The Common Good
January-February 1996

This Must Be A Trap

by David S. Cunningham | January-February 1996

Confession and forgiveness as a pure formality.

One of the many scandals of the Christian faith is its uncompromising belief in the forgiveness of sins. No matter how monstrous our offenses, we need only confess and truly repent; God will forgive, and others should do so as well.

This claim is a notorious one, since conventional wisdom dictates that some deeds simply cannot be forgiven. Indeed, our criminal justice system seems increasingly pessimistic about forgiveness. Americans overwhelmingly support capital punishment, oppose programs directed toward rehabilitation, and adopt slogans such as "three strikes and you're out."

The church has opposed such vindictiveness, because it amounts to a complete denial of God's grace. Christian people believe that even the most heinous crimes can be forgiven-not only by God, but also by those who are schooled in the forgiving practices of the church. Forgiveness depends not on the judge's disposition, nor on the sentiments of an increasingly bloodthirsty public. It depends upon the sinner's willingness to confess and repent. In the justice system developed by the modern state, remorse does not necessarily elicit forgiveness; but in the church, it does.

Jesus teaches us, in fact, that the only unforgivable sin is "the sin against the Holy Spirit"-a rather enigmatic phrase, usually interpreted as the defiant refusal of God's efforts to save us. In other words, we can fail to be forgiven only if we spurn God's grace by refusing to confess and repent.

God's grace is freely available to those who ask for it, yet we often hesitate. And understandably so, since most free gifts seem to have some kind of "catch." We have legitimate doubts about any claim that we will lose weight painlessly, win a million dollars, or solve complex national policy crises without even thinking. We are justifiably suspicious when offered something for nothing. This must be a trap.

And so we are also reluctant to confess our sins. The promise of forgiveness-and ultimately, salvation-seems to be little more than the bait in a carefully constructed trap. We will be lured in, one thing will lead to another, we will be excessively frank, and we will eventually suffer dire consequences. If we had just kept quiet, no one would have been the wiser!

And yet, without confession-without sincere repentance-there can be no forgiveness. It is a two-way street. No one-not even the church, and indeed, not even God-can forgive a person who adamantly refuses to be forgiven. Such is the depth of the Christian commitment to free will.

Because we fear that any free gift must be some kind of trap, we often need help in asking for, and accepting, God's forgiveness. This help is provided by confessors; people who not only listen as we confess our sins, but also lead us to a point where we feel able to ask for forgiveness. They help us remember our faults, understand our motivations for having committed them, reach true repentance, and ask for forgiveness.

Unfortunately, the relationship between confessor and penitent is not much appreciated these days. Our culture discourages us from acknowledging how thoroughly the lives of others are interwoven with our own. Consequently, we consider our sins a private affair, not recognizing how seriously we injure one another by keeping them a secret. Today, no one admits fault for anything: politicians, criminals, and family members are all eager to assign blame elsewhere. Even our insurance agents tell us never to admit fault-even if we know we caused the accident! Without someone to lead us to be honest with ourselves about our own mistakes, we probably won't be.

Moreover, we have often misunderstood the purpose of the enterprise. For too many Christians, confession is a rote exercise, rather than a moment of grace. It ought to be a wonderful opportunity to accept God's gifts; instead, it becomes the recitation of a memorized script. The words of absolution, too, often seem contrived or irrelevant.

HOW MIGHT confession be transformed into a graced moment? One possible answer is provided by a recently released film. A Pure Formality is a French-Italian collaboration, starring Gèrard Depardieu and Roman Polanski. It reminds us that confessing one's sins is difficult and perhaps even dangerous, but that it is also redemptive-and that it may even be inevitable.

From the opening gunshot, we suspect that Depardieu's character has committed some kind of horrible crime, but we are not privy to the details. And the ensuing investigation does not help us much. It takes place at a remote and rustic police station (location unknown), in the midst of a torrential storm; water drips incessantly through cracks in the roof. (The setting evokes Kafka's The Trial even before the suspect has a chance to remark on the absurdity of his situation.)

Even the man's name is a matter of debate. He claims to be the famous French novelist, Onoff-a claim that draws smirks from the police, and is disputed by the inspector (Polanski), who happens to have read all of Onoff's works. Eventually the author is able to quote enough of his own material to convince everyone of his identity.

