Friday, May 2, 2014

Malcolm Reynolds, Jesus, Forgiveness, and Sin

Jayne: What are you taking this so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the feds!
Mal: Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! But since that's a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around then you got no place here! You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact.

The above is an important scene in the context of understanding what I would argue to be one of the most important scenes in Christianity.  Mind you I would make this argument as a non-Christian so results may vary.

There's a whole thing about how no one comes to the father except through Jesus but that's never really elaborated on.  There is a bit about those who obey the teachings (17 verses later), but not much beyond that.  Obey which teachings?  The ones that say sell all of your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?  I hope not because then we're all screwed.  Plus, wouldn't it be sort of pointless for poor people to do that?  Surely there was a reason that that particular teaching was directed at someone who was well off.  What can one take from the teachings that is simple to understand, applicable to all of us, and so forth?

Well there's another passage about who can come and who must go in another gospel.  We've been working out of John here but if we turn to Matthew we get a part where Jesus says that he will tell some people to come and others to go.  Come on down to the father, or don't, depending on what you did.

It also explains how we, you and I and everyone else who did not live in a certain area of first century Palestine during a very specific time and at very specific places, can "meet" Jesus.

Those who come say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

Firefly translation, "When did we help you out?"

And Jesus will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Firefly translation, "You help any of my crew, you help me! [..] You did it to me, [name], and that's a fact.

Those who are told to leave will say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"

Firefly translation, "What are you taking this so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the feds!"

And Jesus will respond, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

Firefly translation, "Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! [...] You did it to me, [name], and that's a fact."

Jesus' crew just happens to include the whole of humanity.  And none of us signed up for it.  And he's sort of an absentee pilot (which might explain why the planet is just drifting in a gravitationally defined orbit.)

Of course Jesus also has some significant upsides when compared to Mal.  Mal takes things done to others personally, but he takes them so personally that he's often more concerned about making himself feel better than helping the others.

This comes out best in Shindig.  Slavery comes up in front of Mal twice in the episode.  The first time it comes up his response isn't, "Hey, why don't we go free those slaves?" it's more of, "If I pick that slaver's pocket I'll feel better."  The second time it becomes painfully apparent that Inara's client doesn't view what's going on as a business translation, he sees Inara as his slave for the duration of the contract.  Does Mal do something to make things better on Inara?  No.  He punches the guy in the face so he can feel better.

Mal is more about punishing victimizers than comforting victims.  Jesus is all about the victims.  His standard for getting in isn't based on not victimizing people, it's based on actively helping the victims.  His standard for staying out includes not just those who victimize but those who stand by and do nothing.

The teaching espoused isn't, "Punish the wicked," (though he does take a whip to the money changers) but instead, "Help those less fortunate."  And he's got a sliding scale.  If you don't have much to give, he doesn't expect you to give much.  If you've got a lot, you'd better give a lot.  (See the thing with the poor woman and the rich men. Mark 12:41-44)

But, anyway, there's the "least of these" passage, which seems pretty important.


But then we come to forgiveness.  Mal can forgive Jayne for, "You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact," but he can't forgive Jayne on behalf of Simon and River.

Only Simon and River can forgive Jayne for what he did to them.

Jesus, similarly, can't claim to forgive on others behalf.  Instead he can only ask that others forgive and claim that sins will be forgiven in turn.

Because when you hurt someone multiple people are harmed, multiple people need to forgive for you to be completely forgiven.  And they won't always do so.

Consider the two part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with Spock in it.  Before a certain war Spock and his father were on different sides of the debate, and publicly went after each other.  Sarek, Spock's father, either wasn't hurt by this or forgave Spock.  Sarek's wife, Perrin, was hurt by the attacks Spock made on her husband and never forgave him.

Only one person directly attacked, but two people harmed.  Two people harmed that we know of.  For Spock to be completely forgiven everyone harmed has to forgive him.  That never happens.

If you believe Jesus' "whatever you did/did not do for one of the least of these, you did/did not do for me," stance then Jesus is only one of the aggrieved parties.  Offences against Jesus are sins.  Jesus can forgive sins.  But even if your sins are forgiven, that doesn't mean that Bob, the member of the least of these you hurt, forgives you.  Maybe Bob is still pissed off.  And Jesus doesn't claim the power to make Bob not be pissed off.

The best Jesus can do is in Matthew 6 (right after the Lord's Prayer) where he says that if you forgive others you'll be forgiven by the divine.  Sort of a bribe, sort of a, "I know you're hurt, but it hurt me when you did X, Y, and Z, so maybe we can recognize no one is perfect and move on," but not, and this is important, a threat of Hellfire.

If Bob is good with the least of these, if Bobs fed them when they were hungry, gave them something to drink when they were thirsty, invited them in when they were a stranger, clothed them when they needed it, and/or visited them when they were sick/in prison then Bob gets to come in.  Not a word about sin in that passage.

