Hitchcock’s Easter drama

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Scott Stephens April 06, 2009
The films of Alfred Hitchcock are often regarded as a master class on the grotesqueries of Western society. To be sure, The Birds, Rear Window, Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope and even Marnie, all point to a kind of monstrous underbelly that disrupts the tranquility of everyday life.

But it was with his first attempt at cinematic realism, in an attempt to depict the true story of a wrongfully accused man, that Hitchcock managed to create a horror far worse than any Norman Bates.

In The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested in an unfortunate instance of mistaken identity and, with little or no explanation, is quickly arraigned on charges of armed robbery. The central sequence of the film follows Manny as he is led through the opaque, impersonal legal apparatus that will determine his fate.

In a particularly poignant moment, Manny, his face still fixed in a look of terrified bewilderment, clutches a silver crucifix and silently prays. All the while, lawyers spew their jargon-laden bile at one another as the uninterested jury talk among themselves.

The entire courtroom scene appears to Manny as simultaneously all-powerful and completely impersonal. It is in control of his life, and it couldn’t care less. That’s the obscenity of the entire ordeal. There is no slick dialogue or high courtroom drama — just the brutal enactment of an insane system convinced of its own rectitude.

Although it might seem a little strange to invoke Hitchcock at Easter, we can see a similar horror at work in the trial of Jesus. The Gospel narratives depict Jesus as paraded, like some freak at a carnival, before Pilate and then Herod, both of whom taunt and goad him to accept their supposed power and thus to join in their insanity.

They want Jesus to be part of their world, to quiver before them or at least to rage against them. But instead Jesus remains silent.

And like Manny Balestrero’s bewildered innocence, Jesus’ silence has the effect of throwing the madness of his would-be judges into sharp relief. His refusal to join their charade creates the space, the possibility of a freedom that was unimaginable to freedom-fighters who tried to oppose violence with violence.

In his remarkable book, Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams suggests that we should understand God’s transcendence through the lens of the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of Jesus’ silence before his accusers.

‘If we are really to have our language about the transcendence — the sheer, unimaginable differentness — of God recreated, it must be by the emptying out of all we thought we knew about it, the emptying out of practically all we normally mean by greatness.

‘No more about the lofty distance of God, the sovereignty that involves control over all circumstances: God’s ‘I am’ can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it.’

It is in this way that Jesus’ silence could begin shaping the practice of the Church. To participate in Jesus’ silence would mean to commit ourselves afresh to an alternative, non-instrumental mode of communal life. It would require that we abandon that perverse moral calculus that determines what is worthwhile, useful and constructive in Western society.

In this sense the United States theologian Stanley Hauerwas remarked that the first task of the Church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world.

In other words, the sheer difference of the Church’s common life — our sacramentality — represents a refusal to bestow any moral legitimacy on our given social, political and economic structures. It will not resign itself to the soulless realpolitik that now structures and defines our societal sanity.

I doubt that there has ever been a more important time for the Church’s practice to be marked by a kind of sacred uselessness or, in biblical terms, by charity. For charity, as the ethical substance of the Church, demands that the Church doesn’t ‘function’ in the way that our state apparatuses do.

Above all, it would prevent it from succumbing to the temptation to gain a place among the other state-sanctioned service providers, and thereby be required to sell its soul in exchange for federal funding.

Like Jesus’ silence, the Church’s refusal to participate in the state’s normalised madness would question the state’s unquestioned confidence in its own rectitude, which allows its functionaries to pronounce any alternative as ‘mad’, abusive, extreme, impractical, or (worst of all) not conforming to ‘best practice’.

Thus confronted by the sheer difference, the ‘obstinate uselessness’, of the Church’s charity, the monstrous character of our state and civil institutions might finally become clear.

And all this in the hope that the God who vindicated Jesus’ silence, who raised the crucified from death, would breathe fresh life into a world obsessed with its own nullification.


Scott Stephens is the minister of Forest Lake Uniting Church and visiting lecturer in theological ethics at Trinity Theological College, Brisbane, Queensland.

a tip of the hat to Beth for sharing this posting…

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