Onoff's celebrity status gets him better treatment from the police, but we are still suspicious. While changing clothes in the bathroom, he discovers blood on his shirt; he hastily tries to dispose of it. And despite the suspect's acknowledged genius, he is still put through the usual interrogation: name, date and place of birth, details of his activities during the day. He does not seem particularly reassured by the inspector's claim that the whole process is "just a formality."

Before the questioning gets under way, the doors of an old cupboard accidentally come open, revealing-among other things-a mousetrap. It is not one of the typical "killer" mousetraps to which we are accustomed; it is a European model, more complicated and more humane. (It simply closes a door when the mouse takes the bait, allowing the animal to be released elsewhere.) Despite its less-than-fatal nature, however, the trap quickly becomes a metaphor for Onoff's view of his circumstances: This must be a trap.

AS THE INTERROGATION begins, it soon looks like one-perhaps justifiably so. The film's expert editing splices visual images of Onoff's activities of the day into his report, such that we see when he is telling the truth, when he is lying, and when he is shading the account in his own favor. Of course, the inspector does not get to view these scenes, but his subtle method of investigation slowly allows him to piece together the day's events.

The inspector's technique is partially drawn from standard police procedures, but he is also an expert confessor. He develops a rapport with Onoff, frequently quoting from his works and reassuring him. He casually notes the inconsistencies in Onoff's account of his recent activities, occasionally starting the whole process over when he suspects that he is being given "a load of crap." We are not sure whether Onoff is deliberately concealing certain details of his life, whether he has repressed them, or whether he simply can't remember. His recollections are shown as a series of rapid-fire scenes; the audience thus comes to experience both the clarity and the sketchiness of the suspect's memory.

As the interrogation becomes more intense, Onoff finally demands to know the reason for his detention. The inspector provides it: A murder has taken place nearby. The police have a corpse, but its face is mutilated and they cannot identify it. They believe that Onoff will reveal the identity of the body, because they believe that he committed the crime.

Onoff dramatically insists that he did not do any such thing. He says that he has never even held a gun. The inspector throws doubt on this claim by noting that, according to the details of his own biography, Onoff served in the military. This leads Onoff to make the first of many confessions that he will make before the investigation is over: that he fabricated the details of his own biography, even changed his name, so that the reading public would be more likely to "accept" him as a novelist.

But did Onoff really commit the crime? Our suspicions continue, because he is quickly frustrated by the questioning; he often explodes in anger. At one point he even attempts to escape, but as he runs through the nearby forest, his leg is caught in a jaw trap (and we are reminded again of the mousetrap).

Throughout the interrogation, the weather outside reflects Onoff's own inner turmoil: Whenever he is able to admit to one of his many misdemeanors, the continuing downpour seems to weaken a bit. But when he returns to the devices of deception, the storm rages. And when his most profound deceit is discovered, we hear, from inside the cupboard, the mechanism of the trap-and chatters of protest from the apprehended mouse.

Eventually, the inspector confronts Onoff with more and more evidence of his own past, such that he is forced to remember the events of that day with clarity. Those events constitute a true surprise-one which I will not spoil for those who have not seen the film. I will only say that he is finally able to remember, admit what happened, and ask for forgiveness. At that moment, the storm clears, the handcuffs come off, and he is allowed to leave. The "formality" he has undergone turns out to be "pure," but not just in the sense of "merely a formality." It is also purifying: It has prepared him for the possibility of salvation.

As Onoff takes one final look around the room, he spies the mousetrap. He discovers that the cheese has been taken, and that the doors are shut, but the mouse is not there. Like the mouse, Onoff finally took the bait-only to find himself not imprisoned, but set free.

Theologically astute viewers of the film will be able to draw their own conclusions from these details. I do not know much about the film's talented writer and director, Guiseppe Tornatore ( Cinema Paradiso), but the film certainly seems to have been created by someone with Christian convictions. At the very least, Tornatore helps us see the importance of allowing ourselves to be guided to confession and repentance.

"It must be a trap"-and in a way, it is. God draws us in, offering us salvation, and asking only that we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. Once we have done so, we are "caught"-but then, in an act of pure grace, God sets us free. Like the clump of cheese in the mousetrap, the bait is ours to keep.

Admittedly, the process by which we are led to this freedom is difficult and even dangerous. We are resistant creatures, and it sometimes takes a great deal of time and effort for God to lead us to the place that has been prepared for us. But that does not make the outcome any less inevitable. The long, slow process is, from God's perspective at least, a pure-and purifying-formality.

DAVID S. CUNNINGHAM is assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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