There is a rather dark passage from the biblical Book of Wisdom that expresses the cynical, destructive attitude of a man who has lost hope. “Our life is short and dreary, nor is there any relief when man’s end comes, nor is anyone known who can give release from Hades”. (Wis 2:1) Out of this desperately sad and bitter heart comes cruelty – the desire to hurt and bring down the virtuous man, especially the virtuous who has hope and promise in life.
In the film ‘Downfall’ we are shown the last days of Hitler cringing in his bunker in Berlin, raging at the inevitability of total defeat, blaming the world. He is set on bringing down as many others however innocent and however useless their sacrifice might be. Yet we see in him also searing moments of human pain, the sense of abandonment and utter loneliness accompanying his descent to total darkness where it is impossible not to feel empathy. For some critics of the film this was indulging the monster, avoiding the depiction of pure evil, making the inhumane look human.
Yet when we read, all too often, of a deranged American teenager on a shooting rampage in his high school don’t we confront the same mystery of iniquity described in the Book of Wisdom or in the history of tyrants? We feel traumatised by the attacks, the loss of innocent lives, the grieving parents. But the inexpressible reason for such cruelty, the abysmal sadness and lack of love brings us to the razor edge of human self-understanding, the cliff edge dividing justice from mercy.
Soon, in re-living the Passion of Christ, we will be plunged into this dark question of sin and grace. We will have to be guided by a later line from that passage of Wisdom: ‘They do not know the hidden things of God’. There are experiences which are thick with darkness, where the absence of compassion and wisdom is terrifying. Yet these are places which lead us to a God of mercy beyond our social imagination.