Robert Downey Jr, Mel Gibson, and the Idiot Forgiveness of God

No idea how I missed this when it aired a couple weeks ago, but BRAVO! […]

David Zahl / 11.7.11

No idea how I missed this when it aired a couple weeks ago, but BRAVO! We all know about Mel Gibson’s considerable trespasses of the past few years – vile stuff, to say the least – depending on who you ask, he might have even committed an unforgivable sin (or three). So Downey Jr’s speech hits like a thunderbolt, does it not? In remarkably preacher-like fashion, he steps out on a serious limb, quotes JC and references Yom Kippur, in the process highlighting the severity of the Law in its secular expression and the self-righteousness that pariahs always inspire. In one fell swoop, in other words, he silences every mouth. But it’s the courageous testimony of a forgiven man that cuts to the heart; it’s the sheer advocacy and career-sacrificing love on display (one reputation for another?) that gives the sermon its tear-jerking power:


I doubt any of the other presenters knew that Luke 7 was the reading for the day… And “hugging the cactus” has to be the best euphemism for penitence (or honest confrontation with one’s darker side) I’ve heard in ages!

In all seriousness, though, this is precisely where Christianity has such a beautiful contribution to make. The notion that forgiveness can precede repentance – that “sorry” can be a response to rather than a pre-condition for love/absolution – is not just foreign to Hollywood, it’s foreign to you and me. (And let’s face it – it’s never politically correct to desire “mercy not sacrifice”). Especially when it comes to those who’ve done us wrong, or offended us personally. Some might even say we hate it, that we go so far as to crucify it. Which is perhaps why we need to hear the silencing word of the Law and the surprising news of God’s Grace – grace which extends to bonafide repeat offenders like Gibson – proclaimed, week after week, award show or no.

One is reminded of the reply that Robert Capon gave in an interview about this very dynamic. He might go a little further than we would – the alcoholic repents because he’s run out of options, not (necessarily) because he’s experienced love – but the point remains, that any forgiveness which is predicated on an “appropriate” apology/penitence slowly transforms into something else altogether:

Floyd Brown: I think I understand philosophically what you are saying here, but it is still hard for us slow learners there in the back row. I’ve got to have a plan here. I know that if I go out and I fight and I’m the kind of guy who causes disruptive things, I’m a threat to society. I do bad things and bad things result. I know that if repent of these things, God will forgive me, but if I don’t ever repent of these things, what’s going to happen?

Robert Capon: He forgave you before you repented. That’s crucial. See, that is why it is so outrageous. The gospel is really vulgar, crass and immoral because it says God forgives the world before it repents. In the gospel, repent is always repent and believe. It means turn yourself around from not trusting the forgiveness and trust it. That’s it. It doesn’t mean that you earn it by repenting. You had it before.

If you do something to me and you are wrong and I am right, you can repent all you want but until I forgive you, it’s not going to do you a bit of good. It only helps when I have already forgiven you and you can enter into the restored relationship and turn again to me. Only I can decide to forgive you and God for His own idiot reasons decided to absolve the world. He really did. It’s outrageous. It’s immoral. It’s tough.