Not a word about being denied the kingdom of Heaven if the Father does not forgive your sins in bit that has you ask God to forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you, and warns that you won't have your sins forgiven if you don't forgive others.


When you harm, or even fail to help, others you sin.  You've hurt Jesus' crew and when you hurt Jesus' crew you hurt him.  God can forgive the sin.  But what god can't forgive is the harm to the person.  Only the person can do that.  When you help others you get in the good graces of God.  You help any member of Jesus' crew, you help Jesus.  You did it to Jesus, reader, and that's a fact.  (If you're a Christian of a certain flavor, actual results may vary, void where prohibited, etc.)

But in the end it comes down to this:

If you hurt Suzy then you've hurt Suzy and, since Suzy is a member of Jesus' crew, Jesus.
Jesus can forgive you for the hurting of him.  That might make you ok with God, but if you want to be ok in the eyes of Suzy then you're going to need Suzy to forgive you.  Honest forgiveness.

Honest forgiveness can come from persuasion (Jesus says, "Come on Suzy, it's not like you've never hurt anyone.  We all fuck up sometimes,") but not coercion (Turbo-Jesus says, "Suzy, if you do not forgive then BAD THINGS will happen to you.")


Or something like that.


  1. That makes a lot of sense to me (admittedly, a fellow non-Christian). I've heard people talk about sin being 'offense against God' before, I think, but that and the 'least of these' together makes a compelling synthesis.

    I could imagine fitting the idea of Purgatory into this as well - or Hell, if your vision of Hell is a place that can (eventually) be escaped from. Actually, you could even fit in that weird-ass idea of those in Heaven watching the tormented souls in Hell if you did it right: what if Hell is the place for all those who haven't earned forgiveness from those they harmed? What if Hell is the ultimate Heel-Face Turn [TV Tropes] reality series? I'd watch the hell out of that.

    1. What if Hell is the ultimate Heel-Face Turn [TV Tropes] reality series? I'd watch the hell out of that.

      WORD. I would also watch the hell (heh) out of that.

    2. If Hell is fire and brimstone, or even Dante's Inferno, I'd fold in two seconds flat. I hate seeing people in pain.

  2. Great text.

    But I'll focus on the point that seems a little more complicated in the gospels than it is here.

    Honest forgiveness can come from persuasion (Jesus says, "Come on Suzy, it's not like you've never hurt anyone. We all fuck up sometimes,") but not coercion (Turbo-Jesus says, "Suzy, if you do not forgive then BAD THINGS will happen to you.")

    There is a parable that arguably contains coercion of this kind. In Matthew 18, 23-35. Link

    short version: There is a king. One of his servants (Servant 1) owes him a lot of money. But he can't pay and asks the king to give him more time. The king cancels the debt.
    Servant 1 meets Servant 2 who owes him a little money. Servant 2 asks for more time, but Servant 1 punishes him. King hears about it, uncancels Servant 1's dept and punishes him for not paying it back.
    "This is how God will treat you if you don't forgive."

    I think it is somewhat important that Servant 1 is in a position of power over Servant 2, so it does fit with the theme of God siding with the powerless against the powerful. But it is still coercion. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. That's actually pretty hard for me to parse. I'm not looking to the Greek right now to see if it, being the closest we have to the original, might give us hints on interpretation. From the English I see one type of forgiveness in the parable, and seem to see another in Jesus' explanation of it.

      There is a major difference between forgiving you for some offence against me (say punching me in the face) and forgiving you of debt owed to me.

      In the first there's a reversal of power difference. When you hurt me you are exercising power over me. But when I forgive you I have all the power. It's up to me to decide whether or not to forgive you. The powerless becomes the powerful through the decision to forgive or not forgive.

      When you owe me that means I have power over you. When I decide to forgive that debt or not forgive that debt I still am exercising power over you. The powerful remains the powerful. The dynamics of this kind of forgiveness are completely different than the first kind.

      The parable is clearly about the second kind of forgiveness, and if that was all that was there then I'd see an easy interpretation. It's basically saying, "Pay it forward," or, "Play nice with those who are less powerful than you."

      But then it gets more complicated because Jesus says that this type of forgiveness is to come, "from the heart." And that's where it loses me.

      Forgiving someone for harm done is something that comes from the heart, and that's where the power in it lies. It can be faked ("I forgive you," the child says through gritted teeth because the teacher made zir), but it can't be stolen. True forgiveness of that kind can never be coerced.

      But forgiveness of a thing owed? The heart doesn't matter. If you forgive me of my debts it doesn't matter if it's because you're magnanimous or because you've got a gun to your head: either way I'm not in debt any more.

      There may be some deeper meaning between linking these types of forgiveness, but if there is it's over my head.

  3. Brilliant comparison! As I Christian, I think this is actually a very good interpretation of scripture and I'm going to send it to my Christian friend who is a huge Firefly fan.