Sunday, April 19, 2009


"You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Ex. 20:16

After watching the movie Doubt, you naturally come to one of two conclusions: he did it, or he didn't.

This film follows a battle between two parish leaders in a Bronx Catholic church in 1964. One of these leaders is the parish priest, Fr. Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is accused of sexual misconduct with a young African American boy who recently moved to the community. The other one is Sr. Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the stern principal of the parish school and the one who leads the charge against Fr. Flynn.

Caught between these two giants is Sr. James (Amy Adams), a young Sister of Charity who sees the good in all things, trusts others completely, and struggles between this innocence and a real-world pragmatism. In some respects, the audience watches this battle through her eyes, not sure whether to trust Fr. Flynn or side with Sr. Aloysius.

Doubt gives us enough evidence for either case to be made, but not enough to make a definite conclusion. And this, all too often, is the way life really is.

Our lives are not like those movies where the audience knows every detail and the characters search for two hours trying to discover what we have known since the first few moments of the film. Our lives are more like Doubt, where we know only a portion of the truth.

The question in any decision or situation in life is how quick are we to judge - and how easy it might be for us to fill in the gaps with conjecture and gossip. Throughout the movie, Sr. Aloysius justifies this by saying that as we pursue justice, we might step a few steps farther from God, but it's all for the "greater good."

How often do we fill in the gaps, to make things easier on ourselves? How often do we rush to judgment without knowing all the facts?

In our modern society, we let other people (even people we trust) and groups (like the media) fill in a lot of those gaps (and today, technology allows us to dangerously spread those thoughts like wildfire). Without a full knowledge of the situation, we create our opinions, whether they be truly right or wrong.

In a public way, we draw those conclusions about politicians and elected officials, clergy and church workers, actors and celebrities, newsmakers and so forth. In a private way, we might do the same for family, friends, co-workers and colleagues, especially those who we struggle to like. In fact, it's easier to do this with people we already have a grudge against (in the movie, Sr. James notices this when Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius don't see eye to eye on the songs to sing in the parish Christmas pageant, making the rift between them even wider).

In Exodus, God gives ten basic commandments to begin his law among his people Israel. We often wonder why these ten were given prominence over the other 400+ laws that God gave in the Sinai wilderness.

One idea I have had is that these ten are sins that can lead to so many others. These are ten where the slippery slope begins. One of those is "You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (Ex. 20:16 - and yes, sorry, I used the King James phrasing here since I have always found it carries more weight and authority).

Doubt reminds us that "bearing false witness" is filling in the gaps. It's natural and human to do so. We the viewers find ourselves doing that at the end of the film, drawing our conclusions: did he, or didn't he? "Bearing false witness" means that we don't have enough to judge another person.

And when we encounter similar situations in our own lives, do we have confidence in God's omniscent judgment (which truly knows all things) to make the final call if our own experience does not lend itself to making that decision ourselves? Let us pray that we avoid filling the gaps, and believe in the goodness of people and all God's creation.

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