus is willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:52 AM
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