I love it when a movie provokes thoughtful discussion. Last weekend, my husband and I spent half an hour talking over the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express. Despite having read the book and seen the 1974 version I wasn’t prepared for the darker direction this movie took the story.
In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie’s fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (for whom my pet rabbit is named, and brilliantly played by David Suchet) faces an enormous moral conundrum. A shady American businessman is stabbed to death on the snowbound train, and Poirot is recruited to solve the mystery. His investigation reveals that the dead man was a notorious criminal, responsible for the brutal murder of a beloved five-year-old American girl. Corrupt courts denied justice to grieving family and friends; so they conspired to attain retribution outside of the law. Poirot must decide: does he turn the girl’s avengers over to the police or does he violate ultimate justice by covering up for them? The decision is a painful one.
We found ourselves watching not just an intriguing whodunit but a powerful exploration of the nature and meaning of justice. Who determines justice? Is it the prerogative of individuals or the collective culture? Or is it entirely independent of human actions and feelings?
Invention vs. Discovery
The Orient Express murderers seem to derive their sense of justice from their individual convictions (known as ethical subjectivism). The court of law let them down, and God seemingly let them down as well. So in their own eyes they are justified in seeking revenge for the murder of the little girl. Earlier in the film Poirot and other passengers witness the stoning of an adulterous woman in Istanbul—an example of justice determined by the collective culture (ethical conventionalism).
Relativism, a philosophy embraced by postmodernism, considers things like morality and justice as matters of personal conviction or cultural tradition. In his book Without A Doubt, RTB philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples explains, “Both forms of ethical relativism (subjectivism and conventionalism) depend on the untenable position that virtue is invented, rather than discovered.” In other words, morality and, by extension, justice lack an objective foundation, such as in God.
Ken points out, “If morality is invented, there really is no ultimate right or wrong.” Such a scenario poses serious problems, however, both practical and judicial. Invented morality means that people possess no inherent right to criticize, judge, or condemn the actions of others because there is no universal absolute standard to hold them to. Thus, the pursuit of justice is rendered pointless. Why put anyone on trial if their actions were right according to their own convictions or culture? Logic and experience indicate that ethical relativism does not and cannot work.
On the other hand, moral absolutism does present a viable option. Ken says of moral absolutism, “It asserts that objective, universal, and unchanging moral standards exist....Absolutism affirms that these values are distinct from, and independent of, the human mind and will.” In other words, absolutism holds that morality is something that we discover, rather than invent.
Admittedly, absolutism is a very unpopular philosophy. We humans crave justice, but we don’t like having our own actions judged as right or wrong. Yet without absolute moral values justice, truth, and morality can’t really exist in any meaningful sense.
An Alternate Ending
In the case of the Orient Express situation (inspired, by the way, by the real-life tragedy of the Charles Lindbergh family), there’s little question that the dead man deserved what happened to him. After all, how could you not want to avenge the murder of a child? But this recent film adaptation doesn’t let the characters off the hook so easily. In the end, no one seems to feel good about what they’ve done. There’s no indication of elation or release.
As my husband and I discussed the movie, I pondered how the story might have turned out differently if the various characters had forgiven the criminal instead of exacting payback. Forgiving something as horrific as the murder of a child goes against every fiber of our being. One character, a Protestant missionary, tells the Catholic Poirot that she disdains Catholic views of confession and forgiveness because there are some things that, in her view, should not be forgiven, even by God.
We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us. There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t we shall be forgiven none of our own....To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
Corrie ten Boom observed in the shelters she established for fellow holocaust survivors that those who forgave their tormentors were best able to rebuild their lives and move on, but the victims who harbored bitterness remained broken. Though a staunch advocate for forgiveness, Ten Boom knew it is more easily said than done. She described forgiving a repentant former concentration camp guard as “the most difficult thing I had ever had to do...But forgiveness is not an emotion...Forgiveness is an act of the will.” Yet she didn’t rely on her own will to forgive the former guard; rather she sent God a silent plea for help, asking Him to “supply the feeling” of forgiveness as she reached out to take the man’s hand. God answered her request.
When we’re wronged, instinct urges us to exact revenge and to cling to anger. But Jesus councils otherwise, instructing us to let go of the poison of bitterness and resentment and to place our troubles in the hands of the God who “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed”—in due time.
Resources: Ken’s book Without A Doubt is available for purchase in our web store. Another good book for exploring the issues of why God allows evil in this world is Hugh Ross’ Why the Universe Is the Way It Is.
Give-Away Time! Do you have a favorite thought-provoking movie? Be among the first 20 to let us know in the comments—whether on WordPress, RTB’s website, or the RTB_Official Facebook page—and receive a free copy of Hugh Ross’ audio message “Purpose-Intended Universe.”
Subjects: Moral Evil