Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Conspirator

"Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you..." Matt. 5:11

Amidst the blockbusters and animated films that occupy the top spots at the box office this spring is a lesser-known film that deserves some attention: Robert Redford's The Conspirator, an historical drama about the trial of the conspirators of Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination.

But the film is not titled in the plural, but rather focuses much of its gaze on one singular figure, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) - and whether or not she was truly guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth (played here by Toby Kebbell) and his accomplices to murder the President.

The question of guilt or innocence is embodied by her lawyer, Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy), who at first believes she was just as responsible for Lincoln's death as Booth. He accepts the case more as a favor to his mentor, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), but hopes that the evidence will convince him of the futility of defending such a woman.

Through Aiken, the audience begins to see how corrupt the case against her really was. Using coercion, trickery, populism, and intimidation, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) tries Mary Surratt and the other surviving defendants in a military tribunal - further sealing their fate. Like Aiken, we move from assuming Surratt was probably guilty to feeling that any possible connection to the assassination plot is overshadowed by the corruption of the proceedings.

But unlike Aiken, most of us might have acquiesced to the government's case. It seems like a losing battle, fixed from the very start. However, Aiken sticks with Mary Surratt as his hatred moves to compassion and his suspicion moves to a desire to defend the defenseless.

Because of this, he is destroyed - by the American public who views him as a traitor, by his fiancee who thinks he has chosen a Confederate sympathizer over her, and by the military lawyers who exclude him (a decorated and wounded Civil War veteran) from any further honors or acceptance in their community. Despite the onslaught of criticism and rejection, and perhaps fueled by it, he stands even more aggressively for Mary Surratt.

Jesus spoke of people like Aiken when he declared in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you" (Mt. 5:11). The Lord is speaking about those who maintain integrity and righteousness even when the pressure mounts and common sense compels us to veer from that path.

Even more, it might be understandable if the person who Aiken was defending was someone he loved and honored all his life. But Surratt has no prior relationship with her lawyer - and as someone who sacrificed so much in the fight against her cause, Aiken begins his connection with his defendant with seething animosity. She is the enemy - but his love of the law of the land he nearly gave his life for in the Civil War pushes him to stay the course.

Whether he knows it or not, he lived up to Jesus' command to "love your enemies" (Mt. 5:44) - and does so despite the greatest odds.

Most of us would defend our families and friends, our loved ones and the people to whom we admire and cherish, without much hesitation. But would we do the same, would we risk everything we have built up in our life, for the people we cannot stand? Would we lay down our lives for our childhood bullies, for the boss who humiliates you in public, or for the terrorist who conspires against us?

This is the radical call of Jesus - to give everything for others, even those we cannot stand. For Fredrick Aiken, this was Mary Surratt. Who is that person or persons for us? This film reminds us that, to conform to the gospel of Christ, our love must extend all the way to the person that disgusts us the most. Only at that moment, as Jesus promised those who are persecuted and spat upon for such great love, can we truly "rejoice and be glad... for our rewards in heaven will be great beyond measure." (cf. Mt. 5:12).

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