Note: No key plot spoilers! Nothing you couldn’t get from the synopsis. I promise.
Last night, I finished Broadchurch.
In preparation for the premiere of Gracepoint this fall on FOX, I’ve been watching the British show on which it’s based. Both shows are about a sleepy coastal town that gets rocked by the murder of a young boy. The resulting investigation leaves its mark.
The names give away the show’s interest in exploring, carefully and quietly, the relationship between what goes on in heaven and what happens here down on earth. It wants to know whether what we do here triggers punishments or, perhaps more importantly, whether there’s anyone up there who cares at all, or whether we’ve been abandoned.
What I was thinking about as I watched was how much it reminded me of True Detective (though, hear me on this: that show is far, far more brutal and graphic). In both, detectives sense that a sort of salvation rides on what they’re doing. Both are about investigations into unthinkable murders that wind up unearthing the darkest secrets. They’re also both beautifully shot and powerfully directed in ways we rarely see on television.
But there’s one very important thing both shows do, something that Christians, frankly, need to do better in their storytelling: they understand intuitively that sin is both a personal and a corporate matter. Sin is something in people’s hearts, and it’s also something that permeates a community. And when something goes wrong in a community, rarely is the perpetrator the only one at fault.
In True Detective, it becomes clear that the evil within the community is far more pervasive than one man. It starts high and slides all the way to the lowest, and it runs straight through the hearts of the detectives themselves. This is reminiscent of The Wire, which compellingly shows that violence and drugs and criminal activity have both a simple answer—all people are capable of evil—and a very complex one, because there is no way to simply point a finger in one direction. Once you start tugging on the loose threads, you discover that the boys selling drugs on the corner and the kingpin and the mayor, they’re all connected.
Similarly, in Broadchurch, tugging on the loose threads reveals that while everyone is under suspicion, it’s not really merely the perpetrator’s fault. In some way, one death is a failure of the whole community to live with love and integrity. And each person, even the “innocent,” has something ugly in their own hearts, something they hide from others that ultimately harms the community as a whole. They harbor anger and resentment and the line from acquaintance to enemy is quickly crossed. Grace and forgiveness are hard-won, when they’re there at all. (See Calvary for another good look at this.)
In Broadchurch, one detective says, “People are unknowable. And you can never really know what is going on inside someone else’s heart.” But the minister also tells the town, “If we are not a community of neighbors, then we are nothing.”
It strikes me that this is important now when we’re drowning in a sea of politicized rhetoric about the tragedies in Ferguson. Frankly, I’ve had trouble figuring out what to think, or whether I deserve to have an opinion (a public one, anyhow). Brokenness, yes; sadness, yes; prayers, yes. But instead of talking about what I think, I’ve been reading my friend Mike Leary, who’s lived in St. Louis and been writing. He said this:
Any crisis is an opportunity for us to hear again what God has to say about who we are. Ferguson is an opportunity for us to be refined, reformed, and perhaps even sent out again with a social imagination more deeply affected by the suffering of others. If the gospel is to take shape in our local cultures, this is where it will begin—the quiet act of listening, waiting, and thinking in new ways about what the church means for our cities.
But also this:
What we now need is something entirely different, a local politic shaped by the wisdom of hospitality and sharpened by vocational skill. A history that better shapes the outline of our communities. We should be willing to embrace whatever exposes the circularity of St. Louis’ past. A peace for St. Louis and its suburbs that can only be had if we are willing to acknowledge we have never had it before.
In the Old Testament, and in the early church, it was clear that a problem with one person was their problem, but not merely their problem. And so rooting out the problem meant more than getting that one person to change their heart.
Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, but he also publicly shamed the men who were about to throw stones at her: had they never sinned?
Ferguson is not my fault, but I am part of the problem, and even more part of the problem if I don’t let that brokenness, as Mike says above, re-form my social imagination.
But there is a little hope.
Late in Broadchurch, the minister is speaking to the town again: “The Bible says, ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.’ After what we've been through, I don't know. But we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our God to try.”
At the end of True Detective, Rust is being helped out of the hospital by Marty after nearly dying. “I tell you, Marty,” Rust says. “I been up there in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”
“What’s that?” Marty asks.
“Light versus dark,” Rust replies.
“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory,” Marty says.
“Yeah, you’re right about that . . . You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”
“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
At the end of Broadchurch, the heavy, deep darkness of the cliffs, underlined by the darkness we’ve just experienced as viewers, is pierced by unexpected lights. One character asks another where it came from. “I passed the word,” the character says. “Maybe the word was good